Friday, August 18, 2017

Land rights key to peace process

About 673,000 Myanmar living in refugee camps on the Thai border and internally displaced camps in Myanmar are unable to return to homes in part because of concerns over housing, land and property rights, said a report released last week.

Refugees from Myanmar stand beside a river at the Mae La refugee camp near the Thai-Myanmar border. Photo: AFPRefugees from Myanmar stand beside a river at the Mae La refugee camp near the Thai-Myanmar border. Photo: AFP

The report, “Bridging the Housing, Land and Property Gap”, by Displacement Solutions, said an estimated 458,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) within Myanmar and 215,000 refugees from Myanmar living in camps along the Thai border cannot return home, despite general recognition of the importance of housing, land and property (HLP) rights and ongoing political reforms.

According to its website, Displaced Solutions is a not-for-profit international initiative that carries out relief projects designed to secure sustainable livelihood options for refugees and displaced persons within the context of protecting their housing, land and property rights.

Geoff Myint, a Displacement Solutions consultant, said he hopes the report will be used as an “opportunity to encourage people who are engaged in the peace process to think seriously about land issues”.

“We feel that if they are not considering these land rights, then the process could be prolonged or even reignite a new conflict,” he said.

The report makes a series of specific recommendations to the government, ethnic groups and the international community on how to address land issues, particularly as part of peace negotiations.

Scott Leckie, author of the report and Displacement Solutions director, said: “Everyone needs to realise that a lot of the conflicts in Myanmar emerge from problems over HLP rights. These rights need to be seen as a source of the conflict, but at the same time they are also a solution to years of conflict.”

The report states that HLP issues have been giving more attention during peace discussions but no clear positions by the government or armed ethnic groups have been placed on the negotiating table.

To compile the report, Displacement Solutions interviewed a number of ethnic groups in Mon, Kayin, Kayah and Shan states to understand what concerns these groups have regarding HLP rights.

“In the interviews it was certain that people were thinking about land issues but not in a very concrete way,” Mr Myint said. “Generally speaking, they were concerned that the investment climate has changed, where a lot of investment from the private sector is coming in and the concern is that this has created conditions for the erosion of HLP rights in these areas.”

“A lot of civil society groups are concerned that the peace process, especially from the government side, is kind of a development peace process, where the government wants to bring in hydropower projects and mega development projects – and that these things will increase land issues and displacement for local communities,” he said.

At the presentation of the report at Sedona Hotel on June 3, Mr Myint outlined recommendations for the government and armed ethnic groups.

Among the eight recommendations for the government was that it ensure that all peace, voluntary repatriation and return agreements with ethnic groups fully comply with international law and best practices with respect to HLP rights of refugees and IDPs.

“The role of the two land laws that were adopted in 2012 seriously need to be looked into,” Mr Leckie said. “In fact, they are obstacles to the peace process and were not subjected to the normal process of democratic lawmaking throughout the world. These two land laws and the ideology behind them are really legacies of the former government.”

“Ultimately, the laws should be repealed and replaced by democratically chosen, popularly driven and legal processes. Only that will create a legal framework that will be sufficient to build sustainable peace in the country,” he said.

Mr Leckie added that it would not necessarily take a long time to reform the land laws. “These laws were not subject to massive public inputs, hearings or other kinds of processes that are normal when you pass laws of that significance in democratic countries,” he said. “It would normally take a long time to get a law passed, but when the government is able to pass a law that quickly, it should also be able to reverse it quickly.”

He added that one outcome of the 2012 laws was the establishment of a system of land registration for farmers, which provided land use certificates that gave the right to sell and lease the land but did not give them freehold ownership.

According to the report, only 15 percent of farmers have certificates.

“Many actors in the country are concerned that these laws don’t adequately protect small farmers but instead benefit investors and the private sector,” Mr Myint said. “As the land laws are today, customary land tenure is not recognised, which means that people don’t have official and individual land titling.”

Instead, several ethnic groups have started issuing their own informal land titles in their jurisdictions but Mr Leckie said he did not believe that is the correct way to move forward.

“I’m not saying it is a good thing or a bad thing,” he said. “On the one hand, they are considering the issue important enough to make their own policies and regulations but on the other hand, it will make an already complex situation even more complicated. But they are only doing this because all other official options are simply seen as completely inadequate.”