Date of publication
September 2016

“It is paradoxical but hardly surprising that the right to food has been endorsed more often and with greater unanimity and urgency than most other human rights, while at the same time being violated more comprehensively and systematically than probably any other.”

Richard Cohen, in Causes of Hunger, 1994

Within South East Asia a huge amount of arable land is already under concessions for large-scale projects by international and national companies. Intensification of the agricultural productivity through the enhancement of external investments is one priority of national policies towards food security and economic development. Where large parts of land are seized, land conflicts are numerous. The land ownership and tenure rights, mostly traditional and customary rights of the local people are often not respected, local villagers are evicted without fair compensation or forcefully displaced. Demonstrations against the loss of lands are often ending with violence by security forces against the people who ask for respect of their legitimate land rights. Human rights violations and direct violence against local actors are widespread, societal conflicts about land and the management of related natural resources are intensified. Especially women and the poor and marginalized parts of the societies, e.g. indigenous groups but also small-holder farmer families and informal tenants of land are suffering as their livelihood is depending on the natural resources like land, water, wood and fisheries, that they lose out to investors. Raising poverty in vast parts of the South East Asian rural population and thus increasing inequity are major challenges for sustainable development and just and peaceful societies.

 Bread for the World has started to systematically work together with partner organizations from South East Asia towards the Right to Food and food sovereignty. In combination with that the focus lies on land rights, natural resource management and conflict transformation. In various parts of the region our partner organizations as well as other civil society actors, farmer associations and communities face criminalization and imprisonment while they advocate for the land rights of the local population. During the last years it became clear that in-depth knowledge about the specificity of land rights systems, their contextualization into the local context of each country and specific understandings of legitimacy of land and tenure rights is key for development and conflict transformation. Information about international Human Rights mechanisms and international policy frameworks and guidelines like the Voluntary Guidelines on Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests/VGGT is important for national advocacy work and at the same time also to the international solidarity as an asset for the security of the civil society actors. But more knowledge is needed in order to provide a basis for further international networking and cooperation.

Thus the purpose of this comparative land policy study is, first, to provide a comprehensive overview of the current situation of statutory and customary land rights systems in six Southeast Asian countries, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Philippines and Vietnam and, second, to discuss the potential of national and international legal frameworks and guidelines to reduce land grabbing, dispossession and displacement in these countries. It is certainly impossible to do justice to the complexity of statutory and customary land rights systems in the six countries in all its scientific and legal background. Therefore, the author had to be somewhat selective in his analysis and focus on a number of commonalities and differences across the countries and some of their regions. Some aspects of land and resource grabbing, such as mining, could only be covered very briefly, while a discussion of issues of water grabbing and green grabbing – though of significant importance – was beyond the scope of this study. Urban land conflicts and land grab cases are also underrepresented in the study.

Land rights and legal frameworks are very dynamic, and there are a number of recent developments that have changed the legal landscape in some of the countries, making it difficult to keep track of all new laws and regulations pertaining to questions of access to and control of land resources. This is particularly true for Myanmar which is in a crucial phase of democratic transition and where land policies and legal frameworks have gone through particularly dramatic changes in recent years and months.

We thank Professor Andreas Neef as author of this study for his outstanding work and great experience with which he had collected the information and presented the results in this comparative study. Also many of our partner organizations in the countries as well as a broad range of other experts from Asian countries and internationally were involved and we are grateful to all of them who contributed and provided input to this study via interviews and/or e-mail. We are convinced that the comparative focus of this study is useful for our further work together with partner organizations and hope that also other readers will find it useful for their own advocacy and research work.

Date of publication
November 2016
Geographical focus

In Burma, where 70 percent of people earn a living through agriculture, securing land is often equivalent to securing a livelihood. But instead of creating conditions for sustainable development, recent Burmese governments have enacted abusive laws, enforced poorly conceived policies, and encouraged corrupt land administration officials that have promoted the displacement of small-scale farmers and rural villagers.

Conflicts over land have come to the forefront of Burma’s national agenda in recent years. These tensions have intensified as the country has embarked on a process of democratic transition and reform, with greater openness in some areas, but continued military dominance in other sectors, particularly where the military controls key government ministries.

