Ethnic Conflict and Lands Rights in Myanmar

TitleEthnic Conflict and Lands Rights in Myanmar
Annotated RecordAnnotated
Year of Publication2015
AuthorsKramer T
Secondary TitleSocial Research: An International Quarterly
Key themesAccessToJustice, CivilSociety-Donors, MarginalisedPeople, Policy-law

Ethnic conflict has ravaged Myanmar since independence in 1948, and it cannot be solved overnight. The advent of a new quasi-civilian government has caused a significant change in the political atmosphere, raising the prospect of fundamental reforms in national politics and economics for the first time in many decades. The current talks must move beyond establishing new cease-fires and be fostered by an inclusive political dialogue at the national level. Key ethnic grievances and aspirations, including land rights and inequitable distribution of resources, must be addressed. Both the government and the ethnic armed groups need to ensure that measures are enshrined in law to protect and promote the land rights of existing, displaced, and returning ethnic populations, and that these are included in cease-fire and peace agreements, as well as in their respective land policies.


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Document Type

Journal Article


Overall relevance: 

Despite a transition to democratic processes, the Union-level government in Myanmar has failed to reach both peace with and respect for the rights of ethnic minority groups. The article reports on the emergence of conflict since independence between a central Burman power in Myanmar and a number of ethnic minority groups situated in border areas, the attempts at peace dialogues resulting in ceasefires, and in some cases a return to hostilities. New conflicts emerge as members of these minority groups lose their land, property and equitable access to natural resources, through prolonged fighting and control grabbing. New laws in 2012 relating to land and foreign investment looks towards economic development, yet have facilitated land grabbing for commercial production systems and resources extraction. Peace can only be achieved if land is returned to ethnic minority populations through inclusive dialogue. The destruction of the local environment also needs to be limited.

Key Themes: 
  • Civil society and donor engagement in land issues - A greater voice is needed for civil society in political decision-making in Myanmar in a quest for peace, and the context of a quasi-democratic government. This can facilitate a recognition of customary tenure systems in land, water, fisheries and forests as a key to eliminate poverty and build real peace in ethnic areas.
  • Dispute resolution and access to justice - At the time of the article, there were an estimated 100,000 IDPs in northern regions of Myanmar, 140,000 in Rakhine State, and 400,000 people displaced in Southern Myanmar. Peace accords need to account for IDPs and promote the land rights for existing, displaced and returning ethnic minority groups. This includes the return of grabbed land in the user’s absence.
  • Marginalized people's land rights and access: ethnic minorities, poor and women - Burma’s ethnic minority groups have long suffered discrimination at the hands of a central government and military, representing a Burman majority. Most minority groups are found in borderland areas, practicing upland cultivation. Much conflict has been driven by the drive for economic exploitation of natural resources in these areas, at the expense of local populations.
  • Land policy and land law - The article provides an update on land policies in ethnic areas of Burma following national elections in 2010. However, the success of land governance reform cannot be separated from the ongoing peace process, and the impacts of conflict on the ability of farmers to access their land. The 2012 laws have facilitated land grabs in borderlands for large-scale development projects at the expense of rights for ethnic communities.
Research basis: 

The article is a discussion piece, informing on the linkages between conflict and ethnic minority groups around the whole of Myanmar, backed up by secondary data. It draws upon the authors extensive experience working in the country. (Provided by Nan Mya Oo and Daniel Hayward)