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New DS & NRC Report on Obstacles to HLP Rights in Northern Mon State

Land in south-eastern Myanmar is a critical resource for the mainly rural population which is in need of greater safeguards within the formal, informal and customary systems of land administration. Customary law continues to operate at the village level, largely unchanged since pre-colonial times. While exhibiting many of the positive elements commonly attributed to such systems throughout the developing world, customary laws in relation to the resolution of land disputes are not always effective and equitable, and do not always display qualities which are consistent with rule of law standards. Deficiencies in transparency, accountability and equality have the potential to undermine the ability of marginalised sections of the population to access justice and obtain fair outcomes.

Decades of military rule have exacerbated the structural inequalities experienced by Mon, Kayin and other ethnicities in their interactions with government authorities and the parallel administrations of Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs). This means that in addition to the large amounts of land-grabbing experienced by the population across Mon State, the avenues of resolving such grievances remain inaccessible to most poor rural populations, due to a combination of fear of authorities, language barriers, lack of knowledge regarding land law and dispute resolution mechanisms beyond the village level.  

The existing work of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and its partners in Mon State aims to raise awareness of Housing, Land and Property (HLP) rights, as well as Collaborative Dispute Resolution (CDR) techniques which can prove highly useful for resolving the disputes of populations at the local level.[1]Trainings on mediation and facilitated negotiation are well-suited to, and indeed share some similarities with, existing customary dispute resolution styles, which are akin to mediation. NRC plans to continue to pursue CDR trainings, with a special focus on eliminating some of the negative elements mentioned by villagers, such as bias and corruption, etc.

Generally speaking, rural populations and dispute resolution actors at the village level have not been exposed to significant amounts of information regarding the changing legal environment regarding land, or to the possibilities which exist for resolving disputes and/or gaining compensation for previous injustices. These populations would be greatly aided by continuous implementation by NRC and partners across Mon State of HLP trainings as a compliment to current Information, Counseling and Legal Assistance (ICLA) activities relating to civil documentation. EAO representatives who are tasked with assisting in dispute resolution at the village level would also benefit from the awareness raising activities, as well as the CDR trainings in areas where they are active.

Civil society organisation (CSO) staff have only received limited in-depth training on HLP issues and this makes it more difficult for them to be able to counsel farmers on the details of relevant laws. It also makes it difficult to provide clear information on how farmers can register their land usage and approach formal justice systems in order to gain compensation or restitution. Consequently, further training for CSO partner staff would assist NRC in strengthening HLP knowledge among its beneficiaries, leading to increased protection against land grabbing. CSO staff also need to be involved in CDR training provided by NRC on facilitated negotiation, so that they can play a part in advocating for farming communities where they are in dispute with local authorities but lack the bargaining power and knowledge to argue their own cases.  

Increased knowledge of land law and dispute resolution techniques are important tools to help farmers realise their HLP rights in Mon State, but accessing the protection offered by the state land registration mechanisms should also be promoted. The input from farmers and key informants indicates that very few farmers in the study area are in possession of Land Use Certificates (LUCs) under the 2012 Farmland law. The majority hold their land under customary recognition, making these parcels vulnerable to land grabs by other actors. The reluctance to engage with the formal system is a result of lack of awareness, language barriers, fear of authority and prohibitive costs. A simple solution to this situation would be for NRC to expand its activities to directly assisting beneficiaries through its partner network to obtain LUCs, as is currently being done by Lokha Ahlin and the Human Rights Foundation of Monland (and by Ecodev in Myeik area, Tanintharyi and Spectrum in Kachin State). This activity would go hand in hand with the awareness raising efforts mentioned above, which would highlight to farmers why registration is critical.

Decades of conflict and land-grabbing across Mon State have resulted in thousands of acres of land being confiscated by a variety of actors. The vast majority of this land has yet to be returned. As most of these confiscations took placed during the military dictatorship, in very few cases was compensation paid, and if it was, it was not at market value. Although feedback indicated that cases involving the military are still too difficult to resolve for local CSOs, there have been successes through the formal legal system in prosecuting cases where the actors involved have been government and/or companies. Resolution of these cases usually results in return of lands where government was involved, or compensation being paid where companies were involved. Legal aid providers in Mawlamyine and across Myanmar have had limited successes with strategic litigation including in cases even where incomplete land documentation was available.

It is therefore the conclusion of this assessment that while CDR methods are highly beneficial in assisting to resolve land disputes at the village and village tract level, the resolution of land confiscation disputes involving more powerful actors requires the coercive power of the court system, since the administrative system cannot be relied on. Successful strategic litigation of would act as a deterrent to future actors planning on grabbing farmland and may result in either the return of grabbed lands or the payment of adequate compensation. This would enhance the standing of NRC and its partners among the beneficiary communities (and hopefully prevent reduced engagement caused by only engaging with them through training and awareness raising) by providing an example of how communities can be empowered to challenge illegal confiscations and see practical results.

You can read the full report here: mon_report_bind__1.4.2019__c2

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