KARENNI LAND CONFISCATION
Government's land reform amendment and its negative consequences
On August 20, a 45-page report on land reform was released by Kayah Human Rights and Environmental Rights Movement Network.
The report states that following the September 2018 amendment on “Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Land Management Law (VFV Land Law)” land confiscation disputes have dramatically increased in Kayah or Karenni state.
Accordingly, the new law demands that these people must now apply for 30-year concessions to use their own land. If they fail to do so and another group such as a company or any entity is awarded the land title of their land, they may face up to two years imprisonment for trespassing. Most of the lands classified as VFV are in rural ethnic states and up to 10 million people live or rely on these land plots for their livelihood.
“While the amendment does exclude land being used under customary tenure from being classified as VFV, the law provides no definition of customary land or any procedure by which communities can register their land as customary,” wrote Namati, a grassroots legal advocates group, in its report “Most Farmers Do Not Know about the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Land Management Law as the Grace Period to Register Closes”.
Accordingly, as the report's title suggests, ethnic farmers either really don't know or refuse their land to be classified as VFV land and stick to their traditional customary land ownership, with a negative consequence on their own welfare.
Saw Eh Say negotiator of the Kayah Human Rights and Environmental Rights Movement Network explained the aims of their report as, “(resolving) land use issues; national reconciliation; and (achieving) genuine democratic federal union.”
According to the Karenni State Farmer Union (KSFU), there are some 50,000 acres of confiscated land in Karenni state, with the majority held by the military, also known as Tatmadaw and Myanmar army, governmental agencies and economic entrepreneurs.
“I wanted to highlight the confiscation. After the farmers knew more about land rights and laws and assessed the situation, they realised that their lands were being confiscated,” said the KSFU Chairman Khu Tu Reh.
“If we calculated the exact acreage it will be about 50,000 acres. There is also confiscation after 2010, mostly for building military camps by the Myanmar army,” he added.
Reportedly, land confiscation is mostly in Loikaw, Hpruso, Demoso townships.
Farmers from Dawmukala village, Loikaw Township, and Dawsoshay village, Demoso Township, have appeared before the court because of a Tatmadaw lawsuit against them regarding land disputes.
Dawsoshay farmer, Ko Mar expressed her worries saying: “I'm worried about the lawsuit as it concerns my livelihood. I'm uncertain, what to do next and very worried. I only have this small farm and no other job or income. That's why I wanted to get back this farm. I rely on this farm like my parents as it pays for my sons and daughters education, livelihood, societal duty expenses and everything,” according to a Network Media Group recent report. The Kayah Human Rights and Environmental Rights Movement Network report called upon the authorities to stop the land confiscation, suing the local people and arresting them as they affect their livelihood, security and peace.
In fighting back, desperate Karenni farmers have staged silent demonstrations, ploughing demonstrations and planting on their confiscated lands in a bid to get back their land plots.
Reportedly, the farmers were charged under penal code paragraph 427 causing mischief by damaging;
paragraph 447 criminal trespassing; paragraph 353 using criminal force against public servant; and paragraph 61 destroying public property.
KSFU said that now 27 farmers, some in prison and some free are facing a lawsuit at the court, where they have to appear weekly.
One record taker and also state parliament committee member from Loikaw town, gathering facts accompanied by a farmer whose land was confiscated, were both arrested under paragraph 6 of destroying public property.
Looking at the unfolding scenarios in Karenni state, one could only confirm that government land policy reform has undoubtedly failed.
The latest Transnational Institute report quoted one Karenni Internally Displaced Person (IDP) and refugee on 21 August 2019 as saying: “After the VFV law amendment, over 50 acres of land in Hpruso was registered under the name of a Burma (Myanmar) Army commander. These laws should be for the people, but now they benefit only a small group of people.”
Moreover, the amended VFV Land Law of September 2018 has wiped out the ethnic customary land ownership law, which has brought misery and hardship to the ethnic farmer population, as is evident by many ongoing cases in Karenni state.
However, this is not only limited to the farmers in Karenni state. The same problem is arising in all ethnic states and will exacerbate once hundreds of IDP and refugees fleeing armed conflict in Kachin, Shan and Karen states return to claim their customary ownership of the lands they left.
Some farmers in Karenni state are so desperate that they may even be thinking of armed struggle as their livelihood, which is dependent on land, have been taken away, said KSFU Chairman Khu Tu Reh very recently.
Thus, the government should accommodate the ethnic nationality farmers' traditional customary land ownership for now and let the individual ethnic state decide for itself in the future, as the country is trying to move towards federalism.
Furthermore, promulgating such sweeping laws on land reform, without the consent of the ethnic nationalities, maybe breaching the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), which is already officially endorsed by parliament during Thein Sein's presidency.
In NCA Chapter 6 “Confidence-building measures,” phrases like environmental conservation; efforts to preserve and promote ethnic culture, language, and literature; and matters regarding peace and stability, and the maintenance of rule of law in the said areas (ethnic areas); are to be carried out and observed by the government and the Ethnic Armed Organizations in coordination.”
Seen from this point of view the National League for Democracy government may be breaching the NCA endorsed by parliament and should give a second thought towards correcting its failed land reform policy.
Photo: Karenni State Farmer Union