Land disputes are a major national problem, with rising discontent over displacement for plantation agriculture, resource extraction, and infrastructure projects—often without adequate consultation, due process of law, or compensation for those displaced. In many parts of the country, those contesting land seizures have taken to the streets in frequent demonstrations but have faced retaliation in the courts.

The dual problems of land confiscation and reprisals against protesters is particularly acute in Karen State. Located along the border with much more prosperous Thailand, Karen State is viewed by many as a desirable site for investment in the tourism, extractive, and agriculture industries.

The economic opening of the country to investors has made land more valuable, while the peace process in Karen State and other ethnic areas has given access to areas previously beyond the reach of the Burmese armed forces and military-linked businessmen. The result is that powerful interests are gaining land through questionable means while farmers are losing it, often without adequate compensation.

As peace negotiations continue and the return of refugees from Thailand gains credence,land tenure issues will likely intensify, particularly as those who return find that land they previously farmed has now been occupied by government or business interests.[1]

This report focuses on government abuses related to land confiscation in areas near Hpa-an, the capital of Karen State. The villages in this area are under the effective control of the Burmese military, called the Tatmadaw, and military-controlled militias called Border Guard Forces (BGFs), or are located in areas of mixed governance by the ethnic armed group Karen National Union (KNU) or other militias and the government.

The report illustrates the dynamics of land confiscation in Karen State—a longstanding problem previously documented by Human Rights Watch and local organizations such as the Karen Human Rights Group.[2] It details cases in which government officials, military personnel and agents on behalf of the army, local militia members, and businessmen have used intimidation and coercion to seize land and displace local people. It also documents the impact of land loss on local villagers, some of whom have farmed land for generations but lack legal documentation to prove it.

Date of publication
December 2015
Geographical focus

All four countries in continental South-East Asia featured in this paper (Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam) are experiencing land conflicts that could potentially destabilise their governments.1 Thailand is in a similar situation in many respects, as it has faced mounting tensions over land tenure since the 1990s (Hall et al., 2011). These conflicts are escalating, sometimes violent, and are attracting more and more attention from the media. They have mobilized numerous local and international NGOs, and often triggered the development of an increasingly visible national civil society. In recent years the governments of these four countries have all been forced to take significant land policy measures in order to appease the public and strengthen their own legitimacy (see Part 3), each responding to the problem in its own way and at its own pace.

Beyond national borders, land issues are also contributing to the emergence of a regional civil society2 and to rising tensions between States, victims and perpetrators of land grabbing. But regional institutions3 have done little to address this phenomenon as it is still regarded as a matter of national sovereignty. The countries discussed in this paper have all made the same economic choices at more or less the same time (apart from Myanmar, whose land reform only started very recently): putting in place a neoliberal type market economy, promoting a model of modernisation that advocates turning land into capital, and developing industrial and export crops (rubber, oil palm, sugar cane, plantation forestry) through massive, mainly foreign, investments (Castellanet and Diepart, 2015). In this race towards development, sparsely populated regions and politically weak countries are easy targets for those countries/regions where the power and population are concentrated, and whose appetite for natural resources is constantly growing.

There is very little scientific literature on land matters in South-East Asia, and most of what has been written dates from 2007, when the food crisis both revealed and accelerated the extent of large-scale land acquisitions in the region and beyond. The research is also often limited to a single country in the region, and/or focuses on land grabbing without taking account of the historical depth and all-encompassing nature of the current land reforms.4 In their effort to open up to the market economy, these four countries are proposing land reforms that will radically change social relations on an unprecedented scale. Their reforms are broadly similar in that they all encourage forms of appropriation5 similar to individual ownership secured by titles, and allow the development of a land market; but different because the way that they are undertaken depends on the historical and political context in each country. So how did countries in the Mekong conduct their reforms, and what impact have their choices had on the development of current social tensions? Are their choices fundamentally different, and will they always be different? What difficulties do they have in common, and which problems are country-specific? And what can be learned from these similarities and differences?

