Karen leader: “Development, there is always a price to pay…”

Bulldozer at work

Padoh Kwe Htoo Win, the Karen National Union’s general secretary, in an exclusive interview with Karen News explains his organization position on development and land ownership.

“Everyone wants development but when there is development, there is always a price to pay. Do you want roads, if you want roads, you will have to cut down trees. Do you want electricity, if so, you will have to invest step-by-step. Nowadays, the cheapest way to generate electricity is by hydro-power.”

Padoh Kwe Htoo Win said Burma has to develop its transportation infrastructure and electricity grid, as the government has let it fall into disrepair.

“To get electricity and to have roads, you will have to find ways to get it from what you have. You will have to build roads on the land and if you build road there will be impacts but you will have to invest in it. We have to weigh up the impacts and benefits with each investment. If you build a dam and you get electricity that benefits tens of thousands of people and if the negative impacts only affect a few people, this might be worth investing in – you have to compare the advantages and disadvantages and make a decision.”

Padoh Kwe Htoo Win admits that development projects need to be balance and the advantages and disadvantages assessed. Padoh Kwe Htoo Win acknowledge that the question of land ownership for Karen people is confused.

“There are two issues about land. One is land issue during the time of the military regime. The Burma [Army] at the local level had the ultimate power – they forcibly confiscated land to develop their military camps. That’s one issue. Another issue is in some of our areas rich people received permission from the government to do mega agriculture projects. These are two issues that we need to think about now.”

Padoh Kwe Htoo Win explains that Karen people own land under customary law rather than by ‘legal papers’ documentation.

“Our people, because of a lack of knowledge especially on [land] ownership, don’t have proper documentation. For example, we know land belongs to the country. We are born in the country, but not born with land. We [Karen] have the right of ownership for a plot of land that we work on. If you want to work a plot of land, people will need to apply or inform the government, for example if it is at the village level, people will have to get permission from village leaders. After informing government officials or the village leader, people will be given permission to work this land. Plots of land need to have proper documentation to prove who is working the land.”

Padoh Kwe Htoo Win said customary law that Karen people follow works differently.

“Most Karen people would say that land that they have worked on since their great-grand parents is their land. But they do not have the proper documentation or legal recognition. When they say the land belongs to them, no one touches [customary law] that land as people do recognize it, but there is no proper legal papers according to the law.”

Padoh Kwe Htoo Win said that there will be future problems over landownership because of the two systems.

“Under the law people are meant to have a land grant or documents that say they have paid taxes for the land every year, but Karen people don’t have any of this. Therefore, we are faced with this problem in terms of protecting the rights for our people. We have to educate them that if they work on the land, they should get ‘legal’ documents.”

Padoh Kwe Htoo Win said the KNU has discussed this issue with the government.

“They agreed that they would recognize land that the Karen National Union has issued certificates for. It means that they do acknowledge and respect our laws. The thing that protected us before can’t fully protect us anymore – this is one of our weaknesses.”

Padoh Kwe Htoo Win admits the KNU will have its work cut out to get on top of the issue of landownership.

“We will work on this issue as much as we can, but we have to more than just talk about it, we need to do the work. Our people, when they say this land belongs to them, they need to have proper [legally recognized] proof. Secondly, they need to have marked it clearly. Now, we don’t have these things in place, we need to think about the consequences of the law, especially for our people.”

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