Ethnic Groups Demand Input in Myanmar Land Reforms

By Nan Lwin 28 January 2021

YANGON — Development organizations and farming groups from ethnic minority areas have called on the government to postpone land reforms, saying they will crush indigenous people’s rights.

After parliament resumes on Feb. 1, it is due to discuss a land law which has been planned since 2019 as a major reform for the new administration. Myanmar’s second investment policy review urged the government to enact land rights reforms to boost responsible foreign and domestic investment.

Ethnic minority farmers and Kachin, Karen, Rakhine, Mon, Chin and Karenni development organizations have demanded that the new government postpone the reforms, saying the legislation was drafted by the central government and neglects traditional land use methods.

Before the November general election, the National League for Democracy (NLD) launched a working plan to draft a national land law by mid-2021, calling on civil society organizations to help reform the National Land Use Council.

Federal Ethnic Farmer Network spokesman U Aung Latt told The Irrawaddy that the groups helping to draft the law do not represent grassroots ethnic minorities.

U Aung Latt is also a leader of Mungchying Rawt Jat, an organization which represents farmers affected by government development projects in Kachin State.

A centralized land law will neglect people’s rights and disregard demands for federal reforms among ethnic minorities, U Aung Latt said.

“Customary tenure” is widely used across the country, mostly in ethnic minority areas, where shared ownership of freehold land, community forest reserves and rotational farming are common.

A lack of legal recognition of customary land use has left communities vulnerable to land grabs by the authorities and businesses. Ethnic minorities have long demanded recognition of customary land use as part of moves towards federalism.

U Aung Latt called for a bottom-up governance approach with state governments drafting land laws, reflecting community practices.

Amended in 2018 by the NLD government, the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Land Management Law was strongly opposed by the ethnic groups for not recognizing customary rights. The government set a deadline for communities to register under the land law. Anyone found living on undesignated land without a permit after the deadline could face up to two years in prison. However, around 95 percent of people living on supposedly vacant land did not know about the law and most farmers missed the deadline, according to the Mekong Region Land Governance Project.

The Transnational Institute reported that more than 19 million hectares have been designated as unused under the law, of which around 75 percent is in ethnic-minority areas, waiting to be handed over to business interests.

“Ethnic people are already suffering because of the law. We are worried the government will enact new land laws without listening to our voices again,” U Aung Latt said.

The government has formed working groups to collect public opinions as a part of efforts to draft the bill. Last week, Union Attorney-General U Tun Tun Oo, who chairs the committee drafting the National Land Law, held a third meeting in Naypyitaw on the legislation.

U Tun Tun Oo said working groups were unable to carry out field visits due to COVID-19.

The Office of the Union Attorney-General has also received 172 suggestions from the public after inviting opinions through newspapers.

U Tun Tun Oo said it is necessary to consider suggestions from the public and that the land rights of ethnic minorities must be recognized.

An investment policy review also said reforms on complicated and conflicting land-governance issues would be one of the new government’s major challenges. If unresolved, it said land issues would continue to have significant economic and political implications, including on the peace process.

Nai Sawor Mon, coordinator of the Mon Region Land Policy Committee, said the government should build trust with ethnic communities by halting investment on customary land, adding that it should reduce centralization if the NLD genuinely supports federalism.

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