RANGOON — A coalition of 24 indigenous rights organizations is planning to make a submission on the situation of indigenous communities in Burma when the country is reviewed at the 23rd session of the Universal Periodic Review Working Group in Geneva, Switzerland, in November.
The group, called the Coalition of Indigenous Peoples in Myanmar/Burma, has catalogued a raft of issues that indigenous peoples are facing in Burma, including lack of access to land and resources and the impact of destructive development projects on local livelihoods.
“Burma’s 2008 Constitution makes no mention of indigenous peoples, their collective rights, or customary land use practices in indigenous peoples’ territories,” the coalition said in a factsheet released at a press conference on Tuesday.
“The lack of recognition [in the Constitution] of the people’s right to own land directly contradicts with the basic principle that the State’s power is derived from its citizens.”
The coalition said the current draft national land use policy gives special privileges to business investors that could lead to more land grabs in the country and is vague regarding the land use rights of ethnic nationalities.
The group called for amendments to the national land use policy and other legislation to ensure they accommodate “the collective rights of indigenous peoples to their lands, territories, and natural resources, including customary land use practices with regard to forests, rivers, and other land, as well as agricultural land.”
Min Than Oo, director of the Mon Multimedia Institute, said land seizures had particularly impacted ethnic nationalities in Burma, a trend that has continued to the present day.
“Since 1995, more than 18,000 acres of land have been grabbed by the Burma Army in Mon State until as recently as December 2014,” he said.
The lands of ethnic minorities have often been confiscated in connection with large infrastructure, plantation and extractive industry projects. The right to free, prior and informed consent is seldom upheld and impact assessments are often opaque or not carried out at all.
“Foreign investors are promoting harmful development projects—such as mega hydro-powered and coal-fired electricity generation projects—in conflict areas without conducting [impact assessments],” the group said.
Naw Ei Ei Min, executive director of POINT, an organization promoting indigenous peoples rights and environmental awareness, expressed concern that, with protracted negotiations over a nationwide ceasefire ongoing, indigenous rights will remain up in the air.
“We still can’t see sustained peace [and] we have no idea how ethnic rights will be granted and to what extent,” she said.
The coalition on Tuesday also addressed the issue of preserving ethnic languages long suppressed under decades of enforced monolingual education under military rule.
Mann Win Maung, joint-secretary of the Pantanaw literature and cultural committee in Irrawaddy Division, said Karen language and literature in the division had been slowly disappearing since 1962.
He said the concession to allow ethnic languages to be taught outside of normal school hours, with no budgetary support, was “not effective,” and worried that the decline in Karen-language literacy could erode their sense of Karen identity.
The group recommended that the Burmese government “provide the teaching of indigenous peoples’ languages in the national curriculum… and to allocate sufficient national budget for effective implementation.”
The Burmese government officially recognizes 135 “national races” in Burma that are considered taing yin tha—translated as “indigenous” peoples.
But the coalition contends that these ethnic categories are too broad and do not reflect the rich diversity of Burma’s indigenous peoples.
The group called on the UN special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples “to provide expertise and to assist in facilitating a national-level dialogue with the aim of identifying and recognizing indigenous peoples in Myanmar, based on the international concept of indigenous peoples.”
The UPR process reviews all UN member states’ compliance with their human rights obligations. Burma’s last review took place in 2011.