Myanmar’s military said Wednesday that it has been returning to its rightful owners all unused land it confiscated for decades from farmers, a day after a damning report by a rights group said the country’s civilian government had come up short on a pledge to deliver justice to those whose property was taken.
“Some of the military-confiscated lands were not used,” Colonel Zaw Min Tun from the information department at the office of military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Haling told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“The military has been returning unused lands to their owners, and the Office of the Quartermaster General is aware of it,” he said. “The military has been returning many acres of land — as much as it can.”
The armed forces have transferred the unused land to a government team that includes Myanmar Vice President Myint Swe, Zaw Min Tun said.
Other delays in returning the land rest with the General Administrative Department, a civil service body responsible for providing administration for the country’s districts and townships, and the Settlement and Land Records Department under the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation, he said.
The colonel’s comments come a day after New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a 33-page report detailing how the military has forcibly taken farmlands from individuals in southern Shan state and Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady and Yangon regions since the 1990s.
The ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) government under de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi pledged to seek justice for farmers whose land had been taken before the party won national elections in a landslide vote in November 2015.
The first fully civilian government in a half-century of military rule, the NLD formed a committee to investigate old claims by farmers and villagers whose land had been confiscated by soldiers in decades past.
Some of the acreage was eventually sold to businesspeople who had connections to Myanmar's previous junta-led governments or to the relatives of senior military officers.
HRW said that the NLD government’s efforts to effectively address the situation have met with limited success, and the group recommended that it quickly settle decades-old claims by farmers forced from their land.
The report, based on interviews conducted with farmers, workers, and land-rights activists between October 2016 and March 2017, said that those deprived of their land had been refused adequate compensation, had lost their livelihoods, and had been denied access to basic services such as health care and education.
Farmers who protested the lack of redress and refused to leave or cease work on the land that was taken from them were often arrested and faced criminal prosecution, the report said.
Once they could no longer cultivate the land and sell their crops, the farmers were forced to perform manual labor that paid far less and diminished their access to food sources, HRW said.
The military seized hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of acres over three decades often with little or no compensation for those affected, creating a “profoundly harmful” impact on them, the group said.
The seized land was used for military training and exercise grounds, plots for military veterans to farm, and rubber plantations and shrimp farms. Some land was later sold to corporations and businesses, followed by additional sales to other parties, the report said.
A pressing issue
Rural animosity over land seizures by the military remains a pressing issue in Myanmar, where the military’s economic vitality depends on its control of natural resources and vast land holdings.
In June, General Myint Nwe, Myanmar’s deputy defense minister, told lawmakers that the armed forces would not return lands seized from civilians for security or training purposes in conflict-ridden Shan or Rakhine states or pay them compensation.
His comment came in response to questions from legislators about whether the national military planned to return lands seized in Kaykham village, Lashio township, in northern Shan state after villagers lost all the land they had worked on for generations, and whether it would compensate owners for land confiscated by the military to build a new city project in Rakhine’s Ann township.
Myint Nwe said the lands would not be returned to farmers or villagers in either state and noted that the military had already transferred 1,921 acres of the 3,835 acres of land it had seized in Ann township to the government to return to farmers.
Before the NLD came to power, a quasi-civilian government led by former President Thein Sein under the now-opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) had formed parliamentary committees to review the land seizures and return land to its original owners.
Some holdings were returned to citizens, but other parcels remained in the hands of those previously granted rights to the seized property. In many cases, those people have rented the lands to their original owners who in turn must pay money to cultivate them.
Reported by Htet Arkar for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.