Land Reform Key to Burmas Future
tony at cultureshop.org.uk
Tue Oct 30 00:42:56 GMT 2012
When I was four, I first saw my father, a
democracy activist, through prison bars during
the first of two long incarcerations. When I was
growing up I always wondered why my father could
not be with us. I am 23 years old now but I had
only 9 years of being together with my father.
Whilst he is one of the lucky ones who has been
released this year, many hundreds still remain in
prison and others are sick after years of torture
and abuse. As a daughter of a former political
prisoner, I know how it feels to be separated
from a family and I know how much they suffer even after their releases.
Land Reform Key to Burmas Future
August 25, 2012 - by Kyaw Kyaw
The much heralded progress on political and
social rights could all be in vain if amendments
are not made to the country's property laws.
Last month, about 200 farmers from three
townships in rural Yangon did something that was
until very recently impossible in Burma: they
staged a legal protest, demanding that their
land, confiscated by private firms and state bodies, be returned to them.
Wearing bamboo hats and the traditional Burma
longyi, the farmers, mostly in their late 40s and
50s, were escorted by police as they marched
along main roads on the citys outskirts,
carrying signs made from cardboard and paper with
messages such as Farmers have to work the
fields, but other people get the benefits and
Will you solve the dispute according to the law? hastily scrawled in marker.
The July 14 protest was the first to test the
limits of the new Peaceful Protest Law, which
requires protesters to seek permission from
police and local officials at least five days
before the planned date. With the help of a local
politician, the farmers negotiated the
bureaucratic procedures and got the okay for the
march, which ended peacefully at 11 a.m., after about two hours.
We reported these cases to the government many
times but the responses were not substantial
enough for the farmers. So I hope every member of
the public knows about the farmers and also hope
that the president notices them, U Nay Myo Wai,
chairman of the Peace and Diversity Party, told local media.
Demonstrations over land ownership, such as the
one on July 14, have become increasingly common
in Yangon and other parts of Burma over the past year.
Many of the land disputes are not new, dating
back to the last time the country attempted to
open up to investors in the early 1990s. Over
the past 20 years, some 1.9 million acres have
ended up in the hands of private Burmese firms
through a variety of means, most of which had
some pretext of legality. More than 70 percent of
these private holdings have never been developed,
however, and often the original owners were
allowed to continue farming on an annual basis.
But anticipating a flood of foreign investment,
private firms are beginning to reassert ownership
over these increasingly valuable plots and
beginning development projects, as well as
seeking new concessions. The government has also
started touting the agriculture sector to
potential foreign investors; the 2nd Commercial
Farm Asia expo tagline: Making Inroads into
Asia's Awakened Tiger for Sustainable Agri
Investments! will be held in Yangon in October.
Together with a relaxation on protests and media
censorship, as well as the introduction of two
important new land laws earlier this year, this
has resulted in land ownership rights and land
confiscation re-emerging as national issues and
one that experts like Nobel Prize-winning
economist Joseph Stiglitz warn could derail
government efforts to reduce poverty if mismanaged.
About two-thirds of the countrys population
relies directly and indirectly on the agriculture
sector, yet government figures show it comprises
only 36.43 percent of gross domestic product.
According to a joint UN-government survey
conducted in 2009-10, 26 percent of the
population remains below a poverty line set at a
meagre 754 kyats a day about 85 U.S. cents
and poverty is most acute among landless rural households.
Much of the land handed to private firms has been
designated by the Ministry of Agriculture and
Irrigation as fallow, vacant, or virgin land,
with no registered owners. While it is often
occupied and being cultivated, the government has
typically characterized those working this land
as squatters. In a nationally televised speech
on economic reform on June 19, President U Thein
Sein said the country was facing difficulties in
land management as squatters on forest land,
virgin and fallow land and others are acting as
if they originally own the plot they illegally occupied.
The result is widespread problems and because of
these problems we are not in a position to allot
a large number of hectares of land for
investments as other countries do, he said.
His comments have caused disquiet among the
leaders of civil society and non-government
organizations working on land issues.
Im not really sure if the president is really
intensively aware about land issues, said U Shwe
Thein, chairman of the Land Core Group, a network
of more than 30 international and local
organizations focusing on land issues. To me,
this [statement] is not encouraging for the
farmers. This is very alarming and as civil
society networks we need to do more to update the
presidents understanding on these issues and how
farmers are vulnerable in terms of land tenure security.
While new laws allowing unions and legalizing
protests have garnered most of the headlines,
recent changes to how land is administered will
be equally significant in the years to come. In
August of last year, the former Minister for
Agriculture and Irrigation and now general
secretary of the military-backed Union Solidarity
and Development Party (USDP), U Htay Oo,
submitted a new Farmland Law to parliament. This
was quickly followed by the Vacant, Fallow and
Virgin Lands Management Law, and amended versions
of both laws were approved during the third
session in early 2012. They represent the most
substantial change to the legal framework for
land since the early 1960s when everything was nationalized.
The new laws officially reintroduce the concept
of private ownership, which means land tenure
rights all land remains the property of the
state and can be nationalized by the government
if necessary can be sold, traded, or mortgaged.
