Myanmar's new land law 'could have disastrous impact on ethnic minorities'

By agency reporter
March 13, 2019

A UN expert has expressed grave concerns about the implementation of a new land law in Myanmar, affecting a third of the country, and the disastrous implications for traditional farming communities in ethnic minority regions.

“Today marks the day that thousands of people living in rural areas in Myanmar may be charged with criminal trespass if they continue to use their lands as they have done for generations”, Yanghee Lee, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, told the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

She said the amended Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Lands Management Law fails to  recognise shared land ownership practices, such as customary tenure, and land belonging to internally displaced people and refugees of conflict that has been left unattended. “The Law does not sufficiently recognise this reality,” Lee said. “The Law affects so many people, and with land insecurity central to the cycle of conflict, poverty and denial of rights, it has the potential to be disastrous.”

The law, which came into effect on 11 March 2019, requires anyone occupying or using “vacant, fallow, or virgin” land to apply for a permit to use the land for 30 years or face eviction and up to two years in jail. She called on the Government to immediately suspend and review the law.

Lee also raised serious concerns about natural resource extraction, saying it was the one area of the economy she received more reports of human rights abuse in relation to than any other.

“Military-dominated state-owned economic enterprises in natural resource extraction are the regulators, revenue collectors and commercial entities, and they are permitted to retain vast profits that bypass the Government budget with no record kept on how they are spent”, she said.

“Revenues from natural resource extraction needed for vital services and development being diverted to the military and its allies, undermines the civilian Government, democratic reforms, the peace process, sustainable development and the realisation of rights.”

The Special Rapporteur said the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd and Myanmar Economic Corporation were active across many sectors, including natural resource extraction. “The full extent of their business operations and profits are unclear, but their main beneficiaries are most likely to be high-ranking military and ex-military officials,” she said.

Lee said armed conflict continued in northern Shan between ethnic armed organisations and in Rakhine State between the Arakan Army and the Tatmadaw, and civilians were facing rights abuses as a result. Lee called on all parties to end hostilities, and to ensure that they take precautions and protect civilians.

She urged the international community to continue to work for justice for victims in Myanmar. Given that the road to justice was long and uncertain, she said, it was paramount that victims’ needs were addressed. “There is much that Myanmar must do to deal with the past. Reversing the continued stance of denial, and shifting to recognition and acknowledgement would go a long way to bringing about an end to impunity that has long existed in Myanmar.”

Lee called for the situation in Myanmar to be referred to the International Criminal Court by the Security Council, or a state party or group of states parties. “Victims must not be forced to wait in the purgatory of international inaction”, she said, adding if it was not possible to refer the situation to the ICC, the international community should consider establishing an independent tribunal.

* Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights https://www.ohchr.org/EN/Pages/Home.aspx

[Ekk/6]

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