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Human rights watchdog criticises slow progress in resolving land grabs

Farmers walk in their farm outside Yebu village in Burma’s Shwenyaung Township, Shan State, in this still image taken from an Aug. 25, 2016 video. The land’s ownership and usage is being disputed by local villagers and the Burmese military. (Photo: Reuters)

US-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch has criticised slow progress in addressing historical land grabs , which continue to leave large numbers of people destitute, and inadequate legal reform in protecting land tenure.

Its 33-page report, “Nothing for Our Land: Impact of Land Confiscation on Farmers in Myanmar,” released on July 17, acknowledges the formidable challenges of remedying a history of arbitrary land seizures by the government, military, armed groups and private companies since 1988, when army-backed socialism gave way to privatisation.

A string of committees set up at various administrative levels by both the current and previous governments have been inundated by tens of thousands of complaints, and have had to mediate the claims of original owners, long-term tenants, and private owners who, owing to multiple transfers, may have thought they were purchasing land legitimately.

At a press conference in Yangon, Richard Weir, a researcher in Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, described the problem as urgent, with chronic landlessness prompting large numbers to go abroad for work every year and causing children to leave school early.

Several dozen farmers from Shan State, and Yangon and Ayeyarwady regions, said during interviews that the loss of their lands had ruined their livelihoods, impaired their health, and interrupted their children’s education. They attributed most seizures to the Burmese military.

The government’s Central Committee for Reviewing Confiscated Farmlands and Other Lands, chaired by Vice President Henry Van Thio, said in December that 9,922 out of 12,442 complaints remain pending.

When the National League for Democracy (NLD) government assumed office in early 2016, it pledged to resolve all land confiscation cases within six months.

“Fixing the land seizures problem and ensuring justice for farmers was a core part of the NLD’s election manifesto, but their reform efforts have fallen far short of what is required,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch also urged to government to “stop arbitrarily arresting land rights activists, and immediately release all those who are awaiting trial for peacefully protesting land seizures.”

This story was originally published by Myanmar Now