The lie of the land

The NLD has not only made little progress on the National Land Use Law, it has also shown little inclination to follow the policy.

OF ALL the legacy challenges facing the current government, that of land confiscations must surely rank close to the top. In their scale, diversity and complexity, they seem to defy efforts to achieve proper resolution.

The sad truth is that they will never be resolved to the satisfaction of all parties. How can they, when in many cases there are multiple people who have strong claims to the same site? That’s assuming that the new “owner” will even be willing to return it.

But that does not give the government carte blanche to give up, or pick and choose which disputes it takes up in order to achieve quick results. Those who have had land taken from them deserve it back; compensation should only be a last resort, because a one-off payment does not provide long-term income security.

The National League for Democracy should be praised for so quickly taking up the issue and forming the Central Committee for Rescrutinising Confiscated Farmland and Other Lands, as well as its many sub-committees, within weeks of taking power. The previous administration of U Thein Sein tried, and mostly floundered. It would have been easy for the NLD to place the issue in the too-hard basket.

Of course, not all are keen to do their bit. The military has mostly resisted attempts to cajole it to return land that it has not developed, despite previously having promised to do so. Recently, an official explained the reasoning for this, saying that providing land for soldiers to farm saved the government money, because it doesn’t have to budget for food.

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Frontier would argue that soldiers in a “Standard Army” – that is, the professional fighting force espoused by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing – should focus on protecting the country instead of feeding themselves. If the Ministry of Defence has a funding shortfall for food supplies, the government should work with the military to address it, and the land now being used to supply soldiers should be given back to those from whom it was taken.

But it’s not just the military that’s resisting the return of confiscated land. As Pyithu Hluttaw Speaker U Win Myint reportedly noted recently, the ones involved in land confiscations – that is, the civil servants – are also now being given the job of resolving them through the Committees for Rescrutinising Confiscated Farmland and Other Lands.

That’s obviously problematic, but even more so when they are refusing to cooperate with civil society and parliamentarians, who are supposed to have an active role in the new process.

There is much the government can do to improve the process, such as ensuring that there is genuine oversight over what civil servants on the land confiscation committees are doing.

But there are other steps that can be taken to address confiscations, such as ensuring that Myanmar’s legal framework protects the rights of those actually cultivating land.

One reason Myanmar’s land disputes are so complex is the country’s overlapping – and even contradictory – laws and policies related to land, which are the legacy of the country’s different political and economic phases.

This is why the National Land Use Policy was significant. Crafted by the previous government, but with significant input from civil society, NGOs and farmer groups, it represented an attempt to bring unity and cohesion to land policy. It was supposed to be followed by a National Land Use Law written based on the policy. This law would provide a framework for all others already in force. Those not in conformity would be amended.

Sadly, though, there is little sign of this happening. The NLD has not only made little progress on the National Land Use Law, it has also shown little inclination to follow the policy. Reports even suggest that Thura U Shwe Mann’s commission is actually proposing to roll back some of civil society’s hard-won gains in the land use policy, such as recognition of customary tenure.

Resolving legacy land disputes is an important goal. But ensuring that the cycle of confiscations is broken by strengthening security of tenure will reap much greater long-term dividends.

This editorial originally appeared in the June 29 issue of Frontier.

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