By Caitlin J Pierce
Date: December 22nd 2015
U Myint Tun was alone in his field in Sagaing Region when four officers pulled up in a military jeep with the bad news: His land now belonged to the government and he could no longer farm it. This was April 1996.
Nearly two decades later, he has still neither gotten his land back nor been paid a single kyat for it. U Myint Tun is not alone. Many of his neighbours had their land taken by the local police and a Thai-Myanmar corporation to grow sugarcane. If caught growing other crops besides sugar, they can be fined or arrested.
The recent landslide win for the National League for Democracy (NLD) marks an important milestone in Myanmar’s history. But the party will not rule alone: The 2008 constitution guarantees the military 25 percent of seats in parliament and control of several key ministries, so the military and the NLD leadership will need to find a way to govern together. This should entail remedying past wrongs and guiding this resource-rich country on a path toward smarter and fairer economic development.
There is no more urgent or tricky a topic than the governance of land in Myanmar, where 70pc of the population still works the land. One of the most pervasive legacies of the military’s half-century rule in Myanmar is the dispossession of thousands of farming families. Tens of thousands of acres of land were taken without due process or explanation by the government, the military, its commercial agents or well-connected people. Many of the effects of this are only just now being felt; the new “owners” are taking advantage of the political changes to benefit from real estate and other economic opportunities.
In just under two years, the parliament’s Farmland Investigation Commission, the body tasked with scrutinising land grabs, has received more than 30,000 cases. Of these, only two-thirds have been heard, and in fewer than 1000 – a mere 4pc – has it ruled that compensation is justified.
Case work conducted by Namati, an international NGO that assists communities with land-rights issues here, suggests that farmers are lucky when they get 60pc of their land back. When they receive financial compensation, it’s at a rate of about US$4000 per acre – this, in a country where a boom in investment is pushing some land prices north of $200,000 per acre.
The majority of farmers, like U Myint Tun, hold documents, such as tax receipts or loans from government agriculture banks, showing they used to farm the land. However, their cases still slog through a byzantine bureaucratic process. In some instances the cases have gone nowhere, even after two years. For most of these farmers, the land that was taken was their only immoveable asset.
As the community awaits the government’s decision on their case, they are forced to sell off their few possessions to support their families. Some have fallen into depression and can no longer work. With no income, many villagers cannot afford to send their children to school. “The president and parliament say land should be returned,” says U Myint Tun. “But when will that actually happen for us?”
Land is also important for the flood of companies and investors from Thailand, China, Singapore and farther afield that have piled into Myanmar since the country’s political and economic liberalisation in 2011. With the country pulling off a free and fair election, investors are more ready than ever to move in.
An equitable resolution of Myanmar’s land grabs will not only provide its victims with justice and the country with political stability. It will also provide international investors with confidence that their ventures into agriculture, tourism and other areas aren’t built on theft and destined to be challenged in the courts one day.
When Myanmar’s new parliament meets in January, it can undertake a number of measures to build on the progress of the last government.
These include publishing detailed information on returned land; empowering newly elected local governments to resolve land disputes; allowing paralegals to represent farmers in front of the government bodies charged with resolving land grab cases; and ensuring that compensation is truly aligned with best international practice.
Caitlin J Pierce is Namati’s Myanmar program officer. Namati is an international NGO working on legal empowerment, including land rights.
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