Looking beyond (or behind) their policies and land tenure systems, the comparative tables below show that there is a clear difference between the relatively sparsely populated countries (Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar) and much more densely populated Vietnam. Thailand is somewhere in the middle, albeit with major internal differences. Nevertheless, the four so-called Mekong countries have fairly similar levels of economic development (with the highest GDP in Vietnam) and are still essentially rural countries where over 60% of the active population works in agriculture – although this has fallen to below 50% in Thailand, which is the most economically developed country. Unlike Thailand, the four Mekong countries are also all in economic transition, having recently changed economic direction.

This paper aims to provide keys that will help us understand contemporary land dynamics in these four countries. In order to do so it highlights their similarities and differences, both in the long history that shaped today’s local land situations and in more recent reforms implemented in the context of greater economic openness. The first part of the paper sets the cultural and historical context, with an overview of the diverse ways that the political authorities and different groups within the region have related to land. After a brief review of the colonial and socialist chapters of their history, the second section looks at the different stages of reforms that have been implemented since the late 1980s. Having set the scene, the third section then considers the current situation through the prism of four of today’s most sensitive land issues. 

Myanmar: The Next Great Land Tenure Reform?

On Thu, Sep 22, 2016

By: Roy Prosterman (Landesa)
Date: September 20th 2016
Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation

Could the newly democratic nation become Asia's sixth development success story?

Since World War II, there have been five great Asian development success stories founded upon land tenure reforms that allocated land ownership, or equivalent long-term land rights, into the hands of small farmers. Will Burma be the sixth?

In Getting Rich, Myanmar Must Not Forget Its Poor

On Fri, Sep 2, 2016

By: Hanna Hindstrom
Date: September 2nd 2016
Source: the Diplomat

Economic development must not come at the expense of those less fortunate.

When U Mya Hlaing came home three years ago he found an eviction notice plastered to his front door. It accused him of being a squatter on his own farmland and told him to pack his bags within two weeks or face thirty days in prison. His village would be destroyed to make way for a multi-billion dollar industrial project.

Myanmar is in the midst of rapid economic and social change, with dramatic consequences for land tenure. Under the military regimes that ruled Myanmar since 1962, the state was the main landowner, either directly or (after 1988) via proxy companies. In the current reform process, smallholders are reclaiming their legal land rights at the same time that foreign investment is flooding the country, placing all previous land use arrangements under increasing pressure.

Myanmar is the largest country in mainland Southeast Asia, with 70% of the population working in agriculture,[1] although arable land makes up a relatively low 19% of national territory.[2] Once the largest rice exporter in Asia, Myanmar experienced a drop in production during the years of military control, and agriculture is now further threatened by environmental change and an influx of land-related investment. Land use varies between the rich rice paddies of the Ayeyarwady Delta, the central Dry Zone, and mountainous areas inhabited by ethnic minorities practicing shifting cultivation (taungya). These latter areas are now the site of numerous land concessions and natural resource extraction projects, leading to new cases of displacement and conflicts.[3]

Land policy and administration

The Myanmar Constitution (2008) provides for private property rights, while maintaining that the state is the “ultimate owner of all lands and all natural resources” and shall “supervise extraction and utilization of State-owned natural resources by economic forces”.[4] More than 30 laws govern land management, some of them dating from the 19th century British colonial period.[5] At least 20 government agencies are involved in land issues, with a complex system of varying structures at both the national (Union) level and provincial (State) levels.[6] In ethnic minority areas, local governments and military commanders have significant influence over land policy; for instance, the Karen National Union has its own Land Use Policy and registration procedures,[7] although this is not recognized by the national government. 

