Myanmar, as a country where 70% of its population depends on land for their livelihood, the legal land protection and recognition of customary land practice must be respected and protected, particularly for ethnic communities. However, farmers’ lands, especially in ethnic areas, are under threat due to ongoing land confiscation. The Myanmar military has confiscated over 2,000 acres of farmers’ land in Hsihseng Township in Southern Shan State, where approximately 70 farmers were recently charged for plowing on seized lands. Besides the massive land confiscation by the military, companies such as PanAust, with their newly granted licence of 185,000 acres of land for their mining project in Sagaing, threaten local peoples livelihoods.
Amidst COVID-19 pandemic, many civilians in Myanmar, including farmers with very limited livelihood options, struggle to maintain balance between survival and coronavirus prevention measures as their rights continue to be violated by Myanmar authorities. On 30 May 2020, 70 farmers in Hsihseng Township were charged with trespassing under article 447 of the Penal Code for cultivating on land seized by the Myanmar military. The violation can carry a jail sentence of up to three months or a fine up to 50,000 kyats. Over 2,000 acres of land from 100 farmers were confiscated by the Myanmar military in Hsihseng Township, located in the Pa-Oh Self-Administered Region in Southern Shan State. According to the local farmers, the two battalions LIB-423 and LIB-424 first arrived in the area in 1992 and gradually grabbed the local peoples land, but the farmers were not informed that the land had been confiscated by the military. Having no other options to sustain their livelihood during the pandemic, farmers began taking the risk of using the land that was taken away from them by the military and risk being targeted by them in order to grow crops. The local farmers have cultivated their land from generation to generation as part of their traditional customary land practice, prior to the military’s confiscation. A local farmer Cho Cho said “The army hasn’t paid compensation for this land. We used to grow crops on this farmland in the past before the army came to this area. We also grew our crops after the army came to our area. We are still growing crops on our farmland. We want to know why the army blocked us in 2019, 2020.”
Following the case, on 3 June, over 190 CSOs released a joint statement demanding the Myanmar military to return the seized land from farmers and to respect traditional customary land practices of ethnic people and their land ownership. Later, the military officials and the farmers met to resolve the land dispute, but “They didn’t come to any agreement. The commander explained that these lands are the army’s lands. They have confiscated these lands under the land confiscation law. They also said that they would discuss this issue again. Those were the meeting results,” said Khun Oo from the Pa-O Youth Organization in an interview with the Network Media Group. It is a common practice for the Myanmar military to confiscate land without any prior consultation or compensation and then to prosecute the farmers for cultivating their land. Other ethnic areas such as in Karen and Karenni States have experienced similar violations of their customary land rights.
Moreover, under the current centralized top-down management structure of the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government, development projects, particularly in ethnic areas have led to major destruction of the environment that also threatens the livelihoods of the people. Myanmar’s Ministry for Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation at the union level approved a gold and copper exploration license to PanAust, an Australian-based subsidiary of a Chinese state-owned company, for 185,000 acres of land without meaningful consultation or engagement with relevant stakeholders in Sagaing Region where the project is to take place. The area has been described as nearly the size of Singapore. Sagaing is home to many large scale controversial mining projects, including the Letpadaung copper mine, and thus it has suffered massive environmental and social impacts. Regional parliament lawmaker U Zaw Linn Oo said the company has not come to explain about the project and that the local communities will be raising concerns regarding the project stating, “Many companies here are the same. They don’t communicate with us at all. They might think that they don’t need to engage with us since they were already granted permission from the Union.” Instead of ending the environmental and social impacts from resource extraction projects in Sagaing Region, it is deeply concerning that a new gold and copper mining project is about to begin again, without prior consultation with the people who will be affected by the project.
The afromentioned land dispute in southern Shan State between farmers and the Myanmar military demonstrates another ruthless land grabbing under the amended Vacant, Fallow and Virgin (VFV) Lands Management Law, which facilitates the military and companies to confiscate land through a corrupt and broken legal system, especially in ethnic areas. The government must abolish the VFV Lands Management Law and implement the calls from civil society organizations to repeal the law. Furthermore, it must also avoid using the top-down management structure and policies by Nay Pyi Taw, which undermine the management and policies of ethnic governance structures and ethnic communities’ rights to ownership of their ancestral land. At the same time, both domestic and foreign companies, as well as the International Financial Corporation that provides loans and assistance to private businesses, must prioritize and ensure protection of human rights and environment and comply with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Furthermore, they must implement the recommendations made by the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar in its August 2019 report.
The long term act of companies and the military stealing the land of ethnic people using laws that favor land grabbing, while targeting them through legal and judicial harassment, shows the failure of the government to recognize and respect customary land ownership and practice of indigenous people and ethnic nationalities. Laws and policies regarding land in Myanmar must be in line with a federal governance system that are reflective of founding principles of the Union, that is suitable for the diverse traditional practices of all ethnic nationalities.
 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.
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