Return of Seized Land a Top NLD Priority: Deputy Agriculture Minister

By Htet Naing Zaw 12 May 2016

NAYPYIDAW — Land tenure rights and food security for all farmers in Burma has been described by Deputy Minister for Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation Tun Win as one of the top priorities of the National League for Democracy (NLD) government.

“Our government wishes to give back land to the rightful owners,” said Tun Win, referring to the smallholder farmers who still make up the bulk of Burma’s population. He was speaking to reporters from his office on Tuesday.

A legacy of land seizures by the former military government, in collaboration with crony companies, has in recent years been compounded by large-scale investments from neighboring countries, notably in extractive industries and energy production. Some of the more high-profile examples, such as the vast Letpadaung copper mine in Sagaing Division, operated jointly by Chinese company Wanbao and a Burmese military conglomerate, have been met by the sustained mobilization of dispossessed farmers claiming higher compensation or the return of their land. This has led, at times, to violent confrontations with the police.

In his statement, the deputy minister implored people to be patient over this “complicated issue,” while the government formulates clear laws and procedures for the return of confiscated land.

“Government authorities at various levels, including township development committees, and the military have grabbed land on false ‘public’ pretexts and sold it off in plots,” said the deputy minister.

“Roadside land with signboards reading ‘No Trespassing’ can be seen in many places. In fact, those lands have been sold,” added the deputy minister, who described such acts as black marks on the nation’s image, tantamount to misappropriating the country’s soil. “It is the duty of the new government to give back these lands to the rightful owners.”

In 2012, Burma’s Union Parliament set up the Farmland Investigation Commission to probe cases of land confiscation. The following year, the Land Utilization Management Central Committee was established. Headed by former Vice President Nyan Tun, it was charged with implementing the findings of the commission and facilitating the return of seized land.

Earlier this week, more than 8,000 villagers from Kachin State in northern Burma sent an open letter to the new government calling on it to resolve a massive land confiscation dispute with Yuzana Company Limited, a Burmese conglomerate blacklisted by the United States.

More than 270,000 acres of farmland in the remote Hukawng region of Hpakant Township was seized by Yuzana in 2007 for agricultural ventures, including cassava and sugarcane plantations, according to the villagers.

Ta Gon, one of the villagers party to the letter, said, “I believe the government for which we have voted will help us with this. We have suffered for 10 years and could not even afford to provide schooling for our children.”

According to findings of the Farmers Affairs Committee in the Upper House of Parliament, as many as 2 million acres of land across Burma could be considered “confiscated.”

Also earlier this week, President Htin Kyaw formed a Central Review Committee on Confiscated Farmlands and Other Lands, chaired by Henry Van Thio, one of Burma’s two vice presidents. The committee is couched within the executive branch and distinct from existing parliamentary committees with similar portfolios. It is tasked with monitoring state and divisional governments’ handling of land disputes, and enabling the return of land to dispossessed farmers from government ministries, state-owned enterprises and private companies.

At the time this new executive committee was announced, the President’s Office urged that further land acquisition be postponed until disputes are settled in accordance with the law.