Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Myanmar's land dispute commission draws fire

Protesters outside the Department of Human Settlement and Housing Development Office on Bogyoke Aung San Road in downtown Yangon in 2012. (Boothee/The Myanmar Times)Protesters outside the Department of Human Settlement and Housing Development Office on Bogyoke Aung San Road in downtown Yangon in 2012. (Boothee/The Myanmar Times)

Criticism is emerging over a parliamentary commission tasked with investigating land disputes.

The commission, set up about three months ago with more than 60 members, is led by U Tin Htut of Zalun constituency and has so far examined dozens of cases.

But farmers who met the commission’s members have been dissatisfied with both the scope and methodology of the investigation, say activists.

“When they investigated Nattalin Township in western Bago Region, the farmers said that the activities were not satisfactory. The farmers were not allowed to speak openly about all aspects of the case. There are also six major land disputes but they didn’t even finish investigating two of them. They haven’t even visited places where thousands of acres were acquired [from farmers],” said U Ye Htin Kyaw of the Civil and Political Rights Campaign Group, which is campaigning on behalf of dispossessed farmers.

The commission’s members have been divided into state and region subgroups. Based on its investigations, the commission says that land has typically been acquired from farmers to expand urban areas, build industrial zones, expand or establish military sites, carry out state projects, build state-owned factories or provide land to private companies for agriculture or livestock projects.

While the commission will continue working for at least one year, U Ye Htin Kyaw said the initial results were not promising. He said he was upset that farmers were unable to use the disputed land while the investigation was being conducted.

“The farmer can earn money only if he is able to do his farm work. In contrast, people from the other side, whether it’s a company, military or municipal council, need not do farm work to earn money,” he said.

He said in Bago and Ayeyarwady regions, farmers had been stopped from harvesting their paddy, fruit trees and rubber plantations until the disputes were resolved. In some cases, the other side involved in the dispute has destroyed farmers’ crops.

One farmer involved in a land dispute in Nay Pyi Taw’s Dekkinathiri township agreed the current system was unfair.

“We want to be allowed to continue to use lands that are being cultivated at least until we have been able to harvest them until the ownership has been resolved by the court,” he said.

But one member of the commission, who asked not to be named, said the criticisms were unfair. While the commission has been established for more than three months, members of its nine sub-groups have only been able to work on land disputes for about one month, since the end of the fifth hluttaw session. They also have to devote time to dealing with issues in their constituencies during the break.

He said the groups met in the final week of December to collate their findings and prepare a report to submit during the sixth session of parliament, which began on January 9.

Pyithu Hluttaw representative for Hsipaw U Ye Tun said the commission did not have the power to resolve the disputes and could only inquire and mediate.

“It’s very difficult to get a fair result for farmers because [in regards to] the land grabbing among companies, they cooperate with the government officers and the companies and some rich men, cronies. So who understands the existing laws? The department officers understand [the law] so they can [arrange to] seize land legally. And then the farmer has no legal documents, they just have the tax receipt. The officers say it is not legal [ownership],” he said.

This issue was highlighted during the final week of December, when 26 farmers in Nay Pyi Taw were charged under municipal laws with trespassing on land that has in some cases been farmed by their families for generations. The land was sold to a company under the new Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Lands Management Law, which was introduced last year.

“Under the law, the defendant farmers will almost certainly lose because the plaintiffs have legal documents to prove their ownership. The lands were listed as vacant on a map in the Settlement and Land Records Department and resold by the City Development Committee to companies with legal ownership,” said lawyer U Khin Maung Zaw from Pyinmana township.

“So the farmers who cultivated the land for many years can’t show any evidence of legal ownership. They will be defeated by those who bought the land after the new land law was passed, even though the new law states that it aims to protect the rights of farmers,” he said.

He said the differences between the ownership maps of the department and the reality on the ground were the main reason for land disputes and eviction of farmers.

“The speaker of Pyithu Hlutaw, Thura U Shwe Mann highlighted this problem. There are many land cases because of deals between [municipal authorities] and the companies,” he said.

“The law should require the companies and respective governing bodies, including the city development committees, to survey the reality of the land before they conduct a land transaction.”

Translated by Thit Lwin and Zar Zar Soe, additional reporting by Thomas Kean