YANGON, MYANMAR - Almost 20 years ago, Thein Win had four hectares of his land seized by the military in Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady Delta, an area that once exported so much paddy around the world it was referred to as the “rice bowl” of Asia.
Rice exports have dropped significantly since that time, partly because of the land confiscations that Thein Win experienced, and which were rampant during decades of military rule, leaving farmers destitute overnight.
After his land was seized, Thein Win tried to complain to government officials, but was threatened with arrest. The land he once had farmed became part of a fish pond project, and instead of having his land returned, Thein Win said he “voluntarily” helped to dig the land, for fear of being arrested. Thein Win said he didn’t receive any money for his land, or for his work digging the pond.
Thein Win is one of dozens of farmers interviewed for a new report published by Human Rights Watch, titled Nothing for Our Land, which aims to draw attention to the issue of land confiscation in Myanmar, and the disproportionate impact it has had on the country’s rural population.
Activists estimate that the military junta “confiscated” millions of hectares of land between 1988 and 2011, often with little or no notice, or adequate compensation for those who lived on the land, or for those who farmed it.
Although most of the land confiscations took place during the years of military rule, the effects still are being keenly felt today. In its report, HRW said the practice had a devastating impact on people and communities, including on livelihoods, as well as access to health care and education, especially for those living in rural areas.
In 2012, the military-linked government established the Farmland Investigation Commission, which was tasked with investigating cases of land confiscation since 1988. The commission claimed to have returned more than 135,000 hectares of land, for more than 30,000 families, though this figure has been disputed by land rights advocacy groups.
In its manifesto, published before the 2015 general election that swept it to power, the National League for Democracy said it would tackle the issue of land confiscations under military rule and “ensure the return to farmers of illegally lost land, and payment of compensation and restitution.”
After taking power, the government dissolved the investigation committee and established its own, calling it the Central Reinvestigation Committee for Confiscated Farmlands and Other Land. One positive feature of the new committee was that it allows participation for the participation of civil society groups. However, some of the committees remain ineffective or inactive, the report said.
Richard Weir, HRW Researcher for Asia, said the government has made some reforms to tackle the land confiscation issue, but that many of them had “fallen short.”
He said the most important reform required was for the government to tackle the “gaps in legal protection” that meant land could be taken from citizens, with little recourse.
“If this doesn’t happen, as Myanmar seeks to further develop, not just in rural areas but across the country, we’re likely to see further violations of rights, and more people driven into destitution by government policies and government actions,” Weir said.
A government spokesperson could not be reached for comment.
Threat to peace
Land issues are a key aspect of Myanmar’s peace process, which has stalled since the NLD came to power. At the country’s landmark peace summit, hosted earlier in the month in capital city Naypyidaw, two of the 14 principles agreed to form a Union Peace Accord related to land and the environment.
The issue of land is particularly contentious in border areas, especially the parts claimed by the government and ethnic armed groups, some who remain in conflict with the Myanmar army, known as the Tatmadaw.
“The land issue has become a real threat to the peace process, and to local communities, especially those in conflict affected areas,” Saw Alex, a spokesperson for the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network, told VOA. “Especially in conflict affected areas, communities do not have any legal means to respond [if land is confiscated] because they do not hold any formal documents from the government.”
Although the Karen National Union signed the government’s Nationwide Cease-fire Agreement in 2015, sporadic fighting continues in their home state, and Alex said some residents hold land ownership titles given to them by the KNU, which are not recognized by the government.
Alex said the government often does not recognize the administrative structure of many of the ethnic armed groups, causing tension between the parties.
“[In some areas] the KNU has asserted its authority over land administration, and so have the government,” he said. “So you have two different policies, and two different directions; you need to find a common solution.”
“Unless the government recognizes this, tensions will continue and the peace process could be hurt by this,” Alex said.