Responsibilities for land management are divided among the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation for lowland agricultural land and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation (MONREC) for upland (forest) lands. Residential land, meanwhile, is managed at the city level. The rapid opening and political transition has led to bureaucratic overload, as the new government has enacted new laws and formed new institutions, including MOECAF established in 2011.[8] The Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Land Law, Foreign Investment Law, and the Farmland Law, all passed in 2012, were designed to increase investment, encourage large-scale land use and promote agricultural income.[9] These laws have been criticized for supporting investors’ interests over secure land holdings of smallholder farmers[10] and enabling seizure and re-allocation of land as “vacant” or “fallow” that is actually under cultivation or part of regular crop rotations practiced by taungya farmers.[11]

In January 2016, Parliament (while still under the control of USDP) approved a new National Land Use Policy (NLUP) following an extensive public consultation process. The new policy aims to harmonize existing laws and guide development of a new land law.[12] The policy assures equitable land access for smallholders and landless people, with consideration of customary tenure and gender equality.[13] Some civil society and donor agencies have praised the consultation process and pro-poor aspects of the NLUP, while others, including ethnic organizations, critique the policy for favoring investors over community interests.[14] The foremost remaining questions are how the policy will be implemented and how it iwill be received by related institutions, such as committees overseeing the 2012 laws, in dispute resolution and ensuring accountability.[15] In May 2016, the new National League for Democracy (NLD) government formed a Central Review Committee on Confiscated Farmlands and Other Lands, aiming to address the complex legacy of land confiscation and dispossession.[16]

The NLUP consultation process is a reflection of widening political space in Myanmar, including over land issues. Civil society movements have used these spaces for advocacy on land rights issues. Farmers’ associations and other grassroots organizations have emerged in every region of the country.[17] In Yangon, the Land Core Group, formed in 2011 by domestic and international NGOs and concerned individuals, plays a coordinating role among diverse civil society groups.[18]

Land classifications

Prior to the political transition, most land in Myanmar was held through a multiplicity of customary or informal tenure arrangements. Deeds were registered in township offices, but fewer than half of the population had documented tenure. Record-keeping and maps were frequently outdated, incomplete and inaccurate.[19] The 2012 Farmland Law marked a turning point for farmers in districts where paddy has been cultivated for generations, providing for the issuance of land use certificates that can be transferred, inherited and mortgaged.[20] By the end of 2014, one study conducted by GRET found that 71 percent of sampled landowners in the Ayeyarwady Delta had received titles, as had 80 percent of landowners in the Dry Zone.[21] However, coverage in other areas is lower. Land concentration is high: 20 percent of rural households control 69 percent of farmland, and the number of large landholdings of 20 ha or more is increasing. Landless households are estimated between 20-60 percent in various regions.[22]

The titling process only applies to land classified as “farmland”: forest land is not eligible and continues to be held through customary tenure rights.[23] Most taungya or grazing land is not mapped or registered. In upland areas, land classification is further complicated by the history of internal conflict between the central government and armed ethnic groups, which has led to many people being repeatedly displaced.[24] People living in the uplands thus have less secure access to land than those in the delta and Dry Zone.

Customary practices are officially recognized for the first time in the new National Land Use Policy, which makes repeated mention of customary law and tenure, without clearly defining what is meant by the terms.[25] The NLUP also states that “legitimate land tenure rights” recognized by local communities, “shall be recognized, protected and registered in accordance with laws”.[26] This language is spurring interest in community mapping and documentation efforts, a process facilitated by the availability of specialized mapping software, such as FAO’s open source mobile application, Open Tenure.[27]

In the process of developing the NLUP, the government has benefited from technical support and advice from UNHABITAT’s Land Administration and Management Program (LAMP) and the multi-donor fund known as LIFT. Other main donors to land governance include USAID and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC).[28] Since 2015, SDC has funded the Center for Development and Environment of Bern University and the Land Core Group to launch the OneMap project, an open-access spatial data platform on land issues.[29]

Land transfer and public land lease

The Central Committee for the Management of Vacant, Fallow, and Virgin Land (CCVFV), established in 2012, is responsible for reallocating “vacant” or “fallow” land to domestic and foreign investors for periods from 30 to 70 years. Another committee, the Myanmar Investment Commission (MIC), is also tasked with granting land to foreign investors.[30] These laws take a British colonial precedent, the 1894 Land Acquisition Act allowing for state appropriation of “waste land” for a “public purpose”, and re-present it in the current context of economic opening and investment promotion.[31] As much as 20 percent of all land in Myanmar has been approved for land concessions, with five million hectares (or about 7.5% of all land) awarded to foreign and joint venture investors.[32]
Area granted for large-scale commercial farming in Myanmar

