* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Ethnic minorities make up at least a third of Myanmar’s population, yet are denied the right to manage and protect their own land
Stella Naw is a human rights activist focusing on peace and conflict in Myanmar, with a particular focus on ethnic groups in northern Myanmar.
It is estimated that millions of people from cities across Myanmar are in the streets protesting against the military coup that took place on 1 February.
The slogan ‘Free Aung San Suu Kyi’ has drawn out many of those demonstrating. But it is a different demand being made by many ethnic youth in the movement, whose calls are for ‘Federal Democracy’.
Regardless of who sits in Naypyitaw, the lives of ethnic minorities largely remain the same as long as the Myanmar state continues to employ a centralized political system that fuels displacement, inequality and human rights abuses against their communities.
Ethnic minorities feel that consecutive national governments—from the military regime to the NLD’s administration—have treated them as the ‘governed’ rather than recognizing their right to self-determination in their own lands.
Of Myanmar’s 53 million people, 70 percent live in rural areas. This rural population includes many indigenous peoples—ethnic minorities who make up at least one-third of the country’s population. Their survival depends on their ability to access, manage, and protect the land and natural resources in their ancestral homes, a right which has been denied.
These communities have been disproportionately affected by land confiscation facilitated by Myanmar’s national land laws—implemented by both the previous military government and the NLD—in which recognition of customary land tenure for ethnic minorities remains absent. Ethnic populations have also been targeted by decades of armed conflict, perpetrated by the military and allowed to continue under the NLD, resulting in protracted intergenerational displacement of their communities.
The national government has categorized lands used collectively and communally, such as those long allocated for the grazing of livestock or as sacred cultural and spiritual sites, as ‘waste’ lands. Any land that falls under this category is up for grabs under Myanmar’s 2012 Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Land Management Law. Of great concern is that more than 80% of the 45 million acres in this government land classification is located in the ethnic minorities’ areas.
This approach to land management is driven by government hopes of attracting investment. Athong Makury, Chair of ICCA-NEWS (Indigenous Peoples' and Community Conserved Areas and Territories), told me, “They only view our land as a source of cash.”
In Kachin State, we know that once the government has given away land for investment, they will use any means necessary to push indigenous communities out of the area. This has been the case concerning the now-suspended (but not permanently halted) China-backed Myitsone hydropower dam on the confluence of the Irrawaddy River.
Ten years ago, the Myanmar government shut down the only clinic and school in the Kachin village of Tang Hpre after locals resisted orders to move out and make way for the dam. They were forced to move into the ‘model’ village of Aung Myint Thar, leaving their traditional livelihoods behind with no other way to support themselves than to seek work as day laborers.
The scenario surrounding the Myitsone is typical of mega-development projects in Myanmar under past and present regimes: they are set up to benefit only the investor and the national government, while local communities suffer.
Ethnic voices have not only been left out of discussions about our land and resources. Over the last 10 years, we have seen international development support increasingly directed toward partnerships with the central Myanmar government with little, if any, proper and inclusive consultation with or involvement of affected ethnic communities and Ethnic Armed Organizations for projects in their territories for decision-making processes.
This shift in their strategy to partner with the national government was also made at the expense of dramatic funding cut or reduction for ethnic civil societies working along the borders for health and well beings of refugees and displaced populations.
Rather than treating ethnic communities’ existing knowledge and capacity as a foundation from which to promote a federal system based on power-sharing between the national government and ethnic stakeholders, international actors have too often poured the vast majority of funding resources into accelerating the national government’s centralization efforts. This must change.
The resulting political system has worked against peace-building and fostered the feelings of exclusion and frustration we are now seeing expressed on the streets across Myanmar by ethnic youth. While there is united condemnation of the military coup, the youth’s calls for federal democracy are yet another reminder that without a system that accommodates differences, Myanmar will never work as a nation.
For ethnic minorities, protesting the coup is about more than the freedom of one person or one political party. They march to demand a political system based on equality, where every community can make decisions on the issues affecting their lives.