Myanmar law aims to settle land claims, but could cause conflict

by Rina Chandran | @rinachandran | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 17 December 2018 10:39 GMT

Aung Myo Tho (R), 35, an ethnic Palaung woman and children stand outside their houses near mulberry and silkworm farm in Wanpaolong village in Lashio District, northern Shan State, Myanmar, April 23, 2018. REUTERS/Ann Wang

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The land permit process may exclude indigenous communities from untitled land they have been farming, experts warn

By Rina Chandran

BANGKOK, Dec 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Millions of people risk being forced off their land in Myanmar due to a recently-amended law, which campaigners and analysts warned could also undermine peace negotiations between the government and ethnic armed groups.

The 2012 Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Land Management Law aims to clarify land claims and reduce landlessness. It covers almost a third of Myanmar, mostly in states that have large indigenous populations and an array of ethnic armed groups.

Following an amendment by Myanmar's parliament, the government on Oct. 30 announced that anyone using vacant or fallow land needed to obtain a permit by March 2019.

But the Karen National Union (KNU), an ethnic armed group, said the amended land law violates a 2015 national ceasefire agreement, which it has signed along with nine other armed groups.

Under the terms of the ceasefire, laws affecting the land rights of ethnic minority communities must be approved by signatory groups, said Tah Doh Moo, a spokesman for the KNU.

The amended law "shows no concerns to the rights of indigenous people or human rights norms and discourages peace building," he said in an email to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Advocacy groups have warned that the land permit process may exclude people - mostly indigenous communities - from untitled land they have been farming, which could then be made available for commercial concessions.

"If they do register their land, they will lose their historical and traditional rights to it," said Jason Gelbort, a legal consultant at the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute.

"If they do not register the land, they risk eviction or penalties of imprisonment and/or a fine," he said in a statement last week.

The Myanmar government's land commission did not respond to a request for comment.

Disputes over land in Myanmar have increased since the easing of political and economic restrictions began in 2011, activists say.

The reforms led to a rush of foreign investments and greater demand for land for industrial use in a country where about 70 percent of the population lives in rural areas and depends on agriculture for a living.

Few farmers have formal documents for their land. Even those with titles are frequently forced off their farms without proper legal process or compensation, activists say.

Scores of rights groups, including the Copenhagen-based International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), have called for the recently-amended land law to be suspended.

"The limited time frame for the process will make indigenous peoples trespassers on their own land, and potentially reignite old land disputes," said Signe Leth, a senior advisor at IWGIA, in a statement last week.

"Land conflicts and grievances will increase around the country, and the law will undermine the peace process in which ethnic leaders prioritise recognition of customary land." (Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; Editing by Jared Ferrie. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit

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