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Myanmar’s Kachin IDPs seek land justice

MAI JA YANG, 5 December 2013 (IRIN) - Even if a nationwide ceasefire is signed between the Burmese government and armed opposition groups, people displaced by fighting in Myanmar’s Kachin State may face land tenure problems when they return to their homes, say rights groups.
 
“In some areas, army-affiliated economic interests have confiscated the land vacated by IDPs [internally displaced persons], and the rights of the displaced will have to be defended in those cases,” said Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights, a Bangkok-based human rights organization that recently completed a fact-finding mission in Kachin State.
 
“We've received reports from colleagues who’ve travelled to Myitkina [capital of Kachin State], of gold mining on farms in Nam Sanyang village, where locals fled fighting two years ago,” said Ah Nan, head of the Kachin Development Networking Group (KDNG), a Thailand-based network of Kachin civil society groups and development organizations documenting illegal natural resource exploitation.
 
Unsubstantiated reports by the KDNG of government troops and private businesses excavating abandoned farmland for gold mining have added to the uncertainty families face about returning to their old lives and livelihoods.
 
Ah Nan said the local government is telling people that they need property title deeds to prove ownership, but the concern is that even then there is no guarantee this will be enough to reclaim land.
 
The Legal Aid Network, a non-profit founded by Aung Htoo, is training fellow lawyers and activists in Mai Ja Yang city, which is controlled by the Kachin Independence Organization, to provide farmers and other landowners with information on their rights.
 
“The people should have the right to own their land in terms of private ownership, and the state needs to formally recognize the rights of local ethnic people in terms of collective rights [and communal land],” he told IRIN.
 
A key problem is the current constitution. Article 37 states that the union, or government, is the “ultimate owner of all lands and all natural resources above and below the ground, above and beneath the water and in the atmosphere in the union”, said Aung Htoo. The state also controls all extraction and use of natural resources.
 
Many observers stress the need for new laws regarding land rights, as well as a “fair, transparent and efficient system” to resolve land disputes. “It seems there is an inadequate legal framework to ensure the satisfactory protection of land rights of the displaced Kachin people,” said Simon Young, Legal Aid Network’s advisor and University of Hong Kong law professor.
 
The Myanmar parliament set up the 60-member Farmland Investigation Commission in August 2012 to oversee land-related investigations nationwide. According to local media, the commission recently reported that most allegations of military land-grabs have been made in the central Mandalay Region and Mon State in the south.
 
The report notes that around 15 percent of complaints dating back to 2011, when the current government was elected, are linked to land confiscations for public construction. Despite several land decisions favouring farmers, critics cited in international media say these cases represent only a fraction of illegal land-grabs. 
 
Even with a favourable ruling, many displaced land owners will still be ill-equipped to return. “Entire communities - tens of thousands - have lost everything,” Smith from Fortify Rights told IRIN. “Those whose villages haven't been razed by the Myanmar army face completely overgrown farms, dilapidated homes and paddy houses, and no animals.”
 
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Theme (s): Conflict, Human Rights, Refugees/IDPs,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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