Tuesday, May 20, 2014

NGO’s Warn that Growing Land Confiscations in Burma are Destroying Lives

MONDAY, 19 MAY 2014 - More human rights NGO’s are speaking out against land confiscation in Burma by companies, the army, and other individuals and entities connected to the government.

Most recently, both the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) and the Karen Human Rights Group have criticized what the AHRC calls a “frenzy” of land-grabbing carried out lately by the army, the government, and other actors with ties to Burma’s army and government.

The AHRC, which has been monitoring and lobbying for human rights in Asia for over 20 years, released a statement on May 13 which said that reports of land-grabbing continue to escalate despite the government’s rhetoric about spearheading a new era of “reform” in Burma.

The AHRC statement said that “Reports of the number of cases and scale of ‘land confiscation’—a euphemism for theft by government authorities and army-linked cronies—continue to grow. At the same time, conflicts over land have escalated as farmers attempt to regain land taken from them in earlier years.” The statement then added that “A consistent feature across these reports is the role that the courts and police have played in support of cronies and military interests.”

Several examples were cited by the AHRC, including a case where the government arrested four farmers from Thegon Township on grounds of “upsetting public tranquility” after holding a public demonstration in February to protest the army’s confiscation of over a thousand acres of their farmland in 1997. The farmers were charged under Burma’s draconian Section 18 of the “Peaceful Assembly and Demonstration Law” for protesting without official permission, and AHRC maintains that during the incident police assaulted a number of the demonstrators, causing two women to be hospitalized.

Initially, the farmers decided to organize a public demonstration after failing to receive a “satisfactory response” from the government despite sending over 60 complaint letters to 25 different government departments, according to the AHRC statement. After their first protest in February, AHRC says the farmers held another protest on April 23, during which they burned coffin effigies of army personnel responsible for taking their land. This time, five protestors were arrested and charged under section 505(b) of the Penal Code for allegedly “upsetting the public tranquility.”

In its statement, the AHRC harshly condemned Burma’s protest laws: “Rather than enabling people to gather and express their views freely and democratically, it criminalizes people for organizing public rallies without having first obtained permission from the authorities, who can approve or deny the holding of such events arbitrarily. Hence, anti-Muslim fanatics get permits to rally, while farmers fighting against the army and army-backed interests do not.”

Notably, AHRC also criticized Burma’s most prominent pro-democracy politician, Aung San Suu Kyi, for her role as head of the rule of law committee, saying her committee and other supposedly “democratic” government bodies tasked with monitoring corruption and land grabs have been “hollow, meaningless, and pathetic” in their response to the rising number of land-grabbing cases being reported in Burma.

On May 13, the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) also issued a report criticizing growing land-grabbing problems in southeastern Burma since a “preliminary ceasefire” was signed between Burma’s government and the Karen National Union (KNU) in January 2012.
“Since the ceasefire, villagers have begun to report increasingly about land confiscation for mining, logging, dams, infrastructure development and commercial agriculture. Land is confiscated by armed actors or the Myanmar government in collaboration with companies for those projects,” the KHRG report said.

In an e-mail to Karen News, KHRG cited the Hatgyi Dam as one example of a “development” project which resulted in farmers being robbed of their land: “conflict broke out between [two government-aligned armed ethnic groups]…over the Hatgyi Dam in 2012, which caused villagers to flee and be displaced from their homes for a short period of time.”

KHRG then added, “Because of land confiscation, tens of thousands of villagers have been displaced and communities face increasing water contamination and damage to land because of development projects,” which KHRG said included not only the Hatgyi Dam, but also a number of other “development” projects such as the Toh Boh Dam in Toungoo District.