Labelled by land rights NGO Land In Our Hands (LIOH) as “burdening and oppressive”, the amended VFV Law worries many, as more conflicts are likely to ensue and could tear the already divided country apart once enforced.
Enacted in September last year, the amendments to the VFV law passed in 2012 were intended to clarify land claims, improve land use efficiency and tackle land rights abuses by companies. Yet, a notice by the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation issued last October 30, demanding those occupying vacant, fallow or virgin lands to submit applications for land permits appears to be advocating the opposite.
If the applications are not received by the March deadline, millions of people residing in the land inherited from ancestry as well as refugees displaced by conflicts will face evictions, up to two years of imprisonment and/or K500,000 fines, and be labelled as trespassers by the law.
The VFV law amendment has sparked a public outcry among civil society groups, farmers’ organisations and ethnic groups who claim it counters the National League for Democracy’s pledge to protect minority landowners and resolve land disputes.
“This law is inviting conflict,” said Pado Saw L Wah, the Karen National Union (KNU) chair of Taungoo district in Kachin.
Pado Saw L Wah’s concern is underscored by the law’s implications, including land conflicts and societal unsettlement that may be triggered as soon as the amendment goes into effect in March.
The conflicts could impact ongoing peace negotiations. “The new law would impact seriously on the peace process that the government and ethnic armed organisations are engaging in,” according to a statement by LIOH and Myanmar Alliance for Transparency and Accountability (MATA). The statement, which called for an immediate halt in implementing the law, has garnered endorsements from 346 civil society organisations.
According to the amended section 22 (b) of the law, people residing on VFV land have to apply for 30-year VFV land use permits by March. If not, these people would become “landless criminals”. Yet, if they do so, they are voluntarily giving up legal rights and ownership of the lands to the government and accepting centralised control of the land by the state.
Even if the farmers seek to register, most of them lack the financial means to map out the area they own or show the administrative unit that they possess sufficient financial resources for registration. Besides, many of the potential victims live in highland areas where they cannot easily access the land registration service.
The ill-defined land area under the law presents another problem. An open letter by 41 civil groups published in November 2018 said: “the boundaries of VFV lands are not clear and millions of people do not know whether their lands are considered VFV land or that they need to apply for registration.”
According to the government’s estimate, the total area of VFV land reaches approximately 50 million acres. Occupying about one-third of Myanmar’s territory, VFV land also makes up 75 percent of the seven ethnic states: Chin, Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, Mon, Rakhine and Shan.
The amendment also fails to take refugees such as Internally Displaced People (IDP) owing to armed conflicts into consideration.
“We just want our land back,” said Daw Ywe Sont, a Kachin farmer displaced in Waingmaw township with other IDPs. Now that the government is set to implement the VFV law, hope for reclaiming their land is fading.
As of November 2018, more than a million of Kachin and Chin people were internally displaced, resulting in 172 IDP sites in Kachin and northern Shan, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
“Due to their vulnerable situation, IDPs and refugees need special measures to protect their housing, land and property rights,” said Jose Arraiza, Information, Counseling and Legal Assistance Specialist of the Norwegian Refugee Council.
U Thein Sein’s regime drafted the National Land Use Policy (NLUP) in January 2016 in view of safeguarding the rights of the often-marginalised communities in the ethnic borderland. Provisions included not only recognise and protect customary land rights but support the return of IDPs.
The 2018 amendment though, “contradicts key elements of the 2016 National Land Use policy, such as provisions on restitution or the land use rights of ethnic nationalities,” Mr Arraiza said.
As a result, experts now foresee a rise in land disputes. “MPs have explained that the amendment can be used to prevent land rights abuses by companies, but the VFV and other laws already had provisions for doing this which are instead widely used against farmers,” said Ben Hardman, legal deputy director of Earthrights International in Myanmar. “The reality is that the amendment means that from March 2019, many farmers and communities will automatically be trespassing on land they have used for generations.”
Evidence has shown that cases of land grabbing and lawsuits against powerless farmers have drastically increased since the first edition of VFV law, according to LIOH and MATA. And now, the amendment to the law is hastening “efforts to grab the land from ethnic people across the country” in favour of the creation of a land market for investors and speculators.
To raise public awareness of the legislation and the destructive consequences facing the Myanmar society, LIOH together with numerous other civil organisations have launched a campaign to call for the complete abolishment of the VFV law and respect and protection of ethnic communities since November 11 last year. The Myanmar Times understands that the government has reneged on a meeting with LIOH, postponing the meeting upon further notice.
The National Land Use Council and the VFV Land Management Central Committee under the agriculture ministry could not be reached for comments.