Our Journey in 2019 & 2020
On 1 February 2021 Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, conducted a coup d’etat on the day the new parliament was to be seated, arresting Aung San Suu Kyi and other democratically elected leaders. While the outcome of the coup is being vigorously contested in the street, online, and internationally by virtually all Myanmar citizens, it nevertheless represents a dire backwards step, undoing a decade of democratic construction. Myanmar was ruled by a series of brutal military Juntas from 1962 to 2010.
For decades, Myanmar’s military dictatorship denied people the right to make decisions about the land and environment on which their livelihood and well-being depended. The military and crony companies often stole land outright from farmers and ethnic minorities. Many were forcefully displaced while others were made to pay rent to tend to their own land.
After the country transitioned to quasi-civilian rule in 2010, the newly-elected National League for Democracy party initiated the return of seized lands and improvements to land and environmental governance. Unfortunately, these processes have been slow and rocky and undercut by another government venture: the pursuit of private domestic and foreign investment. Their approach to securing investors in sectors such as mining and agriculture has resulted in the exploitation of small-hold farmers and rural communities.
Since 2013, Namati and local partners have deployed community paralegals to support small-hold farmers to recover stolen lands and better protect the land and community forests they use. In 2019 we expanded our land rights work to include cases of environmental injustice.
Over the past two years, paralegals assisted communities to resolve over 140 cases of land grabbing and environmental non-compliance — such as the case of the 8 manganese mines whose untreated run-off and toxic dust were harming nearby farmers and their fields (see story below). While the pandemic did present us with challenges, we were able to continue much of our casework by moving our community education and paralegal training online.
Paralegals are increasingly focusing on complex cases that can have a system-wide impact. They organize communities across dozens of cases that are blocked by the same systemic barriers, such as lack of transparency about the status of a land investigation, and then jointly take the common challenges to senior civilian officials. They convince the officials to use their authority to unblock the system, and then rigorously follow up on each individual case until resolution. In Shan State, where paralegals bundled together 299 land registration cases — none of which had moved for over a year — more than 280 cases were resolved within three months of meeting the State Minister for Agriculture. In 2020, we organized another 50 land grab cases to apply this ‘joint case’ approach.
At the systemic level, we work to democratize land and environmental governance in Myanmar: replacing a top-down and often repressive regime with one that centers on the experience and voice of the people who depend most on the land. In 2019 and 2020, we drew on data from our casework to publish multiple policy briefs highlighting the slow down of the resolution of land-grab cases, suggesting concrete improvements to recognizing customary land rights, and calling for stronger civil society representation in the land governance mechanism. Our partners and the communities with whom they work engaged directly with the highest-level civilian officials in multiple states, speaking powerfully from their own experience about the gaps in the land governance system.
Our multi-pronged advocacy and direct engagement with MPs resulted in important systemic wins in the last two years. For example, for over a century the government in Myanmar has been able to expropriate land for public projects as and when they see fit, without any obligation to resettle or rehabilitate those who owned, used, or lived on it. The new Land Acquisition Law of 2019 partially accepted Namati’s recommendations, including the incorporation of a definitive list of public purpose project categories, reducing the possibility that the law would be misused or abused.
The pandemic slowed down our engagement with government officials and decision makers in 2020. Despite these challenges, we continued to coordinate virtually with civil society organizations involved in the national land reform process.
In 2021, we planned to ramp up our casework and achieve additional policy wins in partnership with thousands of community members. The coup on 1 February 2021 rendered that impossible. While our plans are currently in flux, one thing is clear: our team is committed to deepening democracy in Myanmar for the long run.
Our Grassroots Impact at a Glance
In 2019 and 2020, paralegals supported small-hold farmers and rural communities to secure the return of seized lands and address environmental violations. Together, they achieved remedies that directly improved the livelihoods and wellbeing of thousands of people.
Black Water and Toxic Dust: Closing Illegal Mines in Myanmar
No one asked them. No one even informed them. The first indicator the villagers had that something was happening in the Ar Yel Mountains was the arrival of men in construction hats.
