'It will happen again': Myanmar ethnic groups fear loss of land after coup

by Rina Chandran | @rinachandran | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 11 February 2021 10:52 GMT

People show the three-finger salute outside the Chinese Embassy as they protest against the military coup and demand the release of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, in Yangon, Myanmar, February 11, 2021. REUTERS/Stringer

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Under past military rule, hundreds of thousands of people from ethnic groups were forced off their land

By Rina Chandran

BANGKOK, Feb 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Ethnic groups in Myanmar fear being forced off their land once again following last week's military coup, which has plunged into doubt hard-won gains by minorities during a decade of democratic transition, rights campaigners said on Thursday.

Myanmar's military toppled the elected government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi on Feb. 1, and a fragile ceasefire with several armed ethnic insurgent movements is now at risk of unravelling, said Paul Sein Twa, an ethnic Karen activist.

If the ceasefire collapses, communities could be forced to flee, risking the loss of their land, he said.

"The military has grabbed our lands in the past, and our worry is that it will happen again, reversing whatever we have achieved," said Sein Twa, who won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize last year for his grassroots activism.

"Since the opening of the country in 2011, at least we had some democratic space in which to engage on policy matters. Now this is gone, and we risk facing more violence like before," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Myanmar authorities could not be reached for comment.

Decades of ethnic conflict and military rule in Myanmar drove hundreds of thousands of people off their land and led to forced evictions and confiscations, according to a 2018 report by Human Rights Watch.

Paul Sein Twa, an indigenous Karen activist and 2020 winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize for Asia. Pics courtesy: Goldman Environmental Prize

Disputes over land have flared since the easing of political and economic restrictions began in 2011, as the reforms led to a rush of foreign investment and greater demand for land in a country where about 70% of the population relies on agriculture.

Refugees returning to Myanmar have often found their land taken for a national park, military use or leased to palm oil concessions and rubber plantations under the 2012 Vacant, Fallow and Virgin (VFV) land law that earmarks land for commercial use.

"Given that 70% of the country's VFV lands are identified in upland ethnic areas, we can expect a bad situation to become even worse for these communities," said Jack Jenkins Hill, a researcher with advocacy group Tanintharyi Friends in Myanmar.

"The new military government will be desperate to shore up financial lifelines," he said, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 economic crisis and growing international sanctions.

"We can be sure there will be more land and resource grabs."

Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy-led government had moved to address land issues in the country. While progress was slow, at least there was a legal process in place, said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch in Asia.

"We are returning to a system of lawlessness, and ethnic people are hard put because they know that the military can seize their land with just a snap of their fingers," he said.

Many people from ethnic groups also lack formal documents for their land, leaving them vulnerable to confiscations, said Sein Twa.

"Our forests, our land are part of our culture, our identity," he said. "We will see our way of life disrupted again."

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(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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