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More and more farmers are beginning to speak out about unjust land-grabs across the country, but few of them are getting the results they want: a full return of the farmlands that were seized by authorities during decades of military rule. In addition to those seeking recourse for old cases, many farmers and urban dwellers say they are now being unfairly removed from their property to make way for developers.
A land reform package passed in early 2012 has arguably made matters worse for Burma’s rural poor, who are mostly subsistence farmers. The laws do not grant ownership, but rather makes farmers tenants of the state. The legislation ignores many of Burma’s communal and customary land use practices, leading to a flood of ownership disputes that township administrators are still unprepared to handle.
DVB recently spoke with Dr. Thaung Htun, director of the Peace and Justice Network. A former member of the All Burma Students Democratic Front and UN representative for the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, Dr. Thaung Htun returned to Southeast Asia in 2012 after years of exile. He has since been among Burma’s leading advocates for farmers’ rights and fair land use policies.
Q: Land disputes have been increasingly frequent since President Thein Sein’s government came into power. Some disputes have even escalated to the point of violent confrontation. Why do you think this is happening now?
A: The problem of unjust land loss has been happening all over the country since about 1989, and has continued up until about 2010, just before the new government took office. During that period, farmers were too afraid to speak up about their losses. Since Thein Sein’s administration came into power, however, the farmers’ voices can travel further. People can hear them more now. There is also more awareness among farmers through the establishment of civil society organisations and other groups. These organisations help farmers to understand their rights, the land laws and the definition of unlawful seizure. Many people are unaware about how their rights were changed by the introduction of Burma’s new land policy in 2012.
Q: Let’s talk about the Farmland Law. This law was passed in 2012, but farmers don’t seem to be enjoying its benefits yet. Could you explain why?
A: There are pros and cons of the new legislation. One notable part of the bill is that it allows farmers to sell, rent or pawn their farmland. In reality, however, most farmers don’t know how to use that to their advantage. Further complicating matters is that when the law came into effect, there were a lot of disputes about who owned what because all of the land had to be registered with township-level authorities. And, of course, there is some corruption among the land management bodies. There are still lots of problems. But the main weakness of this law is that it denies the right to own land. There is no land ownership in Burma at this time. In the past, people had that right. Under British colonial rule, people owned their land. Farmlands were made into public assets later. The reason they did that was, in theory, to avoid the problem of wealthy and powerful landlords. But the real outcomes are different. The authorities abused the word “state”, and they took land unjustly. This has been costing farmers their land for decades.
Q: Farmers are facing a lot of hardship right now, and land loss has led many to protest. One common example across Burma is the “plough protest”, whereby farmers occupy and work land that was taken from them. Does this trend signal a possible farmers’ uprising?
A: If the problem of land loss cannot be solved quickly and effectively, there will be instability. These farmers don’t want to be illegally ploughing the lands, they want to live peacefully. But the land is their cooking pot, it’s how they get by, so they have no other choice. As far as we know, at least 6,559 land claims have been submitted to the parliamentary Land Investigation Commission since it was established in 2012. To date, only 307 cases have been resolved by regional governments. That’s only about 4.8 percent. Many cases are delayed because local administrators and land statistics officers are not working fast enough. It’s not because they don’t know about the problem. The president’s office has already ordered administrators to work closely with local MPs on this issue. We found, however, that the officers involved have not been cooperating with the MPs very well.
Q: Is there anything you’d like to add about land issues?
A: Yes. About 60 percent of the population in Burma are agricultural workers. When we talk about poverty reduction, it is impossible to ignore this enormous, skilled workforce. Sixty percent of the population have no job opportunities if they have no farmland. These land problems must be solved right, and they must be solved fast.