From Latin America to Southeast Asia, land rights and resource governance are at the center of many conflicts around the globe. In Colombia, land and rural development are the first agenda items in the ongoing peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). In Burma, the world’s longest-running civil war has left over 450,000 people internally displaced, with approximately 215,000 more in refugee camps along the Thai border. In both countries, the governments have been involved in peace negotiations with various armed ethnic rebel groups. In Burma, however, the ongoing peace process has largely ignored housing, land and property rights of the country’s displaced ethnic people according to a recent report from the international NGO, Displacement Solutions.
A major risk identified in the report is that large numbers of people have been displaced from areas with strong customary tenure systems. Given that the Burmese government does not recognize rights granted under these systems, significant populations are at risk of not being able to return to lands they once occupied. By not allowing hundreds of thousands of people to return to land they fled during the conflict, the government’s position contravenes the Pinheiro Principles and other widely accepted international legal standards, which give displaced people the legal right to recover their homes, lands and properties. The failure to address these issues could pose significant challenges to recent ceasefires or result in a return to full blown civil war.
Burma should look to other countries around the globe, including Timor-Leste and those of Central and Eastern Europe, to learn how important questions of land restitution have been addressed. Other valuable resources include the Land and Conflict Prevention Handbook and USAID’s Issue Brief on Land Disputes and Land Conflict.