OPINION: Myanmar is confiscating land that people depend on

Tuesday, 28 May 2019 15:10 GMT

Archive photo: Villagers go out to work in the fields where wild elephants often look for food, near Kyar Chaung village, Taikkyi Township, Myanmar on February 6, 2013. REUTERS/Minzayar

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The government’s intention is to put more land to productive economic use, but much of the land is not in fact vacant

In September 2018, Myanmar ordered anyone using what it classifies as “vacant, fallow, or virgin land” to register a claim within six months. If a family or community fail to do so, they can lose their land and face imprisonment. The land in question is 50 million acres, 30% of the total land mass of the Asian country.

The government’s intention is to put more land to productive use. It wants to turn over vacant lands to plantations, mining companies and industry, which in turn will bring economic growth and greater tax revenue.

But many of the lands are not in fact vacant.

Some are forests that people use for drinking water, firewood, and food, some are pastures where people bring animals to graze, while other land is tilled by farmers.

No one knows how many people depend on the lands officially classified as vacant, fallow, or virgin, but a letter to the government from 41 civil society groups last year estimates it is in the millions, and the government has not suggested otherwise.

Many of those people had no idea they were supposed to file an application by March to indicate the land was not vacant. In February, Namati surveyed 290 people living in locations—across 4 states—where there is a significant amount of land classified as vacant, fallow, or virgin. About 72% of the people we spoke to didn’t know anything about the contents of the new law, and not one of them had applied for land rights under it.

Even for those who did attempt to register a claim, the process was daunting. U Maw Shay, a former pastor and a community paralegal in Shan State, tried to help four villages near his own apply for the right to continue to use forests and farming lands officially labeled as vacant, fallow, or virgin. He said all four villages got stuck trying to produce the maps required; not one was able to complete the process before the deadline closed.

Evictions have already begun.

Government officials and palm oil conglomerates have started using the vacant, fallow, virgin law to confiscate land from smallhold farmers and sue them for trespass.

Calling land vacant is an old trick. British and Australian courts long justified the denial of land titles to aboriginal Australians with the doctrine of terra nullius—the idea that the lands the British encountered were uninhabited. In fact, aboriginal Australians had occupied the island for 65,000 years. European powers claimed ownership over vast swathes of land in Africa, Asia, and the Americas by calling them vacant. Many post-colonial governments maintained those categorizations after independence.

It’s an old trick, but it’s not supposed to be played against millions of poor people in 2019.

If not for the sake of justice and human rights, parliament should reconsider for the sake of peace. Much of the land classified as vacant, fallow or virgin is in minority ethnic areas where armed groups have been at war with the Myanmar government for decades. Mass dispossession in these places will likely threaten the peace process. The political wing of the Karen National Liberation Army, in eastern Myanmar, has called for the abolition of the amendments, claiming they violate the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement.

U Maw Shay is from the Akha ethnic group, most of whom live in hilly forested areas where much land is officially classified as vacant, fallow, or virgin. Unlike others he knows, U Maw Shay chose law as a weapon rather than guns. But these amendments have made him feel like the Akha don’t belong. “It’s like declaring we’re illegal,” he told Namati.

If Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy party want to prove they are committed to the ideals they have stood for—indeed, if they want to maintain stability, or win elections in 2020—they urgently need to reverse course on the vacant, fallow, virgin amendments.

U Maw Shay has proposed an alternative -  the “government should start by understanding how people are already using the land,” and determine land rights from there - to us, this is the only alternative that is acceptable.

Vivek Maru and Nwe Ni Soe work with Namati, a global organisation dedicated to legal empowerment with advocates working to protect community lands, enforce environmental law and secure basic rights to healthcare and citizenship