Controversial land law threatens Myanmar ethnic communities

If they don't have paperwork proving they own their land, they could face two years in prison or pay a hefty fine
Controversial land law threatens Myanmar ethnic communities

Women rest in the yard of a monastery-turned-temporary shelter for internally displaced persons in Hsipaw, Shan State, on Jan. 13. Swathes of the state have been embroiled in conflict for decades with a fiendishly complex web of ethnic armed groups fighting the military for land, resources and autonomy. (Photo by Ye Aung Thu/AFP)

Millions of people in Myanmar face the possibility of having no legal rights over their land if they do not meet a deadline for land claim applications.

Permits from applications are now required under the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Land Management Law that the country’s parliament enacted in September 2018. The deadline for applications fell on March 11.

The law stipulates that violators of the land registration rule can be punished with imprisonment for up to two years and/or a 500,000 kyat (US$320) fine.

Those worst affected by the law and for failing to meet the deadline are people displaced by conflict and people in ethnic areas.

The government reportedly estimates that 82 percent of land classified as vacant, virgin or fallow is in Myanmar’s ethnic regions.

Most villagers’ land, particularly in ethnic areas, is still not registered to specific owners. Ethnic people use much of this land according to the customary law.

Rights groups, civil society and ethnic armed groups have urged the government to halt implementation of the land law.

Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), said the law could result in millions of people losing their land rights or risk being charged with trespass for remaining on land they have lived or worked on their whole lives.

“If this is mishandled, it could even spark widespread civil unrest and a return to armed conflict in parts of the country,” Adams said in a statement.

According to HRW, the law creates incentives for authorities to take land from traditional communities that have for generations passed down land to their children by traditional or informal means.

It also opens the possibility that businesses and private companies can make claims to this land, adding to the potential for land conflicts.

Yanghee Lee, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, said the law failed to recognize shared land ownerships practices, such as customary tenure, and land belonging to internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees of conflict that has been left unattended.

“With land insecurity central to the cycle of conflict, poverty and denial of rights, the law has the potential to be disastrous,” Lee said in her presentation to the U.N. Human Rights Council on March 11.

Even before the deadline expired, farmers in Myanmar’s southern Taninthargyi regions were sued by local authorities who accused them of trespassing on the land they had occupied and farmed for decades, according to at least one local media report.

Concerns from those displaced

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Peter Nawng Lat, a Catholic who now lives in one of the camps for the displaced in northern Shan State, said it is an open question on how local authorities will implement the land law in conflict areas due to ongoing sporadic fighting.

“Our IDPs have already tried telling the government we could lose our ancestral lands and we could also become criminals under this law,” Nawng Lat told

Since 2011, more than 100,000 people have been forced into 167 IDP camps in parts of Kachin and neighboring Shan State due to conflict between the government and ethnic forces. Most of Kachin's 1.7 million people are Christian, including 116,000 Catholics.

Naw San, a Catholic and lower house MP for the ruling National League for Democracy, said he realizes the land law has weaknesses. He said it could be amended at an unspecified time to consider people’s challenges and their concerns.

“People can tell the president’s office how difficult it is to apply for an application and they can voice their concerns so that the government will consult more,” Naw San told

Last December, the Karen National Union, one of Myanmar’s largest ethnic armed organizations, demanded the government tear up the law, saying it undermined the country’s peace process.

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