Burma’s (Myanmar since the junta changed the country’s name in 1989) generals continue to hold sway over key areas of government, and though direct military rule has transitioned into ‘democracy’, political power remains concentrated in the hands of the army or Tatmadaw. The army, and effectively the government, which was established through the controversial 2008 constitution, have long been in pursuit of absolute control over land and natural resources. Such situation has long been a key catalyst for the country’s protracted civil war, which has driven millions of civilians from their land and homes in the past decades. Widespread armed conflict has been accompanied by oppressive laws aiding in the dispossession of smallholder-farmers of their land and livelihoods, particularly in ethnic nationality areas.
On 11 September 2018, in the latest push of government to consolidate control over the country, the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (Parliament) passed amendments to the 2012 Vacant, Fallow, and Virgin Land Management Law (VFV Law), imposing criminal penalties on rural people for continuing to use land that the government has deemed vacant and fallow or virgin. According to the amendments, after 11th March 2019, farmers will face up to two years in prison and a 500,000 kyats ($300) fine if they continue to use the land, even if it has not yet been leased to anyone else.
The 2012 VFV Law, and 2018 amendments, provide a legal mechanism for the Myanmar Government to confiscate land in rural areas across the country, constituting a massive statutory land grab. The most pervasive impactsof this legislation will be in ethnic areas where, according to government statistics, there are about 35 million acres, or 75 percent, of the country’svacant, fallow and virginlands.
Civil society organizations across the country are calling for the VFV Law to be abolished, and for a democratic federal land law to be drafted and passed as part of an inclusive and participatory legislative process. Endorsed by ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), ethnic political parties,and local communities, these calls spearheaded by Burma’s ethnic civil society networks form part of a longstanding campaign for the legal recognition and protection of diverse customary land tenure systems administered by ethnic communities across the country. It is argued that the full recognition of customary land tenure rights will be a crucial foundation upon which genuine, federal peace can be built.
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