The Vacant, Fallow, Virgin (VFV) Land Management Law, amended on September 2018, set a March 11 deadline for anyone occupying or using “vacant, fallow, or virgin” land to apply for an official permit to use the land for 30 years or face eviction and up to two years in jail.
But lawyers say lawsuits against villagers were launched before the cut-off date, and they fear many more cases will follow.
Amendments to the VFV law, observers warn, could criminalise large numbers of smallholders in ethnic borderlands. It could also threaten the rights of people displaced by conflict who have problems accessing their land or local government offices.
Two lawyers in Dawei from advocacy organisation Tanintharyi Friends, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the cases, told The Myanmar Times that four people in Kyauksha village were sued on August 24, 2018 in the Yephyu Township Court by the township level land department officer for trespassing on VFV land under Section 26 of the VFV law.
But the villagers had been living on the 14-acre plot of land in Kyauksha for more than two decades, growing lemons, betel nuts, bananas and other vegetables for a living.
They had applied to use the VFV land but were rejected. The VFV land management committee said the villagers wanted the land for speculation, even though they did not own any other land. The lawyers believe the application was refused because family members of local officials wanted to apply for use of the land themselves.
A second case began in Ta Line Yar village, also in Yephyu township, where the same official sued four villagers on October 5, 2018 for trespassing on VFV land. A lawyer explained they had not applied for VFV land as they were not aware of the law.
Villagers need a recommendation letter from village chiefs before they can apply for VFV permits. “It is actually very easy to issue a VFV permit to the villagers. The problem is that land department and village heads would like to give the land to outsiders who are richer so they can get more money,” one of the lawyers commented.
Both cases are ongoing.
The newly amended law aims to provide a legal framework for implementing government land policies to maximise use of land for generating agricultural income and tax revenues. About a third of the total land area of Myanmar is classified by the government as VFV land, covering large swathes used by ethnic minorities.
To be sure, the concept of customary tenure is recognised for the first time in the amended law. But it does not provide an official process for recognising and registering customary land, which refers to either informal or traditional use of upland or lowland areas.
While the deadline does not apply to customary land, villagers are still concerned that construction companies will be prioritised for commercial purposes over local livelihoods.
Residents of Thabyuchang village in Myitta township, Dawei, fear that a planned highway, which would cut through their lands, will destroy their livelihoods.
The highway construction, part of a proposed Special Economic Zone in Dawei township, has been suspended since late 2013 as the developer, Thai conglomerate Italia-Thai Development, lacks funding.
U Saw Kho, head of the Community Sustainable and Livelihood Development Committee, which represents 12 villages threatened by the plan, told The Myanmar Times during a visit last month that villagers lacked information about the March 11 deadline.
Meanwhile, the Karen National Union has already protested against the law, saying it goes against the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement. “It shows no concerns for the rights of indigenous people or human rights norms, and it does not reflect the democratic and federal principles,” the group said in a statement last December.
Decades of conflict in Tanintharyi have resulted in an estimated 80,000 IDPs and refugees, according to Southern Youth Organisation, a local land rights group. Many fled to the forest or the border or relocated in cities. More than 200 villages were lost between 1996 and 2011. Such displaced communities will find it impossible to reclaim their land under the amended VFV law.
Palm oil concessions in Tanintharyi Region have historically been associated with the displacement of communities and land expropriations without due process. The accelerated implementation of the amended VFV law has raised concerns among communities and NGOs concerning its impact on efforts to resolve these land acquisition legacies.
Examples of commercial bullying using the law are already emerging.
Yuzana Co, a conglomerate with palm oil interests, sued 23 villagers under the law this year, U S’Ayar Win, executive director of the Myeik Lawyers Network, told this newspaper. He said the company claimed without proof that it owned land used for palm oil production.
Displaced villagers had returned to the area after the situation stabilised and in 2011 the military government set up a new settlement for them on VFV land in Chaung Mon Ngar village in Bokpin township. However, the arrangement was secured orally without documentation. The lawyer estimates that a majority of Tanintharyi’s population lacks formal land titles.
The Myanmar Times has reached out to Yuzana Co for comment.
U S’Ayar Win fears many more villagers will be sued following the March 11 deadline. Local communities have written to the authorities opposing the law and a network of lawyers is raising awareness among villagers.
“The new National Land Use Council has a weak mechanism to protect citizens or allow communities to take part in the land process, so I don't have much hope much for the Council to solve the problems,” he commented.
This is compounded by what he calls the regional authorities “playing ping pong” with land issues, with the General Administration Department in charge of managing claims as well as land records for both inspection and confiscation at regional, district and township levels.
A land forum organised last year by Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business also noted a tendency to shuffle responsibility for decision-making on land between government departments and at the Union and regional level. Confusion over the role of regional government in allocating and permitting land use makes it much harder for communities to stake their land claims while lawsuits threaten to displace them.