This Land is Our Land

“Land is the key to addressing political grievances and unresolved historic injustices in Burma. The success of a participatory and inclusive peace and reconciliation process will hinge on a political will to embrace the diverse territorial claims and governance systems at work across the country.”

A Karen land activist

On 11 March, 2019, what could be the largest land grab in Myanmar’s[1] history may take place. This is the deadline for people to register their ancestral land and thus become subsumed under the capitalist exploitation that marks the most powerful tool of the modern day Bamar statebuilding project that has long been led by successive military regimes. For any land that is not registered, this will be deemed vacant or fallow and those tilling their land, as they have for generations, will be criminally liable. This has a huge impact, especially on ethnic nationalities in Myanmar, going against the principles of federalism, and making peace harder to attain.

Nearly six months ago, on 11 September, 2018, the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Land Management Law (VFV Law) of 2012 was amended to criminalize those working on land that has been deemed by authorities as vacant or fallow. Punishment is up to two years in prison, a fine of 500,000 Myanmar Kyat, or both, with a 6 month deadline for people to register their land. The deadline of 11 March is fast approaching. When the law was amended, over 340 Myanmar civil society organizations released a joint statement, opposing this development.

The implications for this are very significant. Huge swathes of land in Myanmar, especially in ethnic areas are governed by customary land practice. In fact, the Myanmar Government claims that up to 75% of vacant or fallow land lies in ethnic areas. Many people do not map out and mark individual land plots for their ownership. The land belongs to the community, and collectively, the community manages, tills and ensures sustainable use of that land. Examples of indigenous governance of land and natural resources can be seen throughout Myanmar. The Salween Peace Park (SPP) in Karen State is one such form of indigenous governance. This 5,200 square kilometer designated forest area, in Karen National Union (KNU) territory, is a grassroots initiative that has been conceptualised and is being implemented by communities living in the Park. Its governance is “rooted in Karen customary management systems, social and environmental justice, and deliberative democracy; the SPP will present what good governance of natural resources looks like at the local level.”

Another such example can be seen on the opposite side of the country, in Nagaland. At a report launch in Yangon on 27 February by Resource Rights for Indigenous Peoples, indigenous Naga communities called on the Myanmar Government to recognize their customary land tenure system and forestry governance. As a community member from the area succinctly pointed out, “The proof that we have a way of managing the forest is that after hundreds of years there is still forest here. Thanks to our Naga system there is still forest.”

Not only does the possibility of huge land seizure by the Government from communities impinge on indigenous land and natural resource management systems, but it will have a massive effect on the peace process. Some land which are currently not in use is due to people fleeing armed conflict, as the Myanmar military continues to launch attacks on ethnic communities. In recent years this has been the case particularly in Kachin State, where Chinese companies, in cooperation with Myanmar state authorities, have taken over internally displaced persons’ (IDPs) land and established banana plantations. A statement by IDPs from Kachin and Northern Shan State made clear that “IDPs who are displaced because of the civil war are people whose rights are being violated, and we fully intend to go back to our original lands once the country is in peace.” Yet under the VFV Land Law, the land that the IDPs fled from could well be taken by the authorities and sold off to Chinese companies for plantations. Kachin people need their land and livelihoods more than Chinese people need cheap bananas. Tens of thousands of acres of land in northern Rakhine State has also been seized after the military operations drove the Rohingya out of their homes.

“it shows no concerns to the rights of indigenous people or human rights norms, and it does not reflect the democratic and federal principles.”

The Karen National Union

It is thus no surprise that the KNU, also released a statement in opposition to the VFV Land Law amendment, expressing that “it shows no concerns to the rights of indigenous people or human rights norms, and it does not reflect the democratic and federal principles.” Furthermore, the KNU stated that this amendment contradicts the nationwide ceasefire agreement that they have signed.

If the amendment to the VFV Law is implemented this will be a theft of indigenous peoples’ land of massive proportions. Ethnic people in Myanmar have experienced decades of armed conflict as the Myanmar military has expanded its domain through violent means. The structural violence of illegitimate land acquisition is just the latest in a long process of Bamar statebuilding, this time backed by the global and powerful force of market-based economic liberalization. Yet the consequences on the peace process, on the natural environment, and on the economic and social rights of ethnic people will be huge. This must not happen. In an analysis co-written by a Karen land activist who is a member of the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network, the significance of this cannot be understated, “Land is the key to addressing political grievances and unresolved historic injustices in Burma. The success of a participatory and inclusive peace and reconciliation process will hinge on a political will to embrace the diverse territorial claims and governance systems at work across the country.” For this, the blanket impunity that has long been enjoyed by the Myanmar military, who continues to commit violent campaigns to gain control over the land and natural resources of ethnic nationalities must immediately be put to an end.

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[1] One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.


Resources from the past week

actions

Statements and Press Releases

Visa End Promotion of Burmese Military Golf Course

By Burma Campaign UK

Burma Must Allow Aid Access for All Areas of Rakhine State

By Burma Human Rights Network

ကရင္နီျပည္ လူငယ္မ်ား အင္အားစု၏ သေဘာထားထုတ္ျပန္ေၾကညာခ်က္

By Karenni State Youth

Press Release: Land and Forest Governance in the Naga Village Republic

By Resource Rights for the Indigenous People

ထုတ္ျပန္ခ်က္ – နာဂရြာျပည္ ေျမယာႏွင့္ သစ္ေတာစီမံခန္႔ခြဲမႈ

By Resource Rights for the Indigenous People

Crisis in Rakhine State, Violence Could Derail Gains in Myanmar’s Peace Process, Special Envoy Warns Security Council, Calling for Unimpeded Humanitarian Access

By UN Security Council

reports

Reports

Land and Forest Governance in the Naga Village Republic

By Resource Rights for the Indigenous People


Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”

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