Newly Amended Law Helps Officials Seize Land, Critics Warn

By Lawi Weng 13 November 2018

Land-rights activists have urged the government to abolish the Vacant Land Law, saying the legislation could be used as a tool to dispossess people of their land.

The law was enacted under the former military regime in 2012. Under the National League for Democracy, the government amended the law by writing in additional punishments for offenders. This amendment went into effect last month.

The law allows the government to take possession of unregistered land, and the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government’s recent amendment allows the Vacant Land Management Central Committee to take action against those who use vacant land without first obtaining the committee’s permission. Under Article 27 (a), violators of the law face two years in prison and/or a fine of 500,000 kyats.

Critics say the government has not done enough to educate local people—many of whom apply customary law to settle questions of land ownership—about the need to register, and that the existing law is contrary to the spirit of any future federal union and the legal framework that would underpin it.

After more than 50 years of rule by the military regime, large amounts of land, especially in ethnic areas, are still not registered to specific owners. Much of this land is used by ethnic people according to their customary law.

Rights activist want the government to apply customary law instead of the former military regime’s law, which they say has been used to oppress people through the confiscation of thousands of acres of land.

The NLD government will face public protests if it continues to apply the military regime’s law, the aim of which is to oppress the people, said U Si Thu, a land-rights activist and spokesperson for the Doe Mye (Our Land Network ) group.

According to U Si Thu, the military regime used this law as a tool to oppress people in the past. While the NLD government amended the law, it continues to apply it, the activist added.

“The law is contrary to the peace process’ goal of establishing a federal system,” he said.

Even ethnic armed groups that have signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement with the government worry that the areas they control will be taken from them in the future, based on the Vacant Land Law, he said.

“The government should be thinking in terms of a land law to be implemented under a future federal system; it should not be applying the current one,” he said.

Ethnic people apply customary law to the question of land ownership without any problems, he said, adding that the government, which claims to be planning to implement a federal system in the future, should continue to allow this practice.

Myanmar faces many problems associated with issues related to land ownership. The military (or Tatmadaw) and authorities have seized thousand of acres of land from local people, especially in ethnic areas. Land-rights activists have repeatedly asked the government to return the seized land as part of the country’s ongoing political reforms, but the Army and authorities have refused.

Mung Seng Tu, a legal advocate based in Myitkyina, Kachin State, said the newly amended law will make it easy for authorities to seize land in conflict areas in Kachin and northern Shan states.

“The law should not be implemented in conflict areas in Kachin and northern Shan. The areas in which it can implement the law should be restricted,” the advocate said.

Land-rights activists say the government’s aim in continuing to apply an oppressive law enacted by the former military regime is unclear. Some fear it may intend to take back those lands. Many landowners, especially in ethnic areas, are worried that the government eyes their land.

The government should take steps to educate the public before enforcing the law, Mung Seng Tu said. If it does not, more people will be in danger of losing their land to seizures by authorities, he added.

“If the government does not raise awareness [of the law], local people will suffer,” he said.

Kachin rights activist Khon Ja said the law claims government ownership for all of the land in the country—not only in Kachin State.

“Six months is a very short time for people to apply for registration. How can people in remote areas apply for this on time? They [officials] should travel to local areas and help local people to apply,” Khon Ja said.

She pointed to the plight of Kachin IDPs who have been forced to abandon their land while fleeing military clashes. Some businessmen have used this land to grow bananas, with the help of the Tatmadaw, she alleged.

“Who will register ownership of those IDPs’ lands?” she said.