Salween Farmers Demand Government Accountability for Land Confiscation

By Yen Saning 17 February 2016

RANGOON — Participants at a land rights seminar in Mon State urged the incoming National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government to address past practices of land confiscation with a special court dedicated to the issue.

Mon State’s Salween Eastern Farmers and Land Users Seminar was held in Moulmein for two days, from February 14-15, with over 90 representatives participating from five Mon State townships and one Tenasserim Division township, all selected for their locations east of the Salween River. Also present were Moulmein-based farmers’ organizations and civil society groups focused on land rights.

At the seminar, it was demanded that farmers should be able to bring land rights cases to a special court when conflicts over ownership occur. Participants also called on the government to create a policy that would give land users the right to own land rather than simply being allowed to work on it.

The right to land continues to be an important concern in southeastern Burma. Based on complaints from farmers and indigenous communities, from 1999 until 2010, there were a total of over 60,000 acres of land confiscated in Mon and Karen state for military bases under the country’s previous military junta.

If Tenasserim Division is added to these figures, some predict that the number would double.

“It would be over 120,000 acres including the 60,000 acres confiscated in Tenasserim for the Mawrawaddy Navy Base,” said Naing Aung Than Lwin, director of Mon Area Social Development Organization.

“Farmers want their land back. If not, they want appropriate compensation for their crops. When their land is confiscated, they don’t get crop compensation and they have to pay rent in order to cultivate the same land,” he explained.

It is noteworthy that much of the confiscated land in the region is used to cultivate rubber trees, which are often cut down by the military to make way for other projects. When the trees are spared, farmers often find themselves working as laborers, “renting” trees on land they once owned in order to harvest the rubber.

“These farmers have to produce rubber from their own land after paying rent [to the military]. Before, they had to pay about 1,200 kyats [rent] per tree [US$1] when rubber was priced well. This year, they had to pay about 400 kyats [US$0.30] per tree. I don’t think it’s realistic to pay rent for your own trees to the military,” Naing Aung Than Lwin said.

The purchase of land for private projects at prices lower than the market value was also a practice documented in Mon State’s Kyaikmayaw Township in particular.

“We have also found out about the construction of a cement factory, without an EITI [Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative] process, without informing the locals,” Naing Aung Than Lwin added, saying that such actions “lack transparency.”

The two-day seminar in Moulmein explored the strengths and weaknesses of the current land laws, vacant land management laws, laws that protect farmers’ rights and national land use policies.

Participants called on the incoming NLD government to review and revise laws based on this assessment, and to redistribute land to landless citizens, internally displaced people and refugees.

Additionally, the seminar also asked for legislation rights for traditional and customary land management and a separate policy on the issue to be drafted in division and state parliaments.

A network of land users from Mon and Karen states and Tenasserim Division will also be formed to work on land rights issues after the seminar.