Myanmar: Land is the lifeline of the ethnic people

There are serious concerns that government reforms will further exacerbate land tenure and food insecurity for the majority of the population in Myanmar who rely on their farm fields and forests for their livelihoods.


Article by

  • Khun Oo
  • Khun Kaung

Tom Kramer

Pa-O farmers in Shan State

There has been a wave of land grabbing on an unprecedented scale in Myanmar since government reforms starting in 2011. The reforms include several new laws on land and investment that change the legal basis for land use rights, especially in the uplands, while establishing a legal land market in order to encourage domestic and foreign investment in land. There are serious concerns that these changes will further exacerbate land tenure and food insecurity for the majority of the population in Burma who rely on their farm fields and forests for their livelihoods.

The 2012 land laws do not take into account the existing land tenure situation in ethnic areas where shifting cultivation in the uplands is common and where few have formally-recognized land titles, not to mention national identity cards. Indeed, the new laws do not recognize customary and communal land rights at all. Nor do they consider the right of return of hundreds of thousands of ethnic villagers who have been displaced from their ancestral lands due to the decades-old conflict and economic marginalisation. Consequently, the new laws are seen as exclusively benefitting the private sector, particularly large foreign investors, at the expense of smallholder farmers, who make up three-quarters of the population.

End the war on farmers in Myanmar

Practicing customary land is practicing federalism

By Khun Oo, Pa-O Youth Organisation (PYO)

Since Myanmar’s reform process and so-called peace process began, farmers have increasingly become criminalized, and many have become Internally Displaced Peoples, as their land has been grabbed by the military and their cronies under the guise of ‘development’. The perspectives on development of the government and of the farming communities, who constitute 70% of the population and who should be the real leaders of the country, are very different. The government is promoting and protecting foreign investment, but in doing so is evicting people from their ancestral lands. Farmers have invested their lives on the land for generations to feed society. The livelihoods and the way of life of whole communities are becoming endangered. Farmers are becoming slaves.

Farmers know how to maintain the land, the forest and the environment to share and manage their livelihoods peacefully. Farmers are experts in land use, resource management, beneficial sharing and decision making through their customary practice.

The government keeps saying land is important and ‘the public is power’, but they act in the opposite way. The government promises to protect people, but they are not honoring this promise. The current peace process has not brought peace for farmers. Instead, it is a new era of conflict for them, because the land is grabbed and controlled by the military, the government and the investors with links to them, who do not care about the land, who do not love the land and who do not know how to protect the land. They see the land just as a way to make profits and to build their power to keep it.

Farmers have the skills and critical thinking for their livelihoods and land. Customary practices can feed many generations and can develop the country peacefully. So, if we would like to make peace on the land issue in the country, let the farmers initiate it. They are professionals and they are the experts on this. Farmers have lived on these ancestral lands for generations without causing problems. Our customary practices are among the best systems in the world. Why do many people get confused? Because, they don’t know or understand the customary system. The customary system continues to feed numerous generations, protects land quality, protects the environment, and creates and maintains our traditions and culture. Farmers should therefore be the ones to decide on land policy and land laws. Originally, there was no Myanmar; there were many independent ethnic states that gradually combined to create the country that is now Myanmar. Before Myanmar, each state was sovereign. The formation of Myanmar was an act of collective power sharing for the country. Now, under the 2008 Constitution it has become the property of the military. Since then, ethnic minorities have become enslaved and the military has become the boss.

So, if we would like to solve this problem, land ownership, decision making power, management power must all be with farmers, and controlled by them at the state level. The states are sovereign, and Union powers are given by states, not taken by the Union through force. Land and resource management powers must also be through bottom-up structures – that is what we call federalism. Customary land management is federalism in practice and it can guarantee peaceful power sharing.

Now, when the government thinks only for investment and development, our farmers become slaves, when farmers become slaves, the country becomes enslaved. In World War I and World War II, foreign countries colonized foreign lands and farmers fought against it with guns. Now, farmers are facing World War III. Give back their homes, return their land, and recognize their customary practice.

A Letter

Dear investor,

I have 11 family members. My family depends on me. I work hard on my land every day for my family to eat, to go to school. My 2 daughters are sick now, I have to send them to the clinic and I even have to work harder. When you took my land, now I have no job.

When your company came to take my land, I begged you not to take it. I said “NO”. But you didn’t understand “NO” and you still took it, giving enough compensation to feed my family for 4 days only. So, now how can our family make a living? You destroyed our life and only gave a little bit of money. What can I say?

Can I also destroy your family and compensate you with some money? Will you say yes? I know you will say “NO”, and then you will understand why we farmers say “NO”

With respect
a farmer

Land is the lifeline of the ethnic people – their customary lands must be managed by them

By Khun Kaung, Pa-O Youth Organisation (PYO)

In Myanmar, many people are talking about the peace process, but people know little about the land issue. Land issues are closely related to the peace process. Local communities in ethnic areas are calling for their rights to be fulfilled, including their traditional and customary land rights. They want these to be addressed in the peace process.

Local communities in ethnic areas are facing land grabbing by various actors: the Myanmar army, the Forest Department, companies, militia groups backed by the Myanmar army, and organizations related to the Government. They have taken land by using the current land laws, and in cases of restitution they often did not give it back to the rightful original owner, but instead to other people. The objectives of land grabbing include for agri-business investment, military camps, to seize natural resources like forests and subsoil resources, and for infrastructure and hydro-power projects. In some places they have taken not only the land but also the water. Land grabbing for minerals extraction leads to destruction not only of the communities’ lands but the whole local environment, often poisoning village water.

The current central government laws are not protecting local communities’ land. In some places people try to protect it by registering it according to the law. However, according to our experience even if they have legal documents they still face land grabbing. Whether they have a legal permit or not land grabbing is still happening.

The government does not recognize the ethnic customary laws through which we manage our various lands, and instead uses the current lands laws to take the land from our communities and give it to investors. In some cases, the government announced it will return the land but it does not give it back to the real owner in the community. When the government staff decides on the reallocation of land, there is corruption which benefits companies.

Land is the lifeline of the ethnic people. By tradition, we ethnic people own all the land in our areas. The ethnic communities must manage all these lands as well as the natural resources in them by our customary systems. Government policies on land and natural resources in ethnic areas must recognize and be based on ethnic communities’ customary practices. Customary land use, including the right to ownership, the right to manage and the right to get benefit from it must be included in the statutory land policies, laws and procedures. These provisions must protect the ethnic communities and their lands. The Government must return confiscated lands to the real owners in the community in a transparent way. Companies cannot be allowed to freely implement projects in ethnic regions without reference to the existing ethnic land owners and users. If a company wants to implement their project in ethnic areas, the company must respect ethnic communities’ decisions and recommendations. Women and men also must have equal rights on land ownership.

At the 21st century Panglong union peace conference, the NLD government should allow discussion about land and the natural resources, and the conference should be inclusive in terms of participation. Participants should discuss how to change the 2008 constitution, in order to recognize, promote and protect the rights of ethnic people, including their right to land. We must also advocate these important issues to the parliament before they approve any land and resource-related laws that affect us.

We have come together with 135 representatives from different communities from northern, eastern and southern Shan State, representing many different ethnic groups, including Shan, Kachin, Ta-ang, Pa-O, Lahu, Akha, Danu, Lisu, Wa, Bamar, Taungyo, Yinnit and Yinkya. Together we adopted a statement, which is very important for us, and we believe this statement will support the formation of a federal system in Myanmar. If we cannot find a solution to the land issue we cannot get real peace. To ensure a just and fair solution to the land issue, the community must have guarantee of decision making, management and benefit of our lands.

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