Land conflicts in Burma have escalated in recent years, with military and armed groups driving people from their land, and new laws failing to protect farmers, a rights watchdog said on Thursday.
Land disputes are a longstanding problem in Burma, but researchers from New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) documented rising discontent over displacement for agriculture, mining and infrastructure projects.
Land confiscation and reprisals against protesters are particularly acute in resource-rich Karen State, which borders wealthier Thailand and is seen as attractive for investment in tourism, mining and agriculture, HRW said in a report.
“Military and armed groups use intimidation to force people off their land. Government laws and policies are failing to protect farmers, even where land seizures go through proper channels,” Caroline Stover, author of the report, “The Farmer Becomes the Criminal”, said by telephone from Rangoon.
“Under the Land Acquisition Act, the government can take land for public purposes, but the government has failed to do proper notice and consultation, and provide proper compensation as required by law,” she said.
For decades, Karen State has been the site of an armed conflict between ethnic armed groups and Burma’s military, causing huge displacement and forcing hundreds of thousands to seek refuge in Thailand and beyond.
A peace process in the state and other ethnic areas has opened up access to areas once beyond the reach of Burma’s armed forces and military-linked businessmen, HRW’s report said.
It said peace — combined with the opening of the country to investors — has boosted land value and left farmers vulnerable to powerful interests “gaining land through questionable means”.
As in many parts of the world, the people worst impacted by such projects lack land titles or the knowledge to defend themselves against businessmen and state officials.
Villager jailed, house burned
Over eight months last year, HRW researchers interviewed 72 farmers and labourers in Karen State and Thailand.
In Hlaingbwe Township in May 2015, border guard forces held a man for four days, after they claimed rights to land which the man’s family had been working for generations, HRW said.
“They didn’t charge me … They just said it’s because of the land,” the man was quoted as saying in the report.
In New Ahtet Kawyin village in June 2015, when residents refused to remove their huts from land the government had laid claim to, “police cut down all of the houses with chainsaws and they burned the bamboo houses”, the report said.
In response to a letter from HRW, the Karen State government said it had barred protests against land seizure because “there is an attempt to protest against this work by a dishonest person/group who uses simple, local citizens and this can affect the rule of law and stability so it cannot be allowed”.
Stover of HRW said a key problem is that villagers have been unable to secure documents required under new laws, in some cases because officials have refused to assist them.
“Some have documents [such as receipts showing they have paid tax on the land they use], but don’t have the documents required under current law to protect hem against investors who want to buy up the land,” she said.
“Farmers can request local government officials to come to measure their land and provide land documents, and officials have refused to do it. At the same time, we heard land certificates are being provided to businessmen, on land on which farmers were living and farming.”
To address the problems for farmers and villagers, HRW recommended that the government recognise community land tenure and provide formal documents to farmers and villagers recording existing land use.
It called for the government to end arbitrary arrest and detention of land activists for peaceful protest, and to set up a multi-agency task force to investigate alleged abuses by border guard forces connected to land confiscation.