In one sense this is a positive step, as land was
already being traded illegally but openly on a
black market with little transparency. But the
new laws also remove some protections for
farmers; for example, allowing land to be repossessed if they fall into debt.
Activist U Win Myo Thu of the Burma
non-government organization EcoDev warned
recently that many farmers could also potentially
lose their land under the two laws because they
lacked proper ownership documents, citing a
survey his organization conducted in 2010 of 1040
farmers in three states that found almost
three-quarters had only a land tax receipt as proof of ownership.
Without considering the land security of these
farmers, [we can] forget about the
people-centered development that the president is
highlighting all the time, he said.
Different organizations, networks, and
institutions have responded in various ways to
the challenge of improving land tenure security
in Burma. When the laws were submitted to
parliament, civil society organizations and
non-government organizations which were
excluded from the drafting process lobbied
individual politicians to have their many
concerns addressed, with some success. Following
on from this, the Land Core Group recently
launched an activity plan that runs until 2014
and has already attracted significant donor interest.
At the other end of the spectrum, UN-HABITAT is
working directly with the under-resourced
Settlement and Land Records Department on a
two-year program that aims, among other things,
to modernize ownership records and cadastral
maps, most of which are still only on paper.
I think both approaches are equally important to
achieving the same objective, which is to help
the government implement land laws in Burma that
are inclusive of the smallholder farmer majority.
Thats a shared objective but with different role
and different approaches, said Eben Forbes,
program officer at the UN-HABITAT office in Yangon.
He said the passage of the laws through
parliament had prompted a huge spike in
interest about land issues among politicians,
non-government organizations and aid donors.
When the laws were being debated everyone was
focused on them and we all got kind of fixated on
the text of these laws for a while. But now
theyve been passed so it doesnt do us much good
to debate the nitty-gritty of the laws its
time to move on to the next step, which is the implementation, he said.
As Burma opens up into this new phase, [land is]
seen as a critical area with a lot of potential
in both directions; theres the potential for
sustainable development or theres the potential
for it to go in a really bad direction.
Support for the farmers cause has also come from
some unlikely sources, particularly in
parliament. U Aung Thein Linn, a former brigadier
general, mayor of Yangon and senior figure in the
USDP, said recently following a study trip to
central Burma that the new laws should be amended
to strengthen the ownership rights of small-scale farmers.
While most observers would question the motives
of the former military man land is likely to be
a major political issue in rural areas when his
party comes up against Daw Aung San Suu Kyis
National League for Democracy in the 2015
election the USDP-dominated national parliament
recently overruled the government and voted to
form a committee to investigate land disputes
across the country, after a record number of MPs had discussed the proposal.
Lawyers and politicians outside the parliament
some of whom contested but lost seats in the
November 2010 election have also taken an
active role, helping farmers understand the law
and how it can be used to their advantage against
businesses and government departments.
Mostly free of the muzzle of government
censorship, numerous columns in each issue of the
countrys increasingly vibrant private newspapers
are given over to documenting land grabs, while
farmers themselves have even started to use new
laws to organize and form associations.
This coalition of forces appears to be making
some ground. Last week, the prominent Weekly
Eleven newspaper reported that a major
agribusiness firm had handed back a concession of
some 40,000 acres to farmers in the fertile
Ayeyarwady delta, and said more firms were
considering doing the same, ostensibly because
they were financially viable. In June, the
military agreed to pay compensation to the owners
of more than 500 acres of land in northern Shan
State that it confiscated in 2009 after lobbying
from the local Member of Parliament.
But most agree that the private sector will play
a significant role in Burmas agriculture sector,
which remains dominated by small-scale farmers
who have little access to the formal credit they
need to buy inputs and expand production. One of
the Land Core Groups first activities was to
organize a conference with members of the
nations largest business organization, the Union
of Burma Federation of Chambers of Commerce and
Industry, on contract farming and associated
corporate social responsibility issues. On August
9, it also hosted a workshop focusing on how to
engage with the private sector to benefit
smallholder farmers that was organized in
response to opportunities and threats of rapidly
growing agribusiness interest in Burma, which is
set to escalate as the country undergoes economic
reform and prepares for a surge in FDI in the
agricultural sector, according to the group.
Another major development in Burmas agriculture
sector in recent years has been the formation of
more than 50 rice specialist companies that
provide cheap credit and inputs to farmers in one
or two specific townships. While it has not been
without its problems farmers struggle to
understand contracts, and the companies buy back
paddy at the time of the year when it is cheapest
contract farming along these lines could
provide a means of protecting land tenure rights
while facilitating the private sector involvement
that the government is keen to encourage.
There are a lot of private sector pressures on
the country [from] investors that want to get
into the act so contract farming could be a way
of satisfying all parties [and] avoiding a kind
of land grabbing model that you hear about
happening in developing countries, Eben Forbes
said. But it needs to be studied, particularly
how it has played out in other countries around
the region. I know its been abused but it
depends on the contract: it can be a really
win-win situation where farmers get better access to markets.
The author is a Burma-based writer. His real name
has been withheld at his request.
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