‘Rule of Law’ Will End Land Grabs in Ethnic Areas, Official Tells Activists

By Lawi Weng 12 May 2013

NAYPYIDAW—An advisor to President Thein Sein met with a group of ethnic activists in Naypyidaw on Friday and tried to assuage their concerns over a recent rise in land conflicts in Burma’s ethnic areas.

Tin Htut Oo, chairman of the National Economic and Social Advisory Council (NEASAC), told the activists that the government’s attempt at establishing “rule of law” would protect ethnic communities against land-grabbing.

Last week, about 40 activist groups met in Rangoon and called on the government, ethnic rebel militias and the international community to ensure that the recent ceasefires in ethnic areas do not lead to a surge in land-grabbing, deforestation and the damming of rivers.

NEASAC and several other presidential advisory bodies agreed to meet the groups, which were led by the Netherlands-based Transnational Institute and the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network, in order to listen to their concerns.

The groups had also wanted to meet with the two most important government committees on land tenure, but their request for a meeting was declined, to the anger of the organizers.

NEASAC chairman Tin Htut Oo told the activists that a lack of enforcement of laws concerning land tenure was giving agro-business and mining companies the opportunity to grab the natural resources of the ethnic communities.

“There are people who do not understand the law, and they abuse the law. But, there are also people who understand the law, yet they still abuse it,” he said of the firms involved in land-grabs. “We need proper law enforcement in order to stop these land disputes,” Tin Htut Oo said. “We cannot ignore the abusers of the law.”

“The main problem in our country is that we do not have transparency when we do investment projects. The people use their power for [the benefit] of their investment. This is why there are [land grabbing] problems,” he said.

Tin Htut Oo said the government should provide information about investment projects to the local communities, so they could understand the negative impacts and benefits, and voice their concerns over the projects.

“We should have something like a museum. So, all people can visit and look at the advantages and disadvantages. There will be no problem if we take such steps,” he claimed.

A participant in the meeting, Hla Tun, from the Myanmar Lawyers Network, said local authorities often ignore existing rules and regulations regarding land use, so that firms could grab farmland or cut forests.

“If the government does not use land within six months after confiscating the land [for project development], then, according to current laws, it has return the land to its previous owner,” he said, adding that these regulations are rarely implemented.

“We have laws in our country and if we do not implement them, there will be ongoing right abuses. The local authority should respect the rule of law,” said Hla Tun.

Nai Kasauh Mon, the director of the Human Right Foundation of Mon Land, said that several years ago the military had forcibly confiscated 8,000 acres of farmland in Mon State’s Ye Township in order to develop a rubber plantation.

“We found that this land has not been used for anything, but they still did not give it back to the people,” he said during the meeting.

The activist groups suggested that NESAC members should visit some of affected ethnic areas to investigate the land disputes on the ground.

Most of ethnic minorities live in the conflict-affected border regions rich in mineral wealth, timber and fertile land. The military has often grabbed resources from ethnic communities at gunpoint.

In recent years, after most rebels groups reached ceasefire agreements with the government, there has been an influx of local and foreign companies grabbing land to build mines or plantations in ethnic areas.

Activists have said that the 2012 Land Law often fails to recognize land tenure of farmers or local customary law regarding land, while many farmers struggle to register ownership of their land.

Lay Lwin, of the Dawei Development Association, said that forcible land confiscation, without proper compensation, was a serious problem near the Thai-funded Dawei deep sea port and special economic zone that is currently being developed in southern Mon State.

“The problem we have in Dawei is that whenever there is a development project, [local authorities] do not inform the people. And they just use their power and force people to relocate,” he said.

“The people do not want to move. They love their land as they have been living there for many years doing their traditional livelihoods. This is their legacy,” Law Lwin added.