A recent report from the international NGO Displacement Solutions warns that the housing, land and property rights of Burma’s displaced ethnic people have been largely ignored during the ongoing peace process involving the central government and various armed ethnic rebel groups.
The report notes that despite the fact there is a general understanding by all parties involved in the peace process about the importance of land and property rights, “all too little progress has thus far been made to address these issues in any detail, nor have practical plans commenced to resolve ongoing displacement of either refugees or IDPs (internally displaced persons).”
After decades of civil war, Burma has one of the largest IDP populations in the world, a figure that has grown significantly since President’s Thein Sein nominally civilian government took office in April 2011, thanks to upheavals in Kachin and Arakan states.
The latest figures from the Norway-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre estimate that there are currently 458,000 IDPs inside the country, while UNHCR estimates there are an additional 215,000 refugees living in camps along the Thai border.
Yet despite the fact that the land and housing rights of the hundreds of thousands of displaced people is a glaring problem, Burma’s government “has yet to formulate any concrete policies or positions on these questions during the negotiations process”, according to the report.
Citing anecdotal evidence, the report indicates that when pushed to respond to questions relating to the right of refugees and IDPs to return to their land that they abandoned due to conflicts, government officials have claimed that this is “materially impossible”.
According to the report, the government’s justification for this is based on the fact when state owned entities, including the military, acquired land that was abandoned by fleeing villagers it was done in line with the laws in place at the time, which gave the government official title over nearly all rural land. These regulations are still largely in place today.
Although the central government officially owned all the land in the country for decades, large numbers of rural people – from the Burman majority and the country’s ethnic minorities – lived and farmed land using centuries old forms of customary land ownership, which determined inheritance and succession issues, as well as land sharing.
“Unresolved restitution questions very easily can come back to haunt you down the road” Two pieces of legislation passed by Burma’s parliament in March of last year – the Farmland Law and the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Lands Management Law – completely ignore customary land titles and actually make it easier for well connected businessman and military cronies to seize land from small-scale farmers, according to Displacement Solutions director Scott Leckie.
“The new laws willingly give Carte Blanche to the government and their closest allies the power to essentially do what ever they want in areas that they would like to exploit,” says Leckie who believes that these laws represent a “clear obstacle to a sustainable peace throughout the country”.
Leckie says he wants to see the government incorporate policies that respect the rights of rural farmers including those who for generations have engaged in sustainable rotation crop practices, something that the new laws discriminate against by assuming that fallow land is simply “vacant”.
Leckie also wants to see Burma’s government adopt international legal standards that address the land rights of those displaced by conflict. The Pinheiro Principles – a set of guideline that were adopted by the UN’s Sub-Commission on the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights in August 2005 that have become an international benchmark of sorts for dealing with those displaced by conflict – must be incorporated into the peace process in order to make a lasting solution, the report urges.
“We believe that now is the time to start looking into the application of the Pinheirio Principles by the government as well as by the different ethnic groups. And discussions need to take place within the context of the Pinheiro Principles that focus on restitution as the preferred remedy as is stipulated in the principles,” says Leckie.
The government’s reluctance however to allow thousands of people to return to land they abandoned following the end of a conflict contravenes the Pinheiro Principles and other widely accepted international legal standards, which give displaced people the legal right to recover their homes, lands and properties. This could lead to serious problems in future and perhaps even a return to full blown conflict in areas which have been subject to recent ceasefires.
“Unresolved restitution questions very easily can come back to haunt you down the road, as people feel increasingly frustrated and excluded and unable to access justice”, warns Leckie.
Already an increasingly bitter controversy has seriously tainted the planned return of Karen refugees living along the Thai Burma border. Refugee advocates and many of the refugee themselves complain that the Burmese and Thai governments are working with the United Nations High Commission for Refugee (UNHCR) to formulate a plan for the mass resettlement of tens of thousands of people behind closed doors.
UNHCR has repeatedly denied accusations that the resettlement process is being put in place without proper consultation from the refugees. A short film on the this issue released late last year by the advocacy group Burma Partnership calls in to question UNHCR’s claims about the transparency of the process.
Whether these refugees will be able to return to their lands in Karen state when they leave their camps is very unclear. Refugee advocates fear that the central government wants to use the newly returned refugees for large-scale commercial agriculture projects like rubber plantations or rumored special economic zones.
What is clear is that large amounts of the land that once belonged to the refugees is now home to numerous sprawling Burmese military bases – a fact that seriously complicates the refugees struggle to be able to return to their small scale farms that they worked before most were forced to flee in the 1980′s and 1990′s.
Other examples from Burma suggest that a ceasefire in Karen state will not necessary translate into an easy time for the local rural population and small-scale farmers in particular. From 1994 to 2011 during the 17-year ceasefire that was in place between the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) and the central government, land grabbing by the military and crony- connected firms shot up in dramatic fashion displacing tens of thousands of people.
According to land rights activists in Kachin state’s Hukaung valley, during a three year period that began in 2006 local authorities helped the Yuzana corporation and its owner Htay Myint – now an MP from the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party – expropriate more than 200,000 acres of farmland for large scale plantations in an area that is supposed to be home to the world’s largest tiger reserve. Similar episodes occurred on a smaller scale in other parts of the state until the ceasefire collapsed in June 2011 when even more people were forced flee.
“When you look at what’s happened to ceasefire areas in terms of the land question its not looking very positive either, there’s been all sorts of evidence collected that there’s a direct correlation between ceasefire agreements and an increase in land grabbing,” says Leckie.
“This augurs very poorly for refugees and IDPs seeking to return to those areas. It makes it that much harder to assert their claims over the land that they had before.”