The highest profile examples of land investment are three Special Economic Zones (SEZs), funded by Japanese, Thai, and Chinese companies respectively.[33] Although only the first of these has opened, the NLD government has pledged to continue supporting the zones. External reports note that SEZs face risks from local opposition, ongoing ethno-religious tensions and environmental concerns.[34] Such controversies also apply to investments in large-scale resource development projects such as oil and gas pipelines, mines and hydropower dams. Much of the investment in resource extraction is wholly or partially from state-owned enterprises from other countries in East and Southeast Asia.[35]
Foreign investment in the agricultural sector is low compared to manufacturing and mining. Land allocated to large-scale agricultural concessions increased by 170 percent from 2010−13, but only one-fifth of that land had been planted.[36] Chinese investors, in particular, have acquired land for rubber and other agribusinesses in previously isolated border and ethnic regions.[37]

Although laws provide for notification, appeal processes, and compensation, these procedures are not followed in many cases of land transfer. As a result, communities find themselves excluded and even charged with trespassing on land they have used for generations.[38] Smallholders, particularly those living in conflict areas, are facing insecure land tenure resulting from the effects of centralized land use planning, poor inter-ministry coordination, as well as encroachment from land transfer to investors.

Another widespread cause for communities’ exclusion from agricultural and forest land is Myanmar’s immense landmine problem. At least five million people living in 56 townships (out of 330 nationwide) are affected by mines, mainly near the Thai border.[39] Limited technical surveys of contaminated areas have been conducted by international agencies, but no land clearance or release to date.[40]

Land dispute resolution

The reform period in Myanmar has witnessed a rise in land conflicts, linked to past and recent land acquisitions by the military, the government and their business allies. A parliamentary committee set up in 2012 received about 17,000 complaints about land disputes up to November 2015.[41] The increased visibility of land issues reflects new political freedoms and relaxation of media censorship, as well as the persistence of entrenched interests in the economy and politics, particularly in upland and border areas.[42] Some cases of conflict around large-scale projects are still ongoing, such as the Hat Gyi dam on the Salween River in Karen State and the Lapadaung copper mine in Sagaing Region.
Myanmar’s burgeoning civil society has encouraged some smallholders to take land cases to court.[43] Judicial oversight of dispute resolution, however, remains limited by law.[44] Private negotiation, supported by public advocacy campaigns and appeals for political intervention, has proven more effective than litigation. There is also a growing interest in, and support for, legal education for farmers and grassroots movement-building. The same forces of change that are accelerating land transfers and disputes are also contributing to social efforts to address their effects.


