The 5Rs in Myanmar
This primer is about ‘the 5Rs’ and land and natural resource politics. The 5Rs is a set of five principles: Recognition, Restitution, Redistribution, Regeneration, and Representation/Resistance. The primer briefly explores the idea of a working people’s program on land and natural resources in Myanmar based on these five principles in the context of a future federal democratic system.
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Each of these principles alone is supported by international human rights law (links to the most relevant UN documents can be found in Annex 1). But here we outline a working people’s land and natural resource program for deep social change based on the 5Rs taken together.
By 'working people' we mean ordinary people who have to work in order to ‘make ends meet’. The work that many people do to survive nowadays involves both waged labor and unwaged labor. A lot of unwaged work that is essential to survival is done at home, such as cooking and cleaning, child raising, health care, and elderly care. It is the kind of work that makes it possible for some members of the household to go outside the home and undertake waged work. In rural villages a lot of household work is related to producing goods for own consumption and for selling -- such as farming, artisanal fishing, animal keeping, and other artisanal and ‘cottage industry’ (like handicraft making). This work often relies on the unwaged labour of household members (including children). Sometimes, and if there is money, a household may hire other villagers or someone from outside the village to help them with some of these labors.
Over the past four decades, many important structural changes in the way the economy and governance are organized have occurred all over the world. These processes have not been smooth nor have they unfolded in exactly the same manner everywhere. They have been marked by profound disagree- ment and conflict over the most basic matters in society -- such as who owns what, who does what, who gets what, what should happen to the wealth that is created in a society, and, who gets to decide. Ordinary people have been hugely affected in fundamental ways. There has been an explosion in the number of people who are neither full-time farmer nor full-time waged worker. They struggle to survive and ‘make ends meet’ by piecing together whatever low-paying, part-time jobs they can find wherever it may be.
This is a common situation in many countries today: households reducing or minimizing their own consumption and foregoing formal schooling and health care, with some family members coming and going, piecing together different bits of low-waged labor in nearby towns or distant cities or abroad. Those who stay home tend to farms and gardens if they have land, raise animals or make handicrafts to sell, and raise the children and care for the sick and infirm or the elderly who can no longer work. In using the term 'working people' in this primer, we hope to capture this kind of situation and the dynamics that propel so many people into it.
In the context of Myanmar and its long history of ethnic conflict, this stress on working people may seem to be missing the mark or leaving out a lot. But bringing into focus working people is not intended to deny or ignore ethnic and other social differences. Rather, it is also and at the same time to make visible what so many people despite other differences have in common -- the struggle to live a life filled with social and economic precarity and hardship and bereft of social insurance or social protections.
Ultimately, at the heart of a truly federal democratic system is a difficult balancing act -- a strategic balancing of socioeconomic class issues and social-political identity issues. Both sets of concerns are complex on their own. Yet both are important. All over the world today (not just in Myanmar), there is deep injustice and rightful struggle around both. Staggering economic inequalities are fueling working people’s struggles for egalitarian distribution of wealth. Non-recognition or mis-recognition of certain ethnic, religious and sexual groups and of racial and gender differences is fueling ‘identity’-framed struggles for recognition.
The two kinds of struggle often seem opposed to each other; we may feel pressure to choose between them. But the 5Rs starts from the belief that nei- ther struggle alone is sufficient for achieving deep social change. Advocating only for working people’s economic class interests without regard to ethnic identity concerns or advocating only for ethnic identity recognition without regard for the class position of working people within ethnic communities -- each ignores strategic issues. Class and ethnicity (along with other aspects of identity) are both integral parts of a single pillar; one without the other cannot constitute a pillar. Both types of injustice shape exploitation and subordination; and both types of struggles have emancipatory aspects. The 5R approach assumes that it is possible and necessary to integrate the emancipatory aspects of both struggles into a single frame. If we don’t, we risk impeding construction of a future federal democracy with equal rights and opportunities for all.
Applying the five principles to the ‘land problem’ is necessary to defend against elitist efforts to thwart democratization of access and control of land and related natural resources. Even well-intentioned responses to Myanmar’s land problem can be undermined if they approach the problem with only one or two of the 5 Rs, or any combination less than all 5 Rs. It would be like trying to make a whole puzzle with a hundred pieces of the same shape. Deliberately linking all 5Rs together has the best chance of handling the complexities of the land problem in Myanmar today. It is designed to detect and address the multidimensional character of land-based injustice. Failure to do so will contribute to the process of loss of land and of the right to land for millions of working people all across Myanmar. It risks to exacerbate old and create new grievances, especially among ethnic nationality communities practicing customary tenure systems, thereby further contributing to and prolonging ethnic conflict and war. The stakes are thus very high.
Rich country, poor people -- that is what Myanmar has been. It is rich in natural resources, but the proceeds from access to these resources remain in the hands of a very few -- most of whom are military or military-connected. This must change. Natural resources are essential for human life and the health of the planetary ecosystem. For decades, rural working people across Myanmar have been losing access to land and natural resources because of various processes of enclosure and dispossession -- commonly called ‘land grabbing’ -- and because of the socially differentiating currents of free market relations in the rural areas.
This trend encompasses aquatic resources, forest resources, and land resources. Enclosures and dispossession have been facilitated by many laws that span diverse policy areas and ministries -- economic, investment, mining, forest, fisheries, agriculture, environment, conservation, land and natural resources. Shrinking access to land for working people is especially alarming because land is an entry point for accessing forest and aquatic resources too, and because working people need a range of access to an array of natural resources for their economic production and social reproduction activities.
Yet people are resisting land grabbing. Civil society organizations (CSOs) across the country have studied and rejected laws and policies that facilitate dispossession and displacement. For example, the nationwide network called Land In Our Hands (LIOH or Doe Myay) has produced numerous analyses of existing laws and policies -- such as the government’s National Land Use Policy (2014 Draft); the 2012 Farmland Law and the amendments to this law proposed in 2017. In 2018, LIOH spearheaded a nationwide grassroots campaign against the government’s Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Land Management Law. More recently, in defense of customary land systems and practices including shifting cultivation, LIOH has shown how existing laws undermine these and offered recommendations on what is needed to support and promote them instead. CSOs have formulated pro-people alternatives that not only reflect realities and customs on the ground, but also internationally respected principles that they felt are relevant for them. In one notable example, CSOs from numerous ethnic groups across Shan State joined forces to research and document customary land systems and eventually to produce a joint report with their findings and recommendations. Similarly, a number of ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) have taken part in developing land policies that value inclusion, equity and an ecologically healthy future for all. One CSO network -- the Burma Environmental Working Group (BEWG) -- developed a ‘roadmap for resource federalism’. These are all building blocks for a comprehensive national 5R program.
Myanmar is now at a new crossroads. The February 2021 coup has made the need to forge new social foundations for a future multi-ethnic federal democratic system of government painfully clear. Now is the time to go deeper into imagining the substantive and inclusive agenda of that future -- e.g., providing deeper substance to a federal democratic system with a clear pro- working people agenda that is gender- and generation-sensitive. We assume that a core value of any positive future would be recognition that each and every person -- regardless of any differences between us -- is born with equal dignity and equal right to access the material, ecological, social and political conditions needed to live a flourishing life.
Diverse kinds of access to an array of land and natural resources is part of what rural working people need to flourish. A 5R land and natural resource program can inspire different people affected differently by land and natural resource injustices to find common cause, and develop alternative land and natural resource policies that protect, support and promote the rights and needs of all the people of Myanmar.