Why indigenous land rights matter in Myanmar 

The customary land rights of Myanmar’s indigenous peoples have been a much-discussed subject for decades, including during the “democratic transition” period that ended on February 1. The most striking aspect of this discussion, however, is how reluctant Myanmar policymakers—regardless of their political orientation—have been to use the word “indigenous” to describe populations that have a long and well-established relationship with lands traditionally beyond the control of the country’s Bamar majority.

The reason for this is obvious: to recognize any of Myanmar’s “national races” as indigenous would be to acknowledge that they have claims to these lands that are based on ancient heritage, and not on mere contracts or agreements that can be imposed under coercion and violated at the whims of the more powerful party.

After the National League for Democracy (NLD) assumed power in 2016, it soon became apparent that its leaders had the same mindset as their predecessors when it came to matters related to Myanmar’s indigenous peoples. While this clearly contributes to the country’s political instability, it has also had a major impact on its environment.

Most of Myanmar’s remaining forest areas are in indigenous territories that are home to many globally listed endangered species. The failure to recognize the customary tenure rights of those living in these areas has undermined their continued viability as habitats for these species, as well as Myanmar’s commitment to mitigating global climate change. 

A house lies in the valley of Dawna Range in Karen State, eastern Myanmar, 02 October 2014. Dawna Range, so called Karen Hills, is a mountain range in eastern Myanmar (EPA)

It is widely accepted that indigenous cultures play a key role in countering the effects of environmental degradation brought on by unsustainable exploitation of natural resources. However, this is not reflected in Myanmar’s laws or policies, which go directly against the traditional land-use practices of indigenous peoples by forcing them to accept a cash-driven economy that prioritizes short-term profits over the long-term survival of vital ecosystems. 

Unlike GDP-obsessed policymakers, who see forests solely in terms of their money-earning potential, indigenous peoples regard them as both their life and their future. That’s why they have long fought to retain some control over what is left of the lands that they can still call their own.

Although this struggle has been ongoing almost from the time Myanmar achieved independence in 1948, it gained renewed urgency after the military moved to open the country up to the outside world a decade ago. Two laws introduced in 2012 by the quasi-civilian administration of former general Thein Sein–the Farmland Law and the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Lands Management (VFV) Law–were both seen by indigenous peoples as death blows to their customary land rights.

Strong advocacy efforts were made to have these laws repealed or at least fundamentally revised, and when the NLD came to power in 2016, there were hopes that the concerns of Myanmar’s indigenous peoples would finally be addressed. Instead, however, the new government brought in a slew of laws, such as the 2018 Forest Law, the 2019 Land Acquisition, Resettlement and Rehabilitation Law, and an amendment to the VFV Law that makes failure to register lands under the law punishable by fines or imprisonment, that only heightened their fears of permanent dispossession from their hereditary lands.

No effort was made to harmonize these laws with the 2016 National Land Use Policy, a relatively progressive document based on consultations with stakeholders. Instead, indigenous peoples were excluded from conservation efforts, despite their longstanding stewardship of the land ostensibly protected by these laws.

Some international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), and even locally based groups, have contributed to this disenfranchisement of indigenous peoples by proposing conservation models that ignore the rights of those who have lived in areas of rich biodiversity for countless generations. 

By seeking to isolate nature from the influence of those whose cultures have been formed through a respectful interaction with it, modern approaches to conservation do a profound disservice to both

It is no coincidence that most of Myanmar’s surviving forests are concentrated in upland border areas inhabited by indigenous peoples. These are places where human communities have forged a strong bond with their natural environment, carefully nurturing it even as they depend upon it for their own livelihoods. By seeking to isolate nature from the influence of those whose cultures have been formed through a respectful interaction with it, modern approaches to conservation do a profound disservice to both.

The threats to Myanmar’s natural environment have only deepened since the coup. Civil society organizations that were once in a position to monitor and report on the activities of business entities linked to the military are no longer able to do so. All over the country, from Kachin and Shan states in the north to Tanintharyi Region in the south, unscrupulous actors have taken advantage of the current chaotic situation to accelerate their activities, knowing that they now face far less scrutiny.

A displaced ethnic Karen woman views fog over the mountain alongs the Thai-Myanmar border in this photo from 2007 (EPA)

Meanwhile, as it prioritizes the struggle to overthrow the junta, the shadow National Unity Government (NUG) has shown scant interest in addressing land-related issues. In July it released a non-binding climate action plan that hews close to the policies of the ousted NLD government. This is not surprising, of course, because its members are mostly elected officials or bureaucrats from that government. As far as indigenous land rights are concerned, they are content to return to the status quo ante, even as they strive for more radical change on other issues.

The underlying problem facing Myanmar is that even now, nearly three-quarters of a century after the end of British rule, it continues to follow colonialist patterns of exploitation that strip indigenous peoples of their rights—particularly their rights with regard to the use of the lands that they live on. 

By attempting to “depoliticize” the issue of land rights with laws that commodify the land in ways that are alien to indigenous communities, Myanmar’s rulers—whether military or civilian—show that they have little understanding of, and even less interest in, the concerns of anyone apart from international investors and the local elites who profit from doing business with them.

While respect for indigenous rights will undoubtedly deliver significant political benefits, its real importance lies in the fact that it will help to restore balance to the relationship between our species and the world we live in

While much has been said about the need to abolish the disastrous, military-drafted 2008 Constitution, it is clear that peace, stability, and real prosperity for all will not be achieved until Myanmar can formulate a new charter that enshrines the rights of its indigenous peoples. 

This is why civil society groups and the international community must urge all opposition stakeholders to take this matter seriously. Land reforms are key to Myanmar’s future, and they must be based on an inclusive, transparent, and meaningful process that involves all of the country’s people, and not just those who stand the most to gain from treating land as if it were mere property. Most of all, they must reflect the values of indigenous peoples who have learned to live in nature in ways that foster, rather than undermine, its continuous renewal.

While respect for indigenous rights will undoubtedly deliver significant political benefits, its real importance lies in the fact that it will help to restore balance to the relationship between our species and the world we live in. 

As a nation rich in both cultural and natural diversity, Myanmar could overcome its own problems and serve as an example to other countries by embracing sustainable indigenous practices as a means of fulfilling its commitment to global climate change mitigation.

But this can only happen if recognition of the customary land rights of indigenous peoples becomes an integral part of its quest for genuine federalism. Anything less than this will merely perpetuate the same outmoded ways of relating to the land that have bestowed endless misery on the peoples of Myanmar and brought the world to the brink of disaster.

Esther Wah is an indigenous Karen woman. She works with ethnic communities across Myanmar on their right to protect the land and forests.

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