Scott Leckie: 'Burma's absence of law'

Few countries’ legal systems are as corrupt and opaque as Burma’s. We spoke to Scott Leckie, director of Displacement Solutions, about their new book on housing, land and property rights (HLP) in Burma.

The book, ‘Housing, Land and Property Rights in Burma: The Current Legal Framework’ is available freely on www.displacementsolutions.org, and will be released in hardback early next year.

“Usually these books take around three months to finish, but this one took a year,” he began. “It had to last that long because it’s Burma, but for any other country it would’ve been child’s play. We used up to 20 different sources before we got all the laws we needed, and I think we’re probably still missing a handful.”

Q. Can you give a brief background on HLP?

A. HLP essentially means every sector in society that touches in any way upon the circumstances in which people live; that’s the essence of it. So it includes the physical dwelling in which people live, the attributes of land on which the housing sits, and then all of the particular individual collective or customary property rights. It touches on things such as water, garbage disposal, planning issues, owners’ rights, and so on – everything under the sun to do with the conditions in which you live.”

Q. What prompted you to write on Burma?

A. Well the de facto situation isn’t particularly good there as far as HLP rights go. Displacement is rampant, refugee numbers are high, slum dwellers are growing in number , all of these problems within the HLP sector are widely known by people looking at Burma. But our main motivation, apart from addressing these issues, was to provide a tool for people in the Burma movement, inside and outside the country, to begin to develop a systematic awareness and understanding of HLP issues now, and most importantly, in the context of any potential political transition that comes about.

We’ve worked in 15 or 20 post-conflict or transitional societies, including Iraq, post-apartheid South Africa, post-communist/authoritarian Kosovo, and in every single instance, notwithstanding the origin of the conflict, HLP laws were effectively ignored either by the domestic political processes underway or by the international or UN or other groups that were involved in managing the transitional process.

Q. What was the key motivation?

A. Our concern is that the emphasis on understanding HLP rights, both as a tool of continuing oppression but also terms of what needs to happen down the road, is quite peripheral in the Burma movement, and our main objective with this book is providing the foundations needed to understand these rights in Burma, so that a democratic Burma can be far better prepared when the day of change eventually comes.

HLP issues touch every single person in the country and they will continue to do so, and they will be the source of either tremendous despair or tremendous economic development in the process of creating a more a just society where human rights and the rule of law are taken seriously.

Q. Why is HLP so peripheral in the wider context of human rights in Burma?

A. I don’t think it’s seen as the key problem undermining the entire political situation , it’s seen as a sideline issue. The primary reason for this is that, first of all, people can do very little about it externally or internally, so there’s not a huge amount of legal procedures one can pursue. The second issue is that the vast majority of land is controlled by the state, which significantly undermines the possibility of achieving a great deal when one looks to pursue justice on land disputes. Thirdly, it’s almost so ubiquitous, the problem is so huge, that people are deterred and instead focus on areas that are simpler to deal with.

Q. Is there any inclination by the junta to address these laws?

A. What this book documents is that these issues are already legislated by previous governments and the current government, and the clearly calculated efforts they have made to repeal laws which were much more favourable towards HLP rights over the last 20 years. Our view is that the regime knows very well that, in theory, systematic legislative control of the HLP sectors makes it that much easier to control the population within other sectors as well, and that’s a huge issue.

Q. What entities inside Burma can be pressured on the issue?

A. There are two bodies that are really beginning to highlight the importance of HLP within Burma; those are the Yangon City Development Committee, and the Mandalay City Development Committee. Those bodies are really the primary entities under the control of the junta that systematically use HLP laws to maintain the junta’s power, rather than using the laws to improve the housing and living conditions of people living in those urban areas.

Q. Are there any glimmers of light in the 2008 constitution?

A. The fact of the matter is, the 2008 constitution is there, and it’s the only thing that can be officially worked with at this stage. But there’s also the possibility that one or two clauses in that document, once it enters into force, can be used very creatively to put pressure on and to highlight things that are not being highlighted now, and it can take on a life of its own. Once it’s there, it’ll take creative and courageous lawyers inside the country to begin using its provisions in innovative ways.

Q. How does Burma compare to other countries you’ve worked on?

A. Putting together a blueprint for reform and remedying past abuses is almost impossible because the situations for post-conflict or transitional states around the world are so different. In terms of the absence of rule of law, Burma clearly comes out either on top or right up there with the worst abusers. In terms of HLP abuses, Burma comes out very high, perhaps also on the top. In terms of the scale of displacement over the past 20 years, Burma is also coming out very high, and in terms of the day-to-day, minute-by-minute experience of the people in their homes, I think very few places will have as high a percentage of the population living in conditions which are so distant from what they should be in the context of human rights law.

The challenges that will confront any new government are massive, and it’s really up to them to choose the policies and laws that they’re going to pursue, and we hope very much that they will be based upon the very tragic experiences of other governments which said all the right things when they were in opposition, but did all the wrong things when they finally took power.

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