The World Bank Group (WBG) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are holding their Spring meetings in Washington DC, “to discuss issues of global concern, including the world economic outlook, poverty eradication, economic development, and aid effectiveness.” Of huge concern to rural people in Myanmar is the marketisation of land through recently enacted land law amendments. This is land which for generations has been in the hands of local communities and used, sustainably, through customary or traditional land use practice. The legal amendment to land laws is a reflection of neoliberal approach that the IMF and the WBG have pursued for decades, prioritising capital and commodities over community and the rights of peasants.
The Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Lands Management Law, was already problematic in its original form when promulgated in 2012 in that it allows the Government’s Central Committee to grant permission to individuals or companies to use land it deems “vacant or fallow.” Around 30% of agricultural land in Myanmar can be considered “vacant,” “fallow” or “virgin” under this law, and most of this is in ethnic nationalities’ territory. Yet land is often purposefully left “vacant” under rotational crop practices, while many ethnic people have left their land due to armed conflict and are currently living in displacement conditions. As IDPs from Kachin State and Shan State themselves stated, “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.” Thus, not only does this law punish farmers, many of whom have never been involved in state-led registration of individual plots of land, but it perpetuates a violent, Bamar statebuilding project that has been at the core of ethnic grievances and armed conflict since the start of the civil war in 1949. Land seizure to feed a marketized economy is thus a new weapon of subjugation.
Furthermore, an amendment and subsequent notification passed by the Central Committee in September 2018 gave people 6 months to register any “vacant” or “fallow” land that they were using, otherwise face criminal charges with a potential sentence of two years in prison. A civil society statement signed by over 340 civil society organizations in Myanmar vehemently rejected this law, calling for its repeal. “There is no vacant, fallow & virgin land in ethnic areas. The recently enacted Vacant, Fallow & Virgin Land Management Law is a law that facilitates making people who depend for their lives on land & forest to become landless. Instead of accepting and enacting this law, the fundamental priority must instead be to effectively recognize customary practices and communal land rights, and to safeguard the interest of the peoples depending on land.” This deadline has now passed and rural people across the country are at risk of losing their land with reports of this already happening in Tanintharyi Region.
Yet such land policies are reflective of the neoliberal agenda that the WBG and IMF have been pushing on governments throughout the world, including those coming out of or still engaged in conflict or those classed as less developed. Often, loans and technical assistance provided by such institutions come with stipulations that industries and resources, including land, are privatized in the name of ‘good governance’ and economic reform. Such policies, however, only benefit big business and trample over ethnic or indigenous peoples’ rights and traditional or customary land use. Thus, when the WBG hosted its ‘Land and Poverty’ conference in March 2019, Land in Our Hands, a multi-ethnic national network in partnership with civil society and community based organizations across Myanmar, stated that it “firmly believes that the World Bank is the wrong institution to be leading communities out of land related poverty at a global scale, and has a major conflict of interests as the Bank has arguably exacerbated land related inequality through its investments and structural adjustment programs.”
EAOs have developed and implemented sustainable land use policies for many decades without the disruption caused by exploitative state-led laws. Thus, land reform policy in Myanmar must be based on a federal governance arrangement and a federal land policy developed in a comprehensive process with full, meaningful and equal participation by primary stakeholders including EAOs, ethnic CBOs, local farmers and communities representatives. Unless all stakeholders, including the Myanmar government and international financial institutions adhere to these recommendations outlined by civil society, land policy will only exacerbate ethnic conflict and deepen inequality.
Please note: Progressive Voice will be closed for the Burmese New Years. We will be back with our next issue of the Weekly Highlights on the week of 22 April. Happy Thingyan and Songkran!
 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
Statements and Press Releases
By 16 INGOs in Myanmar
By ျမစ္ဆံုစီမံကိန္း အၿပီးတိုင္ဖ်က္သိမ္းေရး ႏိုင္ငံလံုးဆိုင္ရာကြန္ယက္
By Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights (ARSPHR)
By Human Rights Foundation of Monland
By Salween Peace Park
By UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
By United Nations Secretary-General
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.”