By Moe Myint / The Irrawaddy
RANGOON – After meeting with local farmers on Saturday, Arakan State Chief Minister Nyi Pu has ordered a halt to fencing around the perimeter of an industrial ward located outside Set Yoe Kya village near the state capital of Sittwe.
According to a post from Nyi Pu’s official Facebook page, farmers told the Chief Minister that their lands had been confiscated 15 years earlier, and that they had been informed the area was under the ownership of senior and former government officials.
Nyi Pu said that the National League for Democracy-led (NLD) government would investigate the allegations of land grabbing, and uncover whether land could have been taken legally in the interest of development, or seized for personal gain.
“If they confiscated land for personal benefit, we will take action against them according to the existing laws. If the land was grabbed in the public [interest] we will address the farmers’ losses in line with current laws,” Nyi Pu stated.
According to Nyi Pu, since 2001, the Industrial Land Committee has designed 466 estates and sold just over 400 yards of land at the price of 250,000 kyats (US$210) in 2015. Another 65 estates were used as camps for displaced communities in the region.
Arakan National Party lawmaker Kyaw Zaw Oo submitted a question to the regional parliament last Wednesday, inquiring whether the Arakan State government’s quick allocation of the land to develop an industrial zone near Set Yoe Kya’s creek was enacted legally.
He told The Irrawaddy on Thursday that the previous Arakan State chief minister, Mya Aung, the Border and Security Affairs Minister Htein Lin, as well as around 50 high-ranking bureaucrats were implicated in the alleged confiscation of 515 acres of land in Sittwe District.
Minister Kyaw Lwin, the NLD appointee for mining, agriculture and livestock within the Arakan State cabinet, explained that the shift in land ownership was carried out legally by the previous government. When he spoke with The Irrawaddy by phone last week, he described the problem as “complicated” and not easy to solve, as people had constructed houses on the farmland.
He declined to comment on whether action has been taken against those involved in the reported land grabbing, or if the land is required to be returned to the original owners or if compensation will be allocated.
In a letter to parliamentarian Kyaw Zaw Oo, Minister Kyaw Lin explained that before former president Thein Sein transferred administrative power to NLD, in March he ordered the transformation of the contested land into residence quarters in Sittwe, specifying the names of owners.
According to articles 29, 30 and 31 of 2012’s farmland laws enacted by Thein Sein, confiscated land for a project must be developed within six months of the proposal’s specifications. If it fails to be carried out during the project’s timeframe, the applicants must return the land to the original owners. In the case of the contested land in Arakan State, it has been 15 years since the land was reportedly taken and it still lacks any basic infrastructure, said MP Kyaw Zaw Oo.
He pointed out that since there had been no fence around the land, the farmers from Set Yoe Kya had continued cultivating their rice paddies there until 2015, and regularly registered with the government’s land department until 2012.
Kyaw Zaw Oo suggested that since the new government is planning to construct a bridge connecting Set Yoe Kya and Sittwe, the land price had risen; thus, he alleged that the previous Arakan State government had exploited the unused land confiscation order to avoid returning it to farmers before the administrative handover to the civilian-led government earlier this year.
When The Irrawaddy spoke with MP Kyaw Zaw Oo, he said that some influential figures in Sittwe had been named in the list of beneficiaries of the confiscated land, including known Arakanese nationalists, former members of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party and a former Sittwe District administrator now serving in the office of the state government.
Maung Htun Thein, a farmer from Set Yoe Kya village who has had 12 acres of his land confiscated since the early 1990s, confirmed that he and up to 16 other villagers and some from the surrounding area had not received any compensation from the government. He recalled that one acre was valued at approximately 150 kyats—or $0.13—and now each acre is priced at up to 15 million kyats ($12,600).
“I want my land back if they continue to construct an industrial zone,” he said, demanding that the government should “compensate in line with the local real estate market price.”