During a visit to Mandalay on May 11, Minister for the President’s Office U Soe Thein made an ambitious claim. Speaking at the Youth and Peace Forum, the minister said regional governments would soon roll out a program to provide land to Myanmar’s landless farmers.

“In the future there will not be landless people in Myanmar,” U Soe Thein declared.

The statement was bold: Awarding land to potentially millions of households would undoubtedly be a massive and historic undertaking.

It was also surprising: Many land-related organisations and bodies, including government ministries, told The Myanmar Times they had not heard of the proposal.

It was not the first time U Soe Thein has discussed the land distribution plan, however. Eleven Media quoted his as saying on state television on February 23 that landless households would be “resettled in places where they can earn a living by growing or farming. Only then will their standard of living improve.”

Several Yangon-based journalists said last week they have heard U Soe Thein make similar claims over the past year at various public events.

The minister told The Myanmar Times by email last week the project had been explained to regional governments, which will collect data on landless households in each township that will be combined with the results of the census.

“After getting this data, we have to find the best solution in accordance with each township development plan … This is an ongoing process,” U Soe Thein said.

When contacted about the program, however, officials from the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation in Nay Pyi Taw, the Settlements and Land Records Department, and the Ministry of National Planning and Economic Development said they had no knowledge of the project.

Similarly, Daw Khin Wine Kyi, a Pyithu Hluttaw representative and member of the parliament’s land dispute investigation commission, said neither her committee nor the parliament had been informed of the planned undertaking.

“[The President’s Office] has so many ambitions for the country and they also have many plans to solve the land grab issues and homeless, landless problems. We do not know them accurately,” said the North Dagon representative.

A number of civil society organisations said they welcomed the government’s focus on landless farmers but questioned whether the President’s Office has the will or capacity to properly implement the proposal.

“In principle this can be an amazing policy reversal and dramatic shift in attitude toward poor farmers,” said Kevin Woods, a researcher with the environment NGO Forest Trends.

“But given the way that … programs are implemented in this country, I would have serious concerns [about] corruption.”

U Win Myo Thu, managing director of the rural development NGO EcoDev, said he was “not convinced”.

“You [would] need a lot of investment and assistance. There will be huge resources required,” he said.

Studies conducted by EcoDev have previously found about one-third of households do not have any access to land. The majority of landless farmers live in the Ayeyarwady delta and the Central Dry Zone, while most of the “available” land is in Sagaing Region and Kachin State.

“Unless there is a very attractive [offer], who will agree to move to the north?” he asked, adding that such a shift in population would run up against financial and cultural barriers.

In addition, land rights groups say the government’s current definition of a “landless” farmer and “vacant” land do not match the reality on the ground, and must be revised before any broader reforms can take place.

Allocating land identified on a map as vacant to landless farmers is only likely to dispossess other households, they warned, citing the example of “customary” land use, an informal system common in indigenous communities.

“Much of the … land is treated as vacant when in fact it already has customary land users. If such land is redistributed then any redistribution … could push the customary owner off the land. Such a practice has the potential to increase conflict in the country,” said U Shwe Thein, managing director of the Land Core Group.

While he remains sceptical of a nationwide land redistribution process, U Win Myo Thu said a smaller, more focused resettlement program could indeed be successful. He stressed that it should only be implemented once proper research and consultations have been conducted. “There are many good intentions [on the government side] … but when they put these intentions into action they’re quite problematic.”

Additional reporting by Mg Zaw

Link: http://www.mmtimes.com/index.php/in-depth/10411-minister-touts-massive-land-redistribution-program.html