Myanmar is being threatened with a land grab on a massive scale.
In September 2018, Myanmar’s parliament, led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, passed an amendment to the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin (VFV) Lands Management Law, requiring anyone occupying land classified as “vacant, fallow, or virgin” to apply for 30-year land-use permit to use and occupy their own land. The window to register one’s land was 6-months. If a farmer, for instance, failed to register, another group such as a palm oil company could be awarded the land and the farmer could face up to two years in prison for trespassing.
Most of the lands classified as VFV are in ethnic rural areas, totaling about 30% of the land mass of the country. The law’s purported aim is to put unused land into more productive use, but much of the lands classified as vacant are in fact not. Some are forests which communities use for food, firewood, and water. Others are pasture lands where animals are brought to graze, and farmlands where individuals and families grow their crops.
Under the amendment, lands used under customary tenure are excluded from the VFV classification, but the law does not provide a definition of customary land or any procedure by which communities can register their land as customary.
With its wide and vague reach, the law throws open the gates to displacement and criminalization for an estimated 10 million people. Given that most VFV land is used by ethnic minorities, many of whom cannot read, write, or speak Burmese, there was particular concern that word of the law and its terms would not reach those who depend on land for their survival, and who the law would directly impact.
In February, one month before the registration window closed, Namati conducted a survey to record a snapshot of the legal awareness of communities directly affected by the law.
The results were startling.
- Most farmers were unaware of the VFV law and the new amendment – 72% respondents did not know the substance of the law and only 3% could be considered knowledgeable about the law. Only 1% of farmers were aware that customary land is excluded from the definition of VFV land.
- Farmers did not know the time constraints imposed by the law – only 9% of farmers surveyed were aware the 6-month grace period to apply for their land.
- Farmers did not understand the process for registration – just 16 % of respondents had started to prepare for registration and not one had applied.
- Farmers find the implication that their land is seen as VFV and they only qualify for a concession insulting – 27% of respondents responded that they will not apply for VFV registration because they do not consider their land as VFV. Namati’s interviewers also repeatedly heard from farmers that it is insulting to have to request a 30-year concession on their own land which they feel is theirs.
The law’s short registration window was compounded by the absence of a strong, widespread, and multilingual public awareness campaign that informed millions of people potentially impacted by the law of the steps they should take to safeguard their lands and livelihoods.
Evictions have already begun, and government officials and palm oil conglomerates have used the law to strip smallholder farmers of their lands and sue them for trespassing. The worst is yet to come.
The law and its enactment have been at best vacant of any notion of justice, human rights, and peace. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party must immediately reverse course on the VFV amendment. The lives and livelihoods of millions hang in the balance.
Access an infographic capturing data from the survey in English and Burmese here.