UN Rights Rapporteur Calls for Repeal of VFV Land Law

In a statement, Yanghee Lee noted the use of the controversial Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Lands Management Law to dispossess traditional landholders.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Yanghee Lee, the United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burma, last week called for the repeal of a controversial land law that she says only serves to entrench poverty in the country.

In a statement issued at the conclusion of a visit to Thailand and Malaysia last Thursday, Lee spoke out against the use of “the deeply problematic Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Lands Management Law to evict people from their land.”

The so-called “VFV land law” has been criticized for its role in enabling companies to lay claim to land that has been held by farmers and ethnic communities for generations. An amendment introduced last year is seen by many as a move to further erode traditional land rights.

Lee noted that there has been an increase in the number of evictions since the amendment was passed. Challenging these evictions entails “lengthy and crippling legal proceedings” for the former landholders, she said, even as companies continue to exploit the disputed land.

By increasing land insecurity, the law “will only entrench the cycle of poverty across the country,” she said in her statement, in which she also repeated her call “to repeal that Law and adopt a National Land Law that recognizes the rich reality of communal, customary and traditional land use” in Burma.

In Kayah (Karenni) State, where many ethnic communities have worked the same land for centuries, the law is seen as a threat to their way of life and to the livelihoods of local farmers.

“This VFV land law is not in line with ethnic people. The government doesn’t respect us. That’s why indigenous people are losing their farmland,” Khu Tu Reh, the chairman of the Karenni State Farmers’ Union, told NMG.

“We have rotating farmland. We have inherited farmland. With our traditional and customary law, our villages own some important forests, land plots, and hills. That’s why this VFV land law challenges us,” he said.

Local people and land activists said that many villages in the state, including Kho Bar, Moso, and Mothi Doh in the Yar Aprar village-tract and Lawja in Hpruso Township’s Myoma village-tract, are under pressure from companies and individuals seeking to claim land under the VFV land law.

In Chin State, ethnic people face similar challenges.

“This law has many restrictions, such as a requirement that farmers have to register their land within six months and state how many acres they have. I think it’s too difficult for farmers,” said Ko Say Gin, a land activist with the Kuki Youth Network.

“We have always practiced our own customary land laws. Every village has land that belongs to the village. According to our tradition, some places are very important for us. There are no virgin or vacant land plots in our area. But because of this VFV land law, ethnic people can lose their inherited land plots. That’s why we are calling on the government to dissolve this land law,” he told NMG.

It’s not just farmland that is up for grabs under the VFV land law. In southern Burma’s Tanintharyi Region, local people, including members of political parties and civil society organizations, say they are worried about reports of plans to claim some islands and a beach in Loung Lon Township to build resorts.

“Everybody is applying for VFV land in this area, including beaches and islands. According to our traditions and customs, this area is not vacant land. Local people depend on this area. Now our fishermen are being forced to leave. We are not allowed to catch fish there anymore. Even when [applicants for VFV land] aren’t approved, we are forced to leave. This is because there are many weaknesses in this VFV land law,” Maung Maung Aye, the vice-chairman of the Tavoy Nationalities party, told NMG.