At the beginning the disturbance was minimal; it was only one or two companies undertaking site explorations and tests. But by 2014, eight companies were “tearing the mountains apart” in their quest for manganese dioxide. That, said the villagers, was when the problems really began.
The companies clear cut swaths of forests, ploughing under the trees the nearby communities used for cooking fuel and displacing the animals they hunted for food. They dumped toxic sludge into mountain streams, turning the communities’ drinking and bathing water black. And they left heaps of mining waste exposed. When it rained, the waste washed into the rice plantations below.
Then there was the dust. Trucks hurtled along the Sili Nyauk – Maw Twee road all day and night, clouds of thick toxic dust trailing behind them and clumps of the brittle mineral tumbling from their uncovered loads. The people living and working along the route reported that breathing had become difficult. Farmers reported that their crops were failing. One family whose fields once yielded 80 baskets an acre said they were now producing only 30. The loss of income meant that they could no longer afford to send their children to school.
Altogether, 25 villages in this ethnic minority region of Eastern Shan State were affected. A total of 6,910 people, whose health, wellbeing, and livelihoods suffered due to the manganese mines.
Fifteen years ago, Daw Nang Nwe had made one of these 25 villages her home. She had established a shop selling pork along the main road, was liked and respected by her fellow community members, and was elected the head of the local religious association. But the situation was becoming too much. The toxic dust had not only invaded her lungs, it had infected her skin. Red itchy bumps formed across her face and hands. The doctor told her she had to stay away from the dust — and that meant closing her shop. “I was very angry. I wanted to move”, admits Daw Nang Nwe. “But I talked to my family and they said no, we need you. Stay, and together we will fight.”
So Daw Nang Nwe stayed and fought. Together with other village leaders, she spoke with the companies and wrote to the Township General Administrative Department. But their efforts had minimal effect.
Several community members ended up reaching out to paralegals working with Namati’s partner Than Lwin Thitsar (TLT), which had been assisting communities to address land and environmental rights for several years.
TLT’s paralegals began by holding education sessions with all the affected villages on key laws and policies related to mining and the environment. It quickly became clear that the companies were failing to comply with numerous laws. Something could be done, but first, the paralegals said, they had to determine what it was they wanted. A number of people thought it best to be more cautious with their requests, asking only for the companies to comply with the law. But the majority felt otherwise: they wanted the companies gone.
With that mandate, the paralegals and representatives from each village, including Daw Nang Nwe, started building their case. They dug deeper into the legal clauses, gathered evidence of violations, and composed their first official letter stating their demands. “We felt more powerful with paralegal guidance,” recalls Daw Nang Nwe. “We learned how to use the law, and it made us more confident.” The difference in their approach led to a new response; within three months the government had visited the village tract to discuss the issues and see the problems first-hand.
The swift response was promising, but they knew it didn’t necessarily mean a solution would follow. The laws and guidelines around mining and environmental conservation were largely new; they had rarely, if ever, been evoked by ordinary people and were equally untested by the government. Anticipating setbacks, Namati, TLT, and the communities continued their legal research and in doing so, they made a game-changing discovery: none of the 8 companies had valid mining permits.
Whatever reservations or doubts the communities had before were gone. The information, said Daw Nang Nwe, “was good for us. It motivated us. We realized ‘we can fight with this.’” And that they did.
Confronted with the fact that the mines were operating illegally, the government ordered the companies to cease all operations in Al Yer Mountains. Rural villagers, from one of Myanmar’s ethnic minority groups, had successfully achieved the closure of 8 unlawful mines.
More than a year has now passed since the closures. The mountain streams are once again running clear, the forests are showing signs of renewal, and the toxic dust that choked crops and people alike is no more.
As for Daw Nang Nwe, her rash has healed and cough subsided and she is happily back to running her shop. No longer does she think about leaving the community that she made a home. If the mines return, “we will keep pushing”, she says. “We will never stop fighting to ensure they follow the law.”
Sharing What We Learned
In 2019 & 2020, our team in Myanmar produced multiple policy briefs and studies, as well as a comprehensive, globally-relevant training manual on the paralegal approach.