Waiting for Godot: farmers seek return of seized land

Farmers in Myanmar are still waiting for justice as many of their lands were confiscated by government officials, military personnel, authorities and their cronies for various reasons, a new report from New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) revealed.

The NGO launched the report “Nothing for Our Land: Impacts of Land Confiscation on Farmers in Myanmar” on July 17, based on the interviews conducted with farmers and labourers between October 2016 and March 2017.

The publication “Nothing for Our Land” was accompanied by photographs taken by photographer Patrick Brown, who travelled with Human Rights Watch to Shan State, Ayeyarwaddy and Yangon regions. Brown’s work was on display at Pansuriya Gallery in downtown Yangon following the release of the report. The photo essay is entitled “Nothing for Our Land”.

The photos revealed the plight and suffering of farmers and how their seized lands have often turned into ponds beyond recognition. Military government confiscations often occurred with little or no notice and inadequate compensation. The victims have been dispossessed of their livelihoods and access to healthcare, while their children are denied education and forced to work. Uncertainty has clouded those families’ future. Many have faced criminal prosecution for protesting the lack of redress and refusing to leave or cease work on the land that was taken from them.

Disputes over land remain one of the central challenges in Myanmar’s evolving reform process and a key concern among responsible investors from abroad. Mega-projects such as Myotha Industrial Park in Mandalay Region and the proposed Special Economic Zone in Dawei, Tanintharyi Region, have been mired in scandals as settlers were allegedly evicted without due compensation.

The total number of acres illegally confiscated in recent decades is unknown, but estimates are in the millions. In 2016, a government official, citing the findings of the Farmers Affairs Committee in the Upper House of Parliament, said “as many as 2 million acres of land across Burma could be considered ‘confiscated.’”

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at HRW, commented that “Widespread land confiscations across Myanmar have harmed rural communities in profound ways for decades. [Daw] Aung San Suu Kyi’s government should promptly address illegal land confiscations, compensate aggrieved parties, and reform laws to protect people against future abuses.”

Richard Weir, HRW researcher in Myanmar, said that “Thousands of claims remain un-adjudicated. Farmers who have submitted dozens of claims have heard nothing in response. Hundreds have been arrested for ‘trespassing’ on land seized that farmers say is rightfully theirs.”

“It is critical that the government focus its efforts on ensuring that farmers’ claims are addressed promptly and impartially,” he told The Myanmar Times in an interview last month. Mr Weir argued that investors should conduct due diligence whenever they consider acquisition or use of land to make sure they are not contributing to rights violations.

Since the transition from the military government to the civilian-led government in 2011, the authorities have attempted to address the issue of land confiscations. Former president U Thein Sein initiated various reforms, including the passage of the Farmland Law and the Virgin, Fallow, Vacant Management Law, and the adoption of the National Land Use Policy and a commission to investigate claims of confiscated land. The NLD’s election manifesto included a pledge to “end the pernicious effects of mass land confiscations carried out under military rule”.

However, not enough is done.

After decades of suffering and two years since the new government took power, many farmers have still received nothing. They complained of corruption and conflicts of interests within the committees charged with investigating, releasing and returning the land. Many stated that they just wanted their land back.


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