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Regional perspectives on paralegal models for land conflict resolution in Myanmar
They’ve been dubbed “barefoot advocates”; paralegals in Myanmar are now forging a path for local communities when it comes to land conflict resolution.
Global legal advocacy movement Namati has been using the paralegal approach in its work in Myanmar for the past five years, teaching community members with no prior legal training how to use the legal process when negotiating government processes around land rights.
Representatives of civil society networks from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam had an opportunity to see this process first hand during an annual CS network exchange hosted by Land Core Group (LCG), a Myanmar-based network that works to raise awareness of land issues and promote policy reform to support small-scale farmers.
This CS network exchange, held in September in Ngwe Saung, was an opportunity for CSO groups to gain a greater understanding of the paralegal model and its potential to solve land conflicts through field visits and meetings in two villages.
Namati, LCG and their partner the Green Peasant Institute, have together developed the Ayeyarwaddy Paralegal and Advocacy Project, using the Mekong Region Land Governance project’s Innovation Fund.
The visitors to the villages in the Kyaungkone Township came away inspired by the motivation, commitment and self-confidence of the paralegal representatives, especially those who are women.
Their continuing efforts to support farmers in resolving land disputes demonstrated a larger need for local and community-based organisations in Myanmar to find ways to move forward.
Until now, the legal framework for land governance in the country is far from being able to resolve land conflicts and improve land tenure for farmers.
The low capacity of the new government and the rush to obtain land titles is accentuating the land conflicts, and paralegals are being swamped with new cases. A recurring example in Myanmar involves farmers and fishermen, and their mutual dependence on water supplies from irrigation channels.
But with both parties relying on different regulations from separate ministries – the Irrigation Department of the Ministry of Agriculture and the Fishing Department, respectively – there are many gaps and contradictions in existing laws that inhibit easy solutions.
Another frequent topic is the land confiscated in 1989 by the government when farmers couldn’t fulfill the required quota of rice production. This land has since been given to companies or to other tenants, and the new government has stated that the land needs to be returned to the farmers, appointing “land return committees” to take charge. Farmers are now trying to retrieve their land by writing to the authorities and bringing the land return committees onto the field. However, they are not getting responses.
It is clear that paralegal officers have a growing burden to contend with, and are also grappling with the question of how to continue once MRLG’s project’s funding ends. In the meantime, participants in this study trip were able to agree that a follow-up process by LCG and Namati, collecting case studies and evidence, would be vital in lobbying the government to adjust its land laws.