Public forums in Ayeyarwaddy Delta achieve democratic change: reclaiming confiscated land, and free maternity care
Author: Thiha Ko Ko, Programme Manager Local Governance, Oxfam in Myanmar
Confiscated land is returned to farmers when Minister acknowledges their rights at public forum
In Myanmar, land is a defining issue, especially for the 70% of the population who live and work in rural areas. For small-scale farmers in Myanmar’s Delta their land is not only their home, but also their source of livelihood. It is what enables them to feed their children and send them to school. Confiscation of their land means that farm-ers have limited income options which plunged them into uncertainty and insecurity.
After decades of military control that prevented people from speaking out about their rights, Myanmar is going through a political reform process that is bringing new hope for people, one quarter of whom are living in desper-ate poverty. But, as these reforms unfold, millions of small scale farmers across the country are still struggling to keep hold of their land – their most prized possession – because very often, they do not know what their land rights are, or how to hold to account those who confiscate their land.
Oxfam have been working with communities and local organisations in the Delta region, such as Paung Ku, Alin Tan, Pan Tai Shin, Regional Development Organization, and Yaung Ni Oo, to support women and men farmers to have their rights recognised as they speak up to protect what is rightfully theirs. Working with Oxfam, these local organisations brought communities and local government together in public hearings, to give the public space to challenge power holders on the impact of their decisions. From land grabs to charges for maternity care, people from towns and villages across the Delta have been telling their local governments how decisions are impacting their lives.
Some results have been life changing. Following Cyclone Nargis in 2008, the village administrator confiscated land from Bogale farmers, in the Delta region. The farmers travelled to the Ayeyarwaddy regional parliament to petition MPs who formed an investigation into the confiscations, but more than three years later, the land had still not been returned. Further approaches to parliament revealed that the military was renting the land. It seemed that the farmers had run out of options, then they were approached by local Delta-based organisations, supported by Oxfam, who brought them into a formal public hearing with Government officials. Here the farmers raised their concerns around the land confiscations and other challenges they were facing with the authorities.
After the first public forum, attended by the then Minister of Agriculture, an immediate Government order was issued requesting the return of the land, and local government staff who had been involved in authorising the land confiscation were removed from their positions. Despite years of effort going through official channels, it was the opportunity to take their concerns to the highest level and engage with decision makers face-to-face that really made the difference for these farmers. The forum allowed them to challenge the Government and get back what was theirs. Corruption in local government offices was also tackled.
Communities push Government to stop charging hospital fees to mothers giving birth
Healthcare provision in Myanmar is amongst the poorest in the world. People have difficulty accessing healthcare and have to pay for the most basic of services out of their own pockets, despite their levels of poverty being higher than anywhere else in the Asia region.
At the same time as farmers were calling for their land to be returned in Bogale, community members were also tackling officials over the issue of public health services. In Bogale, some maternity clinics were charging up to $100 to deliver a baby, nearly two months of daily income for the quarter of Myanmar’s population living below the poverty line. In Myanmar women are almost 20 times more likely to die in childbirth compared with women in the United Kingdom (UK), and these fees were leaving women without the medical care they desperately needed to deliver their babies safely.
When communities used a public hearing forum with the Government in Bogale to inform local officials of the danger this healthcare fee was causing to women and their unborn babies, the Chief of Bogale hospital prom-ised to drop the fee. As a result, women in Bogale can now deliver their babies safely in hospitals – without the risk of being turned away simply because they can’t afford to pay the bill.
Across the Delta, communities and local organisations are now sharing this success so other hospitals and local government can replicate with their maternity services.
How local public hearing forums are moving Myanmar towards democracy
So far, in the Ayeyarwaddy Delta, local community based organisations supported by Oxfam have worked with communities and local Govern-ment to hold 16 public hearing fo-rums. They have tackled officials on a myriad of peoples’ rights from ac-cess to healthcare, education and land reclamation, bringing fair judicial processes and transparent informa-tion to communities at local, district and regional levels.
Against the backdrop of Myanmar’s sweeping reforms, new laws and commitments to change peoples’ lives for the better, these local com-munity and Government engage-ments allow the public to raise their voices on real issues affecting their lives. These forums encourage more accountable Government and signal the positive future of democratic change for Myanmar people.