Demonstrators Dec. 11 march in support of three local activists jailed by authorities for involvement in a protest in Myitkyina, capital of restive Kachin State, Myanmar. (Photo by Zau Ring Hpra AFP)
La Dee, an internally displaced person (IDP) in Myanmar's northern Kachin State, did not envisage being dispossessed of his farmlands through changes to land laws.
But he and thousands of other displaced people are now afraid that this will happen.
Such people's ancestors were the original occupants of traditional land and their descendants still till the soil using customary practices.
La Dee, a Kachin Baptist, told ucanews.com of deep fears, not only that they will be left landless, but that their culture and traditions will disappear.
He said most villagers lack land ownership documents as their occupation was long-standing and traditional.
They are now looking at the daunting prospect of having only six months to register their holdings with a special land management committee even though most IDPs could not return to their villages for security reasons.
La Dee fled his home due to fighting between the military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in 2011 and took refuge at the Kachin Baptist Convention-run camp in Momauk township, southern Kachin State.
Since 2011, more than 100,000 people have been forced into 167 IDP camps in parts of Kachin and neighboring Shan State that are variously controlled by government and non-government forces. Most of Kachin's 1.7-million population is Christian, including 116,000 Catholics.
IDPs say land law amendments not recognizing customary practices provide for traditional owners to be treated as criminals if their land is not registered.
Myanmar's parliament enacted the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Land Management Law in September 2018. It 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.
"This is not in line with federal democracy standards and can cause land conflicts in the ethnic reconciliation and peace process," IDPs in Kachin and Shan states said in a statement released Nov.26.
Peter Nawng Lat, a Catholic displaced person from an IDP camp in Kutkai, northern Shan State, said he is attempting to ensure greater community awareness of the new provisions.
He told ucanews.com that anxiety over the issue was exacerbated by the government's failure to properly explain the measures.
Mar Khar, a law advocate based in Myitkyina, the capital city of Kachin State, accused the National League for Democracy government, largely under the control of former prisoner-of-conscience Aung San Suu Kyi, of rushing the changes without adequate consultation.
He points out that registering land within six months is out of the question amid the bureaucratic incompetence of local authorities.
"I don't understand why members of parliament are making this move as the law needs to protect the people rather than giving trouble to them," Mar Khar, an ethnic Kachin, told ucanews.com.
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.
Critics of the legislative changes say land conflicts and grievances will increase around the country, undermining economic development.
Naw San, a Catholic and Lower House MP for the ruling NLD, acknowledges strong opposition among rights' groups and local communities in regard to the new vacant land law.
He hopes the land management committee will carry out more consultations.
"It is very concerning for the peoples in ethnic areas including IDPs as they abandoned their land due to war," Naw San told ucanews.com.
"So, we need to consider them before implementing the law."