Yangon, Myanmar – Han Win Naung is besieged on his own land.
Last September, local administrators in Myanmar’s southern Tanintharyi region put up a sign at the edge of his 5.7-hectare farm that read “Under Management Ownership – Do Not Trespass”.
They felled the trees and started building a drug rehabilitation facility and an agriculture training school on opposite ends of his plot.
He was eventually informed that the administrators were challenging his claim to the land and had filed charges against him under a controversial law that could see him jailed for three years.
“I didn’t know what this law was,” the 37-year-old farmer told Al Jazeera. “I didn’t understand what was happening to us. They also asked us to move. We don’t have anywhere else to go.”
Han Win Naung is accused of violating the Vacant, Fellow and Virgin (VFV) Lands Management Law which requires anyone living on land categorised as “vacant, fallow, and virgin” to apply for a permit to continue using it for the next 30 years.
According to estimates based on government data, this category totals more than 20 million hectares or 30 percent of Myanmar’s land area. Three-quarters of it is home to the country’s ethnic minorities.
The law has sparked outrage among land-rights activists, who say it criminalises millions of farmers who do not have permits and lays the ground for unchecked land seizures by the government, the military and private companies.
“The more people learn about this law, the more they will use it against farmers who cannot afford lawyers,” said a lawyer who is representing Han Win Naung. She asked to be identified only as a member of Tanintharyi Friends, a group that represents several farmers who have been sued under this law.
Now Han Win Naung’s farm is in disrepair. Because of the lawsuit, he has been unable to tend to the mango, banana and cashew trees that have sustained his family since his father set up the farm 28 years ago.
“We haven’t been able to do anything on the farm since September … We are facing a lot of trouble getting food on the table,” he said.
The VFV law is modelled on a British colonial policy in which land occupied by indigenous people was labelled “wasteland” in order to justify seizing it and extracting its revenue. After independence, Myanmar’s military rulers adopted the strategy as a way to ensure they could feed their ranks.
In 2012, the nominally civilian government under former general Thein Sein enshrined the strategy into law, referring to the targeted land as “vacant, fallow, and virgin” instead of “wasteland”.
Last year, despite coming to power on a platform of protecting the land rights of smallholder farmers and promising to reverse all military land grabs within a single year, the government of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) made the VFV law stricter.
With the NLD’s endorsement, arrests and evictions of farmers like Han Win Naung are accelerating.
In September 2018, Myanmar’s parliament, which is controlled by the NLD, passed an amendment that imposed a two-year prison sentence on anyone found living on “vacant, fallow, and virgin land” without a permit after March 11.
This gave millions of farmers, many of them illiterate or unable to speak Burmese, just six months to complete a Kafkaesque process of claiming land they already consider their own.
According to a survey conducted by the Mekong Region Land Governance Project, in the month before the deadline, 95 percent of people living on so-called VFV land had no knowledge of the law.
As the deadline approached, local land-rights activists jumped into action, sending petitions to the government demanding that the law be repealed.
In November, 300 civil society organisations signed an open letter denouncing the law as “an effort to grab the land of ethnic peoples across the country”, especially land belonging to hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally displaced people who have no ability to apply for permits.
In December, the Karen National Union (KNU), a powerful ethnic armed organisation that had recently withdrawn from the national peace process, called for the VFV law to be “torn up”, raising the spectre of future conflict.
But these petitions fell on deaf ears, and as the deadline expired, millions of people, many of whose families had been on the same land for generations, became trespassers.
Saw Alex Htoo, deputy director of the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN), blames the NLD’s pursuit of foreign investment for the policy.
“The NLD is pushing for investment to come into the country without really looking at what’s happening on the ground,” he said. “That’s the only way they could support this VFV law, which is inviting conflict and will displace millions of farmers across the country.”
When asked why the party would pass an amendment that could harm so many people, NLD spokesperson Myo Nyunt said that while land disputes might arise, the purpose of the law was not mass dispossession.
“The purpose of the law is to promote the rule of law,” he said.
“When we implement the new law, those affected have the responsibility to understand and follow it. If they have grievances, they can report them to the relevant committee addressing land grabs. There will be some people who are affected negatively by this law, but that is not the intention of this law.
“The government is working to improve the livelihood and quality of life in Myanmar and the rule of law.”
Ye Lin Myint, national coordinator for the Myanmar Alliance for Transparency and Accountability (MATA), said enforcement of the VFV law actually calls the rule of law into question because it contradicts several earlier government commitments, including the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) between the government and eight ethnic armed organizations.
“The NCA clearly states that during the peace process, there should be no land seizures,” he said. “This law will start a domino effect of ethnic conflict.”
Conflict over the VFV law has already begun. At least one activist has been arrested for protesting against it and observers say the NLD’s role in generating conflict risks a backlash in next year’s election.
“The ruling National League for Democracy party are really shooting themselves in the foot with the VFV law,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch. “This will be a human rights disaster that goes to the doorstep of millions of farmers across the nation, and it’s a fair bet they will punish those they consider responsible in the next election.”
Han Win Naung attests to this. Since he was sued, his 80-year-old father has stopped eating and cannot sleep. His children, nieces, and nephews are embarrassed to go to school.
“People like us have been suffering since this government came to power,” he said. “We don’t think we will be voting for the NLD in 2020.”