The land law passed by parliament in 2012 can create a barrier for Burma's peace efforts. They violate land tenure rights of the majority of Burma’s rural farmers, and especially ethnic people’s land rights.
The Karen National Union (KNU) which reached a cease-fire with the Burmese government in January 2012, claims that Burma’s recently introduced land laws could cause problems and hamper the country’s peace efforts.
The KNU’s General Secretary P’doh Kwe Htoo Win, in a video statement specially made to inform Karen people about the KNU’s concerns about the land laws said
“Land confiscation is not an issue that has just started happening now: it occurred also during the military regime. Local military leaders used their power to confiscate land. During the time of armed conflict some companies could not carry out agricultural and other economic projects. However after the ceasefire, as it is easier to travel and safer to work, companies have come to our areas and taken the land. Land confiscation is a violation of the peoples and of ethnic rights. It creates mistrust when trust is needed for peace building.”
He also said “The 2012 land laws gives rights to business people to take over lands, or to lease land from the government. The law encourages companies to come and carry out their projects in our areas. This is the problem we have tried to address and to inform the government about.”
In 2012, just 2 months after the signing of the preliminary ceasefire agreement, the government passed 2 new land laws, one of them being the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Lands Management Law.
This law stipulates that any unused land can be claimed and utilized by willing individuals (foreign or local investors included). This means that people cannot simply purchase land and then leave it vacant or fallow for fertility restoration as is normal in rotatinal cropping systems – they must make the land “economically productive” as defined by Ministry of Agriculture officials.
Subsistence agriculture as practiced by many ethnic and indigenous peoples sustains millions of people. However as it produces food directly for family consumption it does not generate much money for the cash economy so it is considered unproductive for the economy of the state.
Foreign investors involved in joint ventures with Burmese based companies or with the government can apply to use land that is currently not being used “productively”. Activities that are permitted include agriculture, mining, raising livestock and other ventures.
Environmental and human rights groups say that the two new land laws - the Farmland Law and the Vacant, Fallow, and Virgin Land Management Law give traditional land users little or no protection. It was said that these laws were intended to clarify ownership under the constitution and provide protection to land leaseholders guaranteeing them more rights of ownership. To date however the only ones to profit from this new law will be big businesses and those close to government.
Under Burma’s 2008 constitution, the state remains the ultimate owner of all land and natural resources in the country. Land rights are given in the form of either leasehold rights, user rights, or the right to cultivate a certain plot of land.
Human rights and environmental groups report that land confiscation is widespread in Burma, while Karen civil society groups report that it is taking place in every district Karen State. It is most serious in Tenasserim Division in the south. The previous military government confiscated much land for their military bases, and took villagers’ farmland to carry out economic projects. Now much bigger areas are being taken for vast monoculture plantations, mining concessions, roads and industrial zones.
The Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) argues that the new laws do not protect the majority of farmers or ethnic people. Saw Albert, the KHRG field director said,
“The current government’s land law does not protect the people. For example, land that is not currently being used for farming or cultivation is considered vacant land by the government, so they can take it anytime they want. Karen people are traditionally rotational farmers. They rotate their crops every year. However, when they move to a new farm, according to the law, their previous year’s farm becomes vacant. The process for villagers to get a land grant takes too long and is complicated and expensive for them.”
The Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN) says the new land laws should be discussed and revised to prevent further land confiscation and environmental destruction.
Saw Paul Sein Twa, Director of KESAN said;
"Currently land issues are important to address and should be fully discussed. Due to the government’s new land laws business people and companies are encouraged to carry out their economic and development projects in (ethnic) areas where the cease-fire is still not stable. It could create serious land problems, including land confiscations and the extraction and destruction of natural resources, creating huge and widespread negative impacts on watershed forests and other environmental functions. It is important to discuss and find solutions in the early stages to prevent the issue from getting out of hand. "
Saw Albert from KHRG points out that land grabbing practices under the military backed civilian government of President Thein Sein are still widespread.
“Since the new government was elected in the 2010, land-grabs are being carried out by companies as more investment comes in. Companies get concessional grants [from the government] and then come to the local areas. But these areas that have been granted by the MoAI include village lands, villagers’ farmland and communal land used by villagers to make their livelihoods. When the companies come, they tell villagers that they bought the land from the government. Then they ask the villagers to leave. This is why the land confiscation problem is ongoing.”
The Washington based Centre for Strategic and International Studies in a report posted on its website said.
“It is estimated that approximately 1.9 million acres were illegally transferred to private companies in the past 20 years, even though 70 percent of that land has never been developed and is still used for farming by the original owners.”
State Agriculture Department records show that by January 2010, 216 companies received a total of 1.75 million acres (708,200 hectares) of farmland in the form of state concessions.
P’doh Kwe Htoo Win confirmed that the 2012 land laws should be suspended during the peace building process.
“It (the laws) need to be reviewed after we have achieved the building of peace.” P'doh Kwe Htoo Win said.
“When we meet with the government and the relevant authorities we will bring up this issue and tell them that land confiscation is hampering the peace building process. It makes the people mistrust the government.”