Untermensch with nowhere to go: Myanmar farmers under siege from land law

Tony Gosling tony at cultureshop.org.uk
Thu Apr 4 13:40:44 BST 2019

Nowhere to go: Myanmar farmers under siege from land law

The Myanmar government has tightened a law on 
so-called 'vacant, fallow and virgin' land, and farmers are at risk.

Goldberg - 04 April 2019
The law puts farmers at risk, mostly in territories that are ho

The law puts farmers at risk, mostly in 
territories that are home to ethnic minorities 
[File: Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP Photo]

MORE ON <https://www.aljazeera.com/topics/country/myanmar.html>MYANMAR

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Yangon, Myanmar - Han Win Naung is besieged on his own land.

Last September, local administrators in Myanmar's 
southern Tanintharyi region put up a sign at the 
edge of his 5.7-hectare farm that read "Under 
Management Ownership - Do Not Trespass".

They felled the trees and started building a drug 
rehabilitation facility and an agriculture 
training school on opposite ends of his plot.

He was eventually informed that the 
administrators were challenging his claim to the 
land and had filed charges against him under a 
controversial law that could see him jailed for three years.

"I didn't know what this law was," the 
37-year-old farmer told Al Jazeera. "I didn't 
understand what was happening to us. They also 
asked us to move. We don't have anywhere else to go."

Han Win Naung is accused of violating the Vacant, 
Fellow and Virgin (VFV) Lands Management Law 
which requires anyone living on land categorised 
as "vacant, fallow, and virgin" to apply for a 
permit to continue using it for the next 30 years.

According to estimates based on government data, 
this category totals more than 20 million 
hectares or 30 percent of Myanmar's land area. 
Three-quarters of it is home to the country's ethnic minorities.

The law has sparked outrage among land-rights 
activists, who say it criminalises millions of 
farmers who do not have permits and lays the 
ground for unchecked land seizures by the 
government, the military and private companies.

Han Win Naung's farm was seized by the Myanmar 
authorities under a new land law and his crops 
are now untended [Han Win Naung/Al Jazeera]

Struggle to survive

"The more people learn about this law, the more 
they will use it against farmers who cannot 
afford lawyers," said a lawyer who is 
representing Han Win Naung. She asked to be 
identified only as a member of Tanintharyi 
Friends, a group that represents several farmers 
who have been sued under this law.

Now Han Win Naung's farm is in disrepair. Because 
of the lawsuit, he has been unable to tend to the 
mango, banana and cashew trees that have 
sustained his family since his father set up the farm 28 years ago.

"We haven't been able to do anything on the farm 
since September 
 We are facing a lot of trouble 
getting food on the table," he said.

The VFV law is modelled on a British colonial 
policy in which land occupied by indigenous 
people was labelled "wasteland" in order to 
justify seizing it and extracting its revenue. 
After independence, Myanmar's military rulers 
adopted the strategy as a way to ensure they could feed their ranks.

In 2012, the nominally civilian government under 
former general Thein Sein enshrined the strategy 
into law, referring to the targeted land as 
"vacant, fallow, and virgin" instead of "wasteland".

Last year, despite coming to power on a platform 
of protecting the land rights of smallholder 
farmers and promising to reverse all military 
land grabs within a single year, the government 
San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy 
(NLD) made the VFV law stricter.

With the NLD's endorsement, arrests and evictions 
of farmers like Han Win Naung are accelerating.

In September 2018, Myanmar's parliament, which is 
controlled by the NLD, passed an amendment that 
imposed a two-year prison sentence on anyone 
found living on "vacant, fallow, and virgin land" 
without a permit after March 11.

This gave millions of farmers, many of them 
illiterate or unable to speak Burmese, just six 
months to complete a Kafkaesque process of 
claiming land they already consider their own.

According to a survey conducted by the Mekong 
Region Land Governance Project, in the month 
before the deadline, 95 percent of people living 
on so-called VFV land had no knowledge of the law.

Han Win Naung's family outside their home in 
Myanmar's southern Tanintharyi region [Han Win Naung/Al Jazeera]

'Torn up'

As the deadline approached, local land-rights 
activists jumped into action, sending petitions 
to the government demanding that the law be repealed.

In November, 300 civil society organisations 
signed an open letter denouncing the law as "an 
effort to grab the land of ethnic peoples across 
the country", especially land belonging to 
hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally 
displaced people who have no ability to apply for permits.

In December, the Karen National Union (KNU), a 
powerful ethnic armed organisation that had 
recently withdrawn from the national peace 
process, called for the VFV law to be "torn up", 
raising the spectre of future conflict.

But these petitions fell on deaf ears, and as the 
deadline expired, millions of people, many of 
whose families had been on the same land for generations, became trespassers.

Saw Alex Htoo, deputy director of the Karen 
Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN), 
blames the NLD's pursuit of foreign investment for the policy.

"The NLD is pushing for investment to come into 
the country without really looking at what's 
happening on the ground," he said. "That's the 
only way they could support this VFV law, which 
is inviting conflict and will displace millions of farmers across the country."

When asked why the party would pass an amendment 
that could harm so many people, NLD spokesperson 
Myo Nyunt said that while land disputes might 
arise, the purpose of the law was not mass dispossession.

A sign on what was Han Win Naung's family farms 
warns against trespassing, while a drug rehab 
facility and agricultural training facility are 
being built there [Han Win Naung/Al Jazeera]

"The purpose of the law is to promote the rule of law," he said.

"When we implement the new law, those affected 
have the responsibility to understand and follow 
it. If they have grievances, they can report them 
to the relevant committee addressing land grabs. 
There will be some people who are affected 
negatively by this law, but that is not the intention of this law.

"The government is working to improve the 
livelihood and quality of life in Myanmar and the rule of law."

Ye Lin Myint, national coordinator for the 
Myanmar Alliance for Transparency and 
Accountability (MATA), said enforcement of the 
VFV law actually calls the rule of law into 
question because it contradicts several earlier 
government commitments, including the 2015 
Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) between the 
government and eight ethnic armed organizations.

"The NCA clearly states that during the peace 
process, there should be no land seizures," he 
said. "This law will start a domino effect of ethnic conflict."

Conflict over the VFV law has already begun. At 
least one activist has been arrested for 
protesting against it and observers say the NLD's 
role in generating conflict risks a backlash in next year's election.

"The ruling National League for Democracy party 
are really shooting themselves in the foot with 
the VFV law," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia 
director for Human Rights Watch. "This will be a 
human rights disaster that goes to the doorstep 
of millions of farmers across the nation, and 
it's a fair bet they will punish those they 
consider responsible in the next election."

Han Win Naung attests to this. Since he was sued, 
his 80-year-old father has stopped eating and 
cannot sleep. His children, nieces, and nephews 
are embarrassed to go to school.

"People like us have been suffering since this 
government came to power," he said. "We don't 
think we will be voting for the NLD in 2020."
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