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Land Confiscation Continues Unabated Across Southeastern Burma

By Burma Partnership  •  July 21, 2015

land owners protest thier land in BurmaOn 15 July 2015, Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) held a briefing of their latest report on land confiscation, “‘With Only our Voices, What Can We Do?’: Land Confiscation and Local Response in Southeast Myanmar,” a follow up to the 2013 report “Losing Ground.” The report provides updated information surrounding the state of land confiscation, while also documenting the emergence of new trends in the fragile post-ceasefire environment of southeastern Burma. As a means of empowering voices on the ground, KHRG’s research team has offered detailed insights into the experiences of local villagers in their ongoing struggle against the Burma Government, the Burma Army, and both foreign and local investors who have threatened their ability to live peacefully on the land they rightfully possess.

According to the report sources of land confiscation include: infrastructure projects, such as the construction of roads, dams, and bridges; natural resource extraction, including the mining of gold and stone along with logging; commercial agriculture, such as rubber plantations; and increased militarization in Karen State, involving the Burma Army’s construction of bases and the appropriation of land for other military uses. Overwhelmingly, the consequences of these land-grabbing projects are that they disrupt the livelihoods of the local populace. As land is pilfered for development, resource extraction or military use, local populations are often left forced to give up their primary means of subsistence. This point is further worsened by the environmental destruction of land, which is commonly associated with development projects and natural resource extraction, leaving the villagers unable to cultivate their land for livelihood.

The report places an emphasis on displacement as one of the major consequences of land confiscation. One case study highlights the effect of the Burma Army’s land grabbing: The one case of displacement occurred in Nabu Township, Hpa-an District where 30 households consisting of 150 people had over 1,000 acres of land confiscated by the Tatmadaw. These villagers were forced to stay in the garden of a monastery after being evicted. Many of them were forced to abandon the village altogether due to the loss of land.”

KHRG has observed a steady increase in the frequency of village agency responses to land confiscation since their reportLosing Ground”. This has included renewed and exhaustive attempts to negotiate with development actors, the Burma Government, community-based organizations, and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs).

Several of the recommendations listed in the report, including the need to increase consultation with local actors and adherence to customary land rights, should be obvious yet unfortunately remain ignored by the Burma Government and investors. Others, such including strengthening community solutions, the demand for land rights to be a part of ceasefire agreements and demilitarization, require a genuine commitment from EAOs, the Burma Government, the Burma Army, and international and local investors, if land rights are to be improved.

Land confiscation is not unique to southeastern Burma, and is a nationwide problem. One salient example that has been the center of national and international attention since 2012 is the controversial Letpadaung copper mine in Sagaing Region which, according to a report by Amnesty International, contributed to the displacement of thousands of local villagers over the course of two decades and wide scale environmental damage. Earlier this year, protests against the mine led by farmers who had lost their land to the state-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited and the Chinese-owned corporation, Wanbao, resulted in a severe police crackdown in which one villager, Daw Khin Win, was killed. This incident comes after a gruesome 2012 protest, in which authorities used the incendiary white phosphorus to subdue protestors, which resulted in 50 people being injured.

Considering that 65% of Burma’s total population is involved in agriculture, and are thus dependent on their land as a source of their livelihood, it is no surprise that the majority of human rights complaints to the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission involve disputes over land grabbing and forced displacement.

According to KHRG, the problem of land confiscation is exacerbated as a result of two primary concerns; “Myanmar’s legislation regarding land tenure rights remains far less protective than mandated by international law and best practice. Second, endemic corruption in the government administration continues to hamper the system of land tenure recognition and distorts legitimate land rights claims throughout the country.”

The report, which has been released less than four months until the General Elections, must remain a priority for political forces inside Burma. The scale of land confiscation issues, noted by UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burma, Yanghee Lee, in her inaugural visit to Burma, will continue to constitute a threat to human rights, and ultimately, undermine the transition to democracy.

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