by Lotty Clare
Millions of farmers in Myanmar are fearing eviction and incarceration after a recent amendment in national land law. In September 2018 the government of Myanmar announced that anyone cultivating on land that the government deems ‘wasteland,’ who does not have a Land Use Certificate by March 2019, would be at risk of eviction, fines, or imprisonment. Now three months into this amendment in effect, the consequences have already been devastating for smallholder farmers.
This amendment to the 2012 Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Land law (VFVL), is the latest step in a slew of policies in the last decade aiming to increase foreign direct investment. As Myanmar has opened to the world after decades of military dictatorship, the government has pursued economic development that prioritises corporate interest over land rights for ethnic minorities. It is important to recognise that this policy part of systematic measures that penalises ethnic minorities and their customary tenure systems. For one, the VFVL law deems land used under shifting cultivation, a method most ethnic minorities have practiced on their ancestral land for generations, to be waste or vacant land. Furthermore, the government estimates that there is almost 50 million acres of land which they consider to be vacant, fallow or virgin (VFV), and an estimated 82 percent of VFV land is in states populated by ethnic minorities. There is no vacant land; this is just a way to push ethnic minorities and indigenous people of their land. In addition, the government can take land on the vague premise of national development and is often converted into extractive projects and intensive agriculture. One well known example of this is the Tigyit coal mine and Pinpet Steel factory in Shan state that have displaced hundreds of villages and cause pollution to the local environment.
…this law essentially criminalises ethnic farmers who use and inhabit land held under customary tenure.
In Myanmar, the state has monopoly over all land, air, and natural resources. There is no ‘ownership,’ only temporary tenants on government land. This is written in the national constitution and contrasts with many indigenous and ethnic minority knowledge systems in which land is not formally owned but passed down generationally with a strong element of communal resources. Customary land tenures are not recognised in Myanmar statutory law. The only legal recognition is when farmers have applied for a land use certificate known as ‘form seven.’ Obtaining this can be an expensive and bureaucratic process and the certificate itself is only valid for 30 years. The permits are designed mainly for commercial concessions and cannot be sold or transferred, even to family members, without government permission. Therefore, this law essentially criminalises ethnic farmers who use and inhabit land held under customary tenure.
Many farmers lack the knowledge or literacy to navigate bureaucratic and often corrupt legal systems relating to land administration. As a result, farmers are now being evicted and charged for trespassing on their own land, many being unaware of the VFVL amendment announced last September. The amendment will also have negative consequences for internally displaced people who are already have insecure living and livelihood arrangements.
Land is political. The highlands, forests and borderlands of Myanmar have been the constant backdrop of stories of insurgencies and bear battle scars from the ongoing violence. Land is bound up with the history of conflict dating back to colonial times. Ethnic and indigenous people have been pushed off their land by the military, armed groups, the military government, and, most recently the new democratic government. The National League for Democracy (NLD) who are currently in power, were elected under the promise to support ethnic minorities and return land that was stolen by the military. However, since the nominally civilian government came in, the VFVL has been made stricter, and ethnic minorities are suffering the consequences.
Civil society warns that the VFVL amendment is a major setback to democracy and threatens the ongoing peace process in the country. The law makes it even easier for land grabbing to occur, which is already ubiquitous in ethnic states. It has potential to exacerbate conflicts and create new land conflict. Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) have commented that the land law reform does not follow stipulations in the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) that requires the Naypyidaw to coordinate with signatory Ethnic Armed Organisations on land management decisions.
Land is central to sustainable peace in Myanmar
Not only does the VFVL law reform endanger the rights and livelihoods of millions of villagers who depend on the land, it demonstrates the governments disconnect with implementing the NCA. Despite ethnic CSO’s trying to resolve deep-rooted land conflicts through the national peace process, Naypyidaw has pushed for further centralisation of its power on land administration, thus hindering the peace process.
Land is central to sustainable peace in Myanmar and the NLD needs to use its parliamentary power to advance the development and wellbeing of all of its citizens, not just the wealthy and corporate interests. For sustainable peace to be possible in Myanmar, it is crucial the government works with ethnic armed organisations, and civil society to better understand and protect customary systems in national legislation.
Featured image credit: Author’s own image
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