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July 26, 2013

Burma Legal Advisers Help Land Grab Victims

by VOA News

Burma’s political and economic opening has enticed scores of foreign investors and spurred a real estate boom. But many Burmese feel they are not getting a fair deal when big business buys up land for development. Now roving legal advisers are traveling the countryside, advising citizens on how to assert their rights.

Land values are soaring in parts of Burma, even in ethnic states, where fighting has left thousands homeless. The government hopes foreign investment will lift the fortunes of millions, but many feel they are already being left out of the profits.

Few people have legal land deeds and the former military-backed government confiscated huge tracts of land years ago. For many people, the sale of property they are living on will not mean a big payday.

Veteran pro-democracy activist and lawyer Aung Htoo says there is one main issue – ownership.

“The problem is that the state is the sole owner of all land in our country. It’s [a] constitutionally provided provision as far as land issues are concerned,” he said.

Htoo trains fellow lawyers and activists to help people fight for compensation. It is an uphill battle.

 “Our training is aimed to provide education to the important activists and some lawyers and law graduates so that they have more awareness on the constitution. So that they may be able to become trainers to provide multiple training to the rest of the people,” explained Aung Htoo.

Recent land reforms now allow farmers and land owners to be given compensation - even if the state still holds the deed. But as land disputes erupt across Burma, some worry the problem could grow along with foreign investments.

Paul Donowitz is with Earth Rights International, a group monitoring land issues in Burma.

“When farmers are using the land to sustain themselves their communities are forced to sell their land where they don’t want to move. There isn’t any other land but the government or a company is basically forcing them off their land. It's forced compensation and they are being told in a number of circumstances, either you take it or leave it,” said Donowitz.

But Aung Htoo hopes his students find a third option: to press their case in the courts or through public opinion. He says the ultimate goal is to change the constitution.

“If the government has a sincere objective to bring development for the entire people, they must try to amend not only the constitution but also other relevant laws so that the people shall enjoy the right to own the land and the right to manage the land,” said Aung Htoo.

In the meantime, Aung Htoo’s classrooms will be a place where citizens learn about the current laws, so they can become more successful at pressing authorities to change them.