“The Farmer Becomes the Criminal” Land Confiscation in Burma’s Karen State
In Burma, where 70 percent of people earn a living through agriculture, securing land is often equivalent to securing a livelihood. But instead of creating conditions for sustainable development, recent Burmese governments have enacted abusive laws, enforced poorly conceived policies, and encouraged corrupt land administration officials that have promoted the displacement of small-scale farmers and rural villagers.
Conflicts over land have come to the forefront of Burma’s national agenda in recent years. These tensions have intensified as the country has embarked on a process of democratic transition and reform, with greater openness in some areas, but continued military dominance in other sectors, particularly where the military controls key government ministries.
Land disputes are a major national problem, with rising discontent over displacement for plantation agriculture, resource extraction, and infrastructure projects—often without adequate consultation, due process of law, or compensation for those displaced. In many parts of the country, those contesting land seizures have taken to the streets in frequent demonstrations but have faced retaliation in the courts.
The dual problems of land confiscation and reprisals against protesters is particularly acute in Karen State. Located along the border with much more prosperous Thailand, Karen State is viewed by many as a desirable site for investment in the tourism, extractive, and agriculture industries.
The economic opening of the country to investors has made land more valuable, while the peace process in Karen State and other ethnic areas has given access to areas previously beyond the reach of the Burmese armed forces and military-linked businessmen. The result is that powerful interests are gaining land through questionable means while farmers are losing it, often without adequate compensation.
As peace negotiations continue and the return of refugees from Thailand gains credence, land tenure issues will likely intensify, particularly as those who return find that land they previously farmed has now been occupied by government or business interests.
This report focuses on government abuses related to land confiscation in areas near Hpa-an, the capital of Karen State. The villages in this area are under the effective control of the Burmese military, called the Tatmadaw, and military-controlled militias called Border Guard Forces (BGFs), or are located in areas of mixed governance by the ethnic armed group Karen National Union (KNU) or other militias and the government.
The report illustrates the dynamics of land confiscation in Karen State—a longstanding problem previously documented by Human Rights Watch and local organizations such as the Karen Human Rights Group. It details cases in which government officials, military personnel and agents on behalf of the army, local militia members, and businessmen have used intimidation and coercion to seize land and displace local people. It also documents the impact of land loss on local villagers, some of whom have farmed land for generations but lack legal documentation to prove it.
Human Rights Watch found that farmers who protest land-taking and try to stake a claim to their land face retaliation by police and government officials, and prosecution under peaceful assembly and criminal trespass laws. Many farmers whose land has been confiscated as far back as a decade have not been able to obtain any redress and, in some cases, continue to suffer abuses after calling for compensation or attempting to reclaim land. The government’s failure to provide adequate compensation or other redress for land confiscation means that victims struggle to make ends meet, and frequently must become migrant workers abroad or rely on relatives working in Thailand or elsewhere abroad for economic survival.
Villagers and local groups say that government land registration services are effectively inaccessible to them, and farmers assert that local government offices fail to uphold their rights against more powerful moneyed interests. In some cases, villagers allege that local government officials have acted as brokers for land deals or facilitated the granting of licenses for mining and other projects, leaving long-time residents and farmers empty-handed and without effective recourse.
Burma’s departing national government adopted a cabinet resolution to enact a National Land Use Policy in early 2016, which could form the basis of future land law reform. The new policy aims to improve land classification and land information management systems, recognize communal tenure systems and shifting cultivation practices, create more independent dispute resolution procedures, and provide restitution for victims of land confiscation or those who have been forced to abandon lands due to past or ongoing conflict.
In November 2015, the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, swept nationwide elections. The party assumed executive power in March 2016 and appointed U Htin Kyaw as president. Since then the NLD government has made little progress on reforming land policy to advance these policy goals or otherwise ensure that rights are protected.
To address the problems facing farmers and other villagers such as those detailed in this report, the government should adopt additional safeguards (see Section IV). Crucial is tackling the significant gap between government documentation of land rights and the manner in which land is actually being used or occupied, and by whom, in rural communities. Measures to be adopted should include recognizing community land tenure systems and shifting cultivation systems, providing formal documentation to farmers and villagers recording existing land use, and ensuring that villagers can challenge government decisions about land in an independent forum or body with the power to adjudicate land disputes.
In addition, the government should enact administrative changes to ensure that land reform at the national level results in actual changes at the local level, including by providing genuine notice to farmers where proposed land use changes would affect their livelihoods, and by implementing robust public consultation procedures. The government should also end the arbitrary arrest and detention of land activists for engaging in peaceful activities to protest land seizures.
A special taskforce consisting of the Burmese Defense Services (Tatmadaw), the Justice Ministry, and the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission should investigate all alleged abuses by Border Guard Forces (BGF) connected to land confiscation in BGF-controlled areas, make public the findings of the investigation, and ensure the return of land taken improperly by members of the BGF to the villagers and farmers who had previously been using it.
Download full report in English HERE.
Download the summary and recommendations in Burmese HERE.
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