COVID-19 Op-ed

The Compounded Struggle to Enjoy Customary Land Tenure Rights and Livelihood Security Amid COVID-19 in Shan State, Myanmar

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Stephen Nyein Han
Land Researcher and Customary Land Tenure Associate

formerly known as Burma, is a Southeast Asian country, which is home to 135
diverse culture and language groups (Bianco, 2016) living together under a
centralized government. Located along Mekong and Irrawaddy basins, it has
also been tagged as “a state shaped largely by civil war” (Stokke, Vakulchuk
and Øverland, 2018). This primarily is due to decades-long conflicts between
the government and various ethnic/indigenous armed groups (Kramer, 2005).
Most indigenous lands are located along the edges of the country, while most
Burmese people live mainly in low-land areas (Kramer, 2015). Historically,
indigenous peoples’ rights to customary land/tenure in Myanmar have been
ignored by both the military and civilian-led government. Moreover, the
Constitution does not recognize such rights.

While the world continues to battle with
Covid-19, indigenous peoples in
Myanmar, particularly in Shan State, have been facing compounded threats
brought about by the health crisis and armed conflicts, such as lack of
access to medical services,
reliefs, health education.
Furthermore, their customary lands are being confiscated by the State to give
way for mega infrastructure concessions and large-scale land-based
investments. In short, they
have been denied of rights to access, withdraw, control, claim, profit, use,
exclude, lease, and manage their customary land (
Forgerite, Scurrah and Si Thu Htike San, 2017). Food and livelihood insecurities have been
aggravated by the inability to freely cultivate crops on their lands.
Furthermore, farmers are not given the opportunity to access legal

On 30 March 2020, when infections were
starting to get recorded in the country, the Central State permitted 1,229
mining concession projects in different regions. Around 326 concessions of
these types are found in Shan State (Ministry of Resource and Natural
Environmental Conservation Department, 2020). Mining capitalists have been
keen to take advantage of Namatu Bawdwin mine and other places in Shan State
while disregarding the rights of indigenous peoples. On 30 May 2020, Sai Wan
Sai (2020) points out that a land dispute broke between the Pa’O indigenous
people and Tatmadaw. The Tatmadaw confiscated around 900 acres of land of the
indigenous in 2018. When the Pa’O farmers who protested were eventually
arrested and sent to jail (Sai Wan Sai, 2020).

The China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), a part of China’s
One Belt One Road Initiative (BRI), has been accelerated by political,
social, and economic changes in Myanmar. This acceleration has also been
compounded by amendments to land-use policies’ mechanism as a form of State
legal land dispossession politics. These policies appear in the 2008
Constitution’s basic national land regulation, 1894 Legal Land Acquisition
Act of 2012 (the rights of State in land use and management), the Grants and
Leases of Land at the Disposal of Government Policy in 2016 National Land Use
Policy, and the 2012/2016 and 2019
Vacant-Fallow-Virgin (VFV)
Land laws. Capital accumulation
by the CMEC for global energy markets has threatened the customary land
(tenure) and the livelihood (including women’s lives) of the Ta’ang
indigenous tea farming society
(Nyein Han Tun, 2019).

The National Land Use Policy of 2016 mandates
the Government “to recognize and protect customary land tenure rights and
procedures” (National Land Use Policy, 2016). UNDRIF Article 10 also points
out that the “Indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from
their land or territories. No relocation shall take place without the free,
prior and informed consent of the indigenous peoples concerned and after
agreement on just and fair compensation and, where possible, with the option
return.” However, amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the current civilian
government has been adamant to strengthen economic development through land
and water-based investments such as seaport, Special Economic Zones,
large-scale agribusinesses, highway roads, and different kinds of
infrastructure development. These position and perspective prove that it is
unable and unwilling to respect and protect the right of its indigenous
peoples to live in dignity.


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