Kayin State villagers are losing their land and are routinely persecuted through threats, arson and arbitrary arrest if they attempt to fight the unlawful seizures, according to a report released by an international rights group yesterday.
Around 70 percent of the people in Kayin State rely on land for their livelihood, but are under threat from weak laws, poor enforcement and corrupt local officials.
Exploiting the regulatory void, militias, investors and government officials grab the land and edge the villagers out, according to a report by New York-based Human Rights Watch.
“Losing their land is losing everything,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at HRW, said during the report’s launch in Yangon yesterday.
Left with little recourse, the farmers are often pushed into neighbouring Thailand for their economic survival. Those who do stay and attempt to fight the land grabs face further abuse and retributive action.
“The businessman takes the land from the farmer. But when the farmer protests, he becomes the criminal,” a lawyer representing Karen farmers told HRW, according to a press release.
HRW said the problem, while long-entrenched, is only getting worse. Its report, “The Farmer Becomes the Criminal”, documents the experiences of more than 70 villagers in Kayin State and Thailand. The report found the farmers are being displaced by two compounding forces: the country’s opening has increased the interest in and value of land, while the relative peace in Kayin State and the Tatmadaw’s control of Hpa-an and surrounding areas has created new levels of access.
“I would say the problem involves three parts: intimidation and abuses by armed groups and Border Guard Forces, legal reform failure and the lack of government response,” said Caroline Stover, the author of the report.
Villagers told HRW that the official land registration processes are “inaccessible” while the local government fails to stand up for their rights in the face of big money. If the villagers refuse to vacate their own property, they are charged with criminal trespass and if they try to protest, they are stifled through repressive assembly laws, the report said.
“Farmers in Karen [Kayin] State are being pushed off their land, and then face arrest and prison time if they stand up for their rights,” Mr Robertson said.
He added that the National League for Democracy government had pledged to promote development and the peoples’ livelihood, but had so far failed to uphold those ideals.
The NLD’s election manifesto raised issues relating to agriculture and farmers, and pledged to tackle cases of arbitrary land confiscation and trespassing charges by revamping farmers’ protections.
“But what we are seeing here is that is not happening in Karen State right now,” he said.
Mr Robertson added that new mechanisms are needed throughout the country to investigate and remedy land disputes.
“There is no dispute resolution system at the moment, and there needs to be some clarity for the government’s side [when land is taken for public purposes] like implementing prior notification, compensation and relocation,” he said.
The NLD had made resolving land disputes a central tenant of its election platform last year. In May, President U Htin Kyaw established the Central Committee for Re-scrutinising Confiscated Farmlands and Other Lands and appointed Vice President Henry Van Thio as chair.
The vice president convened the committee on November 1 and announced a series of strategies for addressing various types of land confiscations, including by the Tatmadaw and the government.
A total of 2056 cases of land confiscation were submitted to the central committee by the hluttaws and states and region governments. Thirty-three cases have been resolved so far, the vice president said during the meeting.
According to Daw Nan Khin Htwe Myint, chief minister of Kayin State, there have been no cases of farmers being arrested in the state under the NLD-backed government’s term.
“After the NLD government took office, we have had no arrests or charges of farmers in Kayin State. There is no reason to do that,” she said.
She added that the NLD would make good on its election promise to solve the land grab issue and has already started to do so. Some of the issues have been swiftly dealt with, she said, while other claims are more complicated and so have not been resolved within the government’s first six months in office.
“A fast or slow result really depends on the case. But we can make sure that about 95 percent of the farmers who really did lose their land will get it back,” she said.
Download the HRW report