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 land-lease 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.
The Myanmar Times has approached Shwe Padonmar but could not find a responsible official to provide comment.