OpEd News: Land Confiscation: A serious question in Burma

Land Confiscation: A serious question in Burma (click to view article)

The earlier epoch under consecutive military regimes has seen widespread confiscation of land from small and poor farmers in Burma (Myanmar) for development ventures and natural resource extraction projects. Regrettably, the rate of confiscation appears to be continuing rampant under the current quasi-civilian government. The unfair practice may step up because of a latest legal structure that guarantees less safeguard towards deprived farmers than before, as well as escalating foreign investment concerning military conglomerate and cronies.

Simultaneously, conflicts taking place out of land utilization are mounting especially in natural resource extraction sectors. Those matters have caused more aggressive violence in several unusual cases. As the President U Thein Sein Government gains recognition right through the international sphere, villagers in country's rustic parts are being displaced and their lands confiscated due to development projects which give little benefit to them.

Burma/Myanmar remains a mostly rural country, in which the majority of the population relies on small farms for their livelihoods. Unfortunately, the rate of landless farmers has been on the rise for several years. Then, the row of land confiscation seems to be rising now and again.

Moreover, together with land grabbing, local inhabitants frequently suffer serious extra human rights abuses, including forced labor, environmental degradation, bodily terrorization and improper detention, and maltreatment of livings. And their capacity to prevent these impacts is hinder by the lack of information on respective projects and legal barriers made by the authorities get in the way to regain the location. Besides, there are threats of bloodshed, and the remaining effects of past sufferings.

It is noticeable that in April 2010, more than 120 farmers' groups and non-governmental organizations all across the world signed a statement declaring their opposition to the guiding principles endorsed by the World Bank, the FAO, IFAD and UNCTAD on "responsible" land investments.

The signed statement says, "Land grabbing -- even where there are no related forced evictions - denies land for local communities, destroys livelihoods, reduces the political space for peasant oriented agricultural policies and distorts markets towards increasingly concentrated agribusiness interests and global trade rather than towards sustainable peasant/smallhold production for local and national markets."  

"Land grabbing will accelerate eco-system destruction and the climate crisis because of the type of monoculture oriented, industrial agricultural production that many of these "acquired" lands will be used for. Promoting or permitting land grabbing violates the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and undermines the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples."

It also points out that "Land Grabbing' ignores the principles adopted by the International Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development (ICARRD) in 2006 and the recommendations made by the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD).

The groups declare that land grabbing must be immediately stopped. They highlight the World Bank's principles that land grabbing can proceed without disastrous consequences to peoples, communities, eco-systems and the climate. Their statement urge to keep land in the hands of local communities and implement genuine agrarian reform in order to ensure equitable access to land and natural resources.

On the contrary, Myanmar government's reform process seems to be against the international mind-set. For instance, following the government's reforms, there was a ceasefire agreement signed between President U Thein Sein's representatives and counterparts from the Karen National Union (KNU) in January 2012. Afterward, dozens of business and development projects have been set off in eastern Myanmar.

First of all, these projects have been started with displacement and land confiscation, without compensation or due process of the law, the Karen Human Right Group (KHRG) said in its report -- "Losing Ground: Land conflicts and collective action in eastern Myanmar'- which concentrated on the most challenging and burning human rights issue, especially about land-grabbing violence by military and administrative authorities, reported by the villagers throughout eastern region of the country.

Eastern Myanmar remains highly militarized. As investment actors more and more join together with local and national authorities to get hold of land in eastern part of the country. The local communities know that asking for getting back of their own land brings prearranged threats.

The KHRG highlights its findings in the report obviously. It says that villagers were not consulted before a project began, nor given an opportunity to enter into dialogue or request additional information. Villagers expressed land confiscation as a result of the project spreading out and intrusion onto land in conjunction with the project site. Besides, the authorities confiscated land belonging to refugees and internally-displaced persons (IDPs) with no respect to the human rights.

Villagers explained also that they were never offered compensation, nor provided with an opportunity to negotiate for compensation even though their lands were damaged due to the development project. Local inhabitants described relocation orders issued by military and local authorities were often come with threats of violence for non-cooperation.

It is time to make sense of legislative policy recommendations into genuine actions. U Thein Sein government including all levels - from local level to cabinet level authorities - is responsible for taking the right decisions in addressing this serious question of ubiquitous land confiscation.

A government should think about the suffering of its people as a priority. Millions of ethnic people have been expelled from their homes to make way for development projects such as hydropower dams, reservoirs and sea ports. However construction and engineering companies close to the government enjoy profits from those projects.

They receive millions of dollars for designing and building development projects. The high-ranking officials of the military-dominated Burmese government take advantage of the development plans in many ways -- illegal taxes, kickbacks and inducement -- during construction of a development project.

Quite the opposite, the local inhabitants, especially ethnic people, have lost their homes and livelihoods. Consequently, their children cannot go to school, cannot enjoy healthcare and they have to live under poverty-line for life. Despite the promise of the change in Myanmar, the human rights situation remains serious.

Member-Countries in the ASEAN region ought to convince the Government of Myanmar to take necessary measures for the improvement of its human rights situation related to the land grabbing issues. The UN should also consider establishing a Commission of Inquiry into the illegitimate land confiscation business in Myanmar that caused not only armed conflict but also produced several thousands of landless farmers, refugees and internal displaced population.