Myanmar Must Provide Justice in Decades-Old Land Grab Cases: HRW

The country's civilian government must work harder to resolve claims and prevent further abuses, the rights group says.

The sun rises over fishponds in Myanmar's Ayeyarwady where farmland was confiscated by the military in the 1990s.

Myanmar should move quickly to settle decades-old claims by farmers forced from their land by the country’s military, a rights group said on Tuesday, adding that the country’s new civilian-led government has largely failed in its pledges to provide justice for those dispossessed.

The government should also put new laws in place to protect farmers and other small landholders from further land grabs in the future, Human Rights Watch said in a report, “Nothing For Our Land: Impact of Land Confiscation on Farmers in Myanmar.”

Those deprived of their land have been refused adequate compensation, cut off from the only work they know, and denied access to basic services such as health care, schooling, and education, HRW says in its 33-page report, prepared from interviews conducted with farmers, workers, and land-rights activists from October 2016 to March 2017.

“Many farmers have [also] faced criminal prosecution for protesting the lack of redress and refusing to leave or cease work on the land that was taken from them,” HRW said in its report, which described the “devastating effects” of confiscations in Myanmar’s southern Shan state and Ayeyarwady and Yangon regions.

“Once deprived of the ability to cultivate land and to sell crops, people are commonly forced into manual labor jobs that pay far less and ultimately diminish access to sources of food,” HRW said.

“Widespread land confiscations across Myanmar have harmed rural communities in profound ways for decades,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch in a statement tied to the release of the report.

“Aung San Suu Kyi’s government should promptly address illegal land confiscations, compensate aggrieved parties, and reform laws to protect people against future abuses,” Robertson said.

'They just took it'

Government figures confirm that hundreds of thousands of acres of land have been taken over the last 30 years, though activists believe the true number of acres seized may be in the millions, HRW said in its report, adding that “confiscations often occurred with little or no compensation,” creating a “profoundly harmful” impact on those forced from their land.

Confiscations often occurred with little or no warning given, HRW said.

“I didn’t know, they just took it,” said one 61-year-old farmer in Ayeyarwady named Thein Win, who was forced to dig fish ponds on the land that was seized and was threatened with jail for complaining, according to the report.

“We got nothing. We literally got nothing for our land,” Thein Win said.

Meanwhile, in Shan state, Myanmar’s military seized thousands of acres in one village to create plots for military veterans to farm, forcing one family that remained to pay rent for five years on the land they had just lost.

“When the land was taken from them, there was no offer to compensate and no other land was given to them,” HRW said. “After years of filing complaints to all levels of the government, they still have received nothing, and the military claims the right to retain ownership of the land.”

Cases are complicated

Efforts by the present National League for Democracy government of State Counselor and de facto national leader Aung San Suu Kyi to effectively address the situation have met with limited success, according to the report.

“Many cases are extremely complicated, as military land confiscations were [often] followed by sales to corporations and businesses, followed by additional sales to others, making it difficult to create a system that is fair to the original owners, subsequent tenants, and those who later bought the land in good faith,” HRW said.

“And given the powerful individuals and institutions involved in past land transfers, many farmers and land rights activists have little hope the NLD can quickly solve the problem.”

The seizure of land for development, often without due process or fair compensation for displaced residents, is a major cause of protests in Myanmar and other Asian countries, including China and Vietnam.