Re-Asserting Control: Voluntary Return, Restitution and the Right to Land for IDPs and Refugees in Myanmar

23 May 2017
Policy briefing

For people affected by displacement, land is much more than just an economic asset. Being able to return to one’s original place is a deeply felt aspiration about restoring the social relations that constitute a person’s identity. The long-standing displacement of people, land-grabbing and non-existence of rights to land in many parts of the country mean that land reform and land restitution must be a central issue in any peace settlement. What happens today with the land is inextricably tied to the country’s future prospects for peace and democracy.

Displaced Karenni villagers
Displaced Karenni villagers / Photo credit Martin Smith
As initiatives continue towards political reform and peace-building in Myanmar, land rights and human settlement is one of the most integral challenges facing the country. Nearly seven decades of internal war have had a devastating impact, with consequences still felt today. There are presently over 1.1 million civilians displaced, especially in ethnic borderland areas where most of the fighting has taken place.

Over the years, the patterns of civil war have fluctuated, causing the refugee and IDP crises to vary nationally and locally over time. Throughout these struggles, local organisations have played a key role in responding to the needs of internally displaced persons. It is thus important to take an inclusive view in policy-making and seeking solutions for the causes of displacement. As conflict has continued, business opportunism, unsustainable development and resource extraction have led to land dispossession, environmental degradation and deepening poverty on a wide scale.

This briefing looks at the particular situation of people displaced by armed conflict. It will do so from the perspective that displacement is complicated in its own right, but any proposed solutions to displacement must also be understood in a wider context of rapid land polarization. Failure to take this perspective risks more harm than good. For people affected by displacement, land is much more than just an economic asset. Being able to return to one’s original place is a deeply felt aspiration about restoring the social relations that constitute a person’s identity. The long-standing displacement of people, land-grabbing and non-existence of rights to land in many parts of the country mean that land reform and land restitution must be a central issue in any peace settlement. What happens today with the land is inextricably tied to the country’s future prospects for peace and democracy.

 

After decades of civil war and ethnic conflict, large numbers of nationality people in Myanmar have been displaced. In the ethnic states bordering Thailand, Laos, China, India and Bangladesh, hundreds of thousands of people have fled fighting between the Tatmadaw (national armed forces) and various ethnic armed groups. Military campaigns by the Tatmadaw directly targeting civilians have especially contributed to this.

While some fleeing conflict have found refuge in camps in neighbouring countries, the majority have become internally displaced inside the country. In the western part of Myanmar adjoining Bangladesh, a large number of Muslims, many of who self-identify as ‘Rohingya’, have also fled religious persecution, communal violence and, more recently, heavy-handed responses by the Myanmar security apparatus to a new Islamic insurgency.

Although exact numbers are not available, and these also change regularly as the conflict is dynamic, currently at least 1.1 million people from Myanmar are either internally displaced or live in refugee camps in neighbouring countries. This figure does not include the many other inhabitants from the border regions who have become migrant workers in Thailand, Malaysia and other countries, due to a combination of war, oppression and related lack of opportunities to live a life in dignity.

Key points

Due to more than six decades of internal war and ethnic conflict, over 1.1 million civilians are currently displaced in Myanmar, especially from homes and farms in ethnic nationality areas where most of the fighting has taken place. The civil war has ebbed and flowed and shifted geographically over the years. As a result of this, the IDP and refugee crisis, and the response to it, has also varied in different areas over time. Local organisations have played a central role in responding to the needs of internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Land and related natural resources, like waterways and forests, provide communities with food and livelihoods. Their attachment to the land is multi-dimensional and includes spiritual, cultural and social values and relations. Land is also linked to ideas of autonomy and self-determination, and control of the land has a crucial political importance.

The particular significance of a plot of land is not easily replaceable or exchangeable. Being able to return to one’s original place is a deeply felt aspiration about restoring the various social relations that constitute one’s very identity.

Waves of displacement mean that there can be competing claims on the same land even amongst poor, marginalized and vulnerable people as well as between groups of people. Solutions that pit poor people against each other will serve the interests of more powerful actors who want the land for commercial or military purposes.

Restitution must go together with recognition and redistribution. Political strategies should pro-actively create the time and political space for people at the grassroots to engage in ‘poor-to-poor’ discussion and negotiation to produce solutions that are integrated and inclusive to enable those most affected to live lives with dignity and with each other.

Solutions need to take on board some crucial features. This includes a minimum amount of guaranteed land per user for dwelling and farming that is sufficient for livelihood (land size ‘floor’) as well as a limit on the maximum amount of land allowed to any user or owner (land size ‘ceiling’). Respect and support of customary practices in land control are crucial, including allocating land reserves for future new families in the village and prohibiting outsiders from purchasing village or villages’ lands.

Policies should support smallholder agriculture and ensure that beneficiaries of land policies of redistribution, recognition and restitution are poor people working the land. Solutions must be ethnic-sensitive, and recognise and protect the distinct rights of different ethnic nationalities in relation to land control and in a way that addresses inter-ethnic tensions from a social justice perspective. They must also be gender sensitive and ecologically sustainable.