Tanintharyi IDPs come home to law­suit

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page - SU PHYO WIN su­phy­owin@mm­times.com The Myan­mar Times has ap­proached Shwe Padon­mar but could not find a re­spon­si­ble of­fi­cial to pro­vide com­ment.

IDPs who re­turned to their an­ces­tral homes in Tanintharyi Re­gion af­ter hav­ing fled fight­ing up to 20 years ago are now fac­ing law­suits for tress­pass­ing and al­legedly de­stroy­ing com­pa­nies’ palm oil plan­ta­tions.

FAM­I­LIES dis­placed from their homes by con­flict have re­turned – only to find them­selves being sued for tres­pass­ing on their own land, they say.

The IDPs in Tanintharyi Re­gion thought their prob­lems were fi­nally over when the cease­fire be­tween the mil­i­tary and eth­nic armed groups was fi­nally inked in Oc­to­ber last year, al­low­ing them to re­turn to their an­ces­tral homes.

But in­stead they have dis­cov­ered their prob­lems may just be be­gin­ning, they told a press con­fer­ence in Yan­gon last week.

Four vil­lagers from Kyayzuetaw vil­lage, Ye­phyu town­ship, have been slapped with law­suits by Shwe Padon­mar Pro­duc­tion En­ter­prise, and two vil­lagers from Band Mae vil­lage, Myeik district, are being sued by the Asia World com­pany amid ac­cu­sa­tions that some vil­lagers de­stroyed palm oil trees.

“The vil­lagers left in the 1990s be­cause of the fight­ing [be­tween the Karen Na­tional Union and the Tat­madaw]. Now, 20 years on, the re­gional min­is­ter for Karen af­fairs has told them they can re­turn. But in the mean­time, these com­pa­nies were granted per­mis­sion by the govern­ment to set up palm oil plan­ta­tion projects in their vil­lages,” said Naw Pe Tha Law of the Tanintharyi Friends civil so­ci­ety group.

She said the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee for Va­cant, Fal­low and Vir­gin Land should have con­ducted checks on the ground in­stead of just re­ly­ing on re­ports from the com­pa­nies on how many acres they had cul­ti­vated.

Sa Aye­yar Win, a lawyer with the Myeik Lawyers’ Net­work, said the com­pa­nies had the right to sue the vil­lagers be­cause they were in pos­ses­sion of land own­er­ship cer­tifi­cates. The vil­lagers, though they had worked the fields for years, had no doc­u­men­ta­tion to sup­port their claims of own­er­ship.

“Land con­fis­ca­tion prob­lems are the big­gest chal­lenge for the new govern­ment in Tanintharyi Re­gion,” he said.

Saw Myo Min, 38, of Kyayzuetaw vil­lage, who is being sued for crim­i­nal tres­pass by Shwe Padon­mar, said it was very hard to mount a de­fence.

“I have no money. We’re just ca­sual work­ers who get paid by the day, if we work. We don’t even have a mo­tor­bike to get to court. We just came back when the fight­ing was fin­ished. Now we’re fac­ing a law­suit,” he said.

Tanintharyi re­gional govern­ment dis­cussed the fu­ture of land con­fis­cated by the mil­i­tary govern­ment in the mid­dle of Au­gust. They con­sid­ered loan­ing land to pri­vate com­pa­nies for agri­cul­ture projects, and agreed it should be taken back if it was not being used.

The state has the right to take back farm­land if it has not been cul­ti­vated for four years af­ter an ini­tial landlease agree­ment con­tract is signed, un­der the Va­cant, Fal­low and Vir­gin Lands Man­age­ment Law of 2012.

The chief min­is­ter of Tanintharyi Re­gion an­nounced that the re­gional govern­ment had been sur­vey­ing un­used land and had sub­mit­ted its find­ings to the cen­tral govern­ment. The pur­pose of the sur­vey was to give the land back to its orig­i­nal owners, or to mi­grant work­ers who wanted to re­turn home, to al­low them to cul­ti­vate small-scale farms.

U Hl­wan Moe, di­rec­tor of the Agri­cul­tural Land Man­age­ment and Statis­tics Depart­ment, said sev­eral com­plaints had been re­ceived from var­i­ous states and re­gions.

“Mis­takes were made be­cause the depart­ment didn’t know the ba­sic rules and reg­u­la­tions of land man­age­ment. And there was a lot of bias and cor­rup­tion in land man­age­ment for years,” he said.

The lo­cal govern­ment can seize a plot of less than 50 acres (20 hectares), but the dis­po­si­tion of larger plots de­pends on the de­ci­sion of the re­cently formed Union-level Cen­tral Com­mit­tee for the Man­age­ment of Va­cant, Fal­low and Vir­gin Lands.

Some larger plots in Tanintharyi Re­gion were con­fis­cated by the mil­i­tary govern­ment, which or­dered pri­vate com­pa­nies to meet agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion goals in the 1990s and 2000s.

In 1999, for ex­am­ple, the govern­ment launched palm oil projects in Tanintharyi Re­gion, giv­ing per­mis­sion over sev­eral years to 44 com­pa­nies to de­velop a to­tal of al­most 1 mil­lion acres (405,000ha) in Tanintharyi, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent re­port by Fauna and Flora In­ter­na­tional (FFI).

The vil­lagers are call­ing for the law­suits to be with­drawn, and for the au­thor­i­ties to ver­ify how much land the com­pa­nies have un­der cul­ti­va­tion, to re­store the land to its orig­i­nal owners and to en­sure that IDPs who are yet to re­turn do not face the same prob­lem. Di­rec­tor of Asia World U Sai Myint Thein told The Myan­mar Times yes­ter­day that the vil­lagers had been re­lo­cated else­where since the out­break of fight­ing and had no claim to any spe­cific plot of land.

“We would not have charged them if they hadn’t de­stroyed the com­pany’s palm oil plan­ta­tions. But they did. We filed charges against a very few of them to en­sure that the prob­lem does not re­cur,” he said.

U Sai Myint Thein said the com­pany wanted to ne­go­ti­ate with the vil­lagers, and that the palm oil plan­ta­tion was al­ready cre­at­ing job op­por­tu­ni­ties in the course of its CSR ac­tiv­i­ties.

“If we can ne­go­ti­ate with the vil­lagers not to de­stroy the plan­ta­tion in the fu­ture and not to at­tack plan­ta­tion work­ers, we will with­draw the law­suit,” he said.

Ac­cord­ing to the FFI re­port, Asia World re­ceived per­mis­sion for a 10,200-acre plan­ta­tion in 2015, which is com­plete, and Shwe Padon­mar re­ceived per­mis­sion for 1200 acres, of which only 18 per­cent was com­plete in 2015.

Photo: Staff

Land is cleared for a palm oil plan­ta­tion in Tanintharyi Re­gion.

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