Ethnic minority land rights next hurdle for Myanmar peace

by Thomson Reuters Foundation Correspondent | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 8 May 2013 07:17 GMT

Villagers protest the seizure of land to make way for a copper mine project during a visit by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Sarlingyi township, Myanmar, on March 13, 2013. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

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Since ceasefires in Myanmar’s ethnic regions, land has replaced guns as key to lasting peace, experts say, with public meeting on May 9 to raise ethnic concerns on land issues

YANGON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Myanmar needs to recognise the indigenous land tenure systems practiced by ethnic groups and take their concerns on land seriously if it is to build long-lasting peace, experts said on the eve of the first public meeting where ethnic views on land conflicts will be heard. 

Myanmar has been at war with its ethnic minority groups - which make up about a third of the country’s population of 60 million - since independence from British colonial rule in 1948. Many of the minorities, living in some of the most resource-rich areas, resent what they see as domination by the majority Burman community.

Myanmar's military-backed civilian government came to power in March 2011, ending half a century of iron-fisted military rule, and has since reached ceasefire agreements with about a dozen ethnic armed groups. 

Peace talks between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the government have yet to bear fruit, and fighting is still raging in the country’s north, but other agreements signed so far have raised hopes that Myanmar may finally be able to end decades of ethnic tensions.

“Increasingly, as the power of guns diminishes because we have some ceasefires, then land and resources become much more important in these negotiations,” said Tobias Jackson, advisor for the Land Core Group, a network of local and international non-governmental organisations working on agriculture issues in Myanmar.

Land and resources should be looked at as “livelihood fundamentals in terms of conflicts, ceasefires and peace,” Jackson added. 

Yet the current debate on land in Myanmar has not focused around the needs, demands and desires of ethnic populations, experts say. 

In fact, the general public and Myanmar’s mainstream media have little awareness of ethnic concerns, said Yangon-based Tom Kramer from the Transnational Institute (TNI).

The Land Core Group and TNI, together with other organisations, are holding on May 9 a public meeting at which ethnic groups will discuss land tenure security and land-use rights.

NEW LAWS FACILITATE LAND GRABS

Land is a politically and economically sensitive issue in Myanmar, where 70 percent of the population depends on agriculture.

The sector accounts for 43 percent of the economy, and farming is the only livelihood for millions of households. All land is owned by the government, but farmers are given land-use or tillage rights.

Over the past decades, there have been numerous land acquisitions - called land grabs by the media - for infrastructure, development or large-scale agricultural projects. Protests take place across the country almost every day.

In March 2012, the government passed two new land bills, supposedly designed to help farmers with land rights. In fact, however, they provide little protection and could make more farmers landless, say activists.

Experts say the laws also do not address shifting cultivation practised by many ethnic groups in upland, border areas. Under the laws, the government could consider such land vacant and give it to companies for large-scale infrastructure.

“The new laws are mainly seen to benefit local and international companies and not the majority smallholder farmers, especially in Burma’s ethnic borderlands,” said TNI’s Kramer.

“Furthermore, in combination with new ceasefires with armed ethnic opposition groups, the laws have already begun to facilitate land grabbing in conflict-affected areas.”

A recent report by Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) paints a similar picture, saying the pace of exploitative land acquisitions by local and foreign players has intensified following a January 2012 ceasefire that ended more than six decades of war between the government and the Karen National Union (KNU).

Jackson says foreign investors and multilateral organisations should also take ethnic concerns on land seriously. 

“The international community is ramping up its aid and development engagements in Myanmar,” he said. “They have the chance to either help smallholder farmers through their programmes or reinforce existing stereotypes and biases towards large-scale industrial agriculture, which could lead to continued if not heightened social unrest or conflict.”

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