[1] FAO, “Myanmar at a glance”,
[2] World Bank, World Development Indicators,
[3] Scurrah N, Hirsch P, and Woods K, The Political Economy of Land Governance in Myanmar (Vientiane: Mekong Region Land Governance Project, 2015), pp. 4, 7.
[4] Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar (2008), Article 37.
[5] Peel M, “The Great Land Rush: Myanmar: The dispossessed”, Financial Times Investigations, 1 March 2016.
[6] Nixon H, Joelene C, Kyi Pyar Chit Saw, Thet Aung Lynn, and Arnold M, State and Region Governments in Myanmar (Yangon: Myanmar Development Research Institute, CESD, and Asia Foundation, 2013).
[7] Karen National Union Land Policy. March 2014.
[8] Wells-Dang A, Nyi Soe K, Inthakoun L, Tola P, Socheat P, Nguyen TTV, Chabada A, and Youttananukorn W, “A Political Economy of Environmental Impact Assessment in the Mekong Region,” Water Alternatives 9:1 (2016): 37, 39.
[9] Aguirre D, “A Sound Basis for Land Reform”, Frontier Myanmar, 19 February 2016.
[10] Obendorf R, “Legal Review of Recently Enacted Farmland Law and Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Lands Management Law: Improving the Legal & Policy Frameworks Relating to Land Management in Myanmar” (Yangon: Food Security Working Group - Land Core Group, 2012).
[11] Baver J, Jonveaux B, Ju R, Kitamura K, Sharma P, Wade L, and Yasui S, Securing Livelihoods and Land Tenure in Rural Myanmar (New York: UN Habitat and Columbia University, 2013), 75-77.
[12] Livelihoods and Food Security Trust Fund (LIFT), “Land”,   
[13] Republic of the Union of Myanmar, National Land Use Policy (2016), especially Chapter 1 (Objectives) and Chapter 3 (Basic Principles).
[14] Ethnic Community Development Forum, no date,
[15] Aguirre, “A Sound Basis for Land Reform”.
[16] The Irrawaddy, “New Bodies Formed on Land Disputes, Other Pressing Matters”, 9 May 2016.
[17] Scurrah et al, The Political Economy of Land Governance, 22.
[18] Erasmus University Rotterdam, Institute of Social Studies. Partner profile:Land Core Group – Myanmar.
[19] LIFT, “Land”.  
[20] Scurrah et al, The Political Economy of Land Governance, 15.
[21] Boutry M, Allaverdian C, Mellac M, San Thein, and Tin Myo Win, Land tenure in rural lowland Myanmar: Understanding rural issues to engage comprehensive policy dialogue in Myanmar (draft report, GRET, 2015), 143-144.
[22] Srinivas S and U Saw Hlaing, Myanmar: Land Tenure Issues and the Impact on Rural Development (UN Food and Agriculture Organization, 2015), 35.
[23] Baver et al, Securing Livelihoods and Land Tenure, 16.
[24] Scurrah et al, The Political Economy of Land Governance, 16.
[25] National Land Use Policy, Article 64.
[26] Ibid., Articles 16(e) and 17(b).
[28] USAID, “Burma Draft National Land Use Policy Open for Public Consultations”, 17 November 2014.
[29] Bern University Center for Development and Environment, “OneMap Myanmar: New CDE project launched”, 8 July 2015.
[30] Baver et al, Securing Livelihoods and Land Tenure, 86-7.
[31] Land Acquisition Act (1894), Part 2.4(1).
[32] Srinivas and Hlaing, Land Tenure Issues, 43; Land Core Group data obtained from Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation. Nearly two-thirds of land concessions from 2010-13 were made in three states/regions (Tanintharyi, Kachin, and Sagain).  
[33] The zones are Thilawa (near Yangon), Dawei (in Tanintharyi Region), and Kyaukphyu (Rakhine State).
[34] Myat Nyein Aye, “NLD to Scrutinise Special Economic Zones”, Myanmar Times, 1 March 2016.
[35] Scurrah et al, The Political Economy of Land Governance, 8.
[36] Woods K, Commercial Agriculture Expansion in Myanmar: Links to Deforestation, Conversion Timber and Land Conflicts (Forest Trends and DFID, 2015), vi, xi.
[37] Buchanan J, Kramer T, and Woods K, Developing Disparity: Regional Investment in Burma’s Borderlands (Amsterdam: Transnational Institute and Burma Centre Netherlands, 2015).
[38] Aguirre, “A Sound Basis for Land Reform”.
[39] Geneva Call, Humanitarian Impact of Landmines in Burma/Myanmar (2011), p. 9; Mine Free Myanmar, “Landmine Monitor country report on Myanmar/Burma released in Yangon”, 22 November 2015,
[40] Landmine & Cluster Munition Monitor, “Myanmar_Burma Mine Action”, 3 November 2015.
[41] Peel, “The Great Land Rush: Myanmar: The dispossessed”, Financial Times.
[42] Scurrah et al, The Political Economy of Land Governance, 18.
[43] Baver et al, Securing Livelihoods and Land Tenure, 89.
[44] Partner Asia.

Date of publication
December 2015
Geographical focus

Interview with Ma Khin Win, Chairperson of Thone Se Basic Trade Union (a member of AFFM). With English subtitles.

Date of publication
July 2014
Geographical focus

This economy profile presents the Doing
Business indicators for Myanmar. In a series of annual
reports, Doing Business assesses regulations affecting
domestic firms in 189 economies and ranks the economies in
10 areas of business regulation, such as starting a
business, resolving insolvency and trading across borders.
This year's report data cover regulations measured from
June 2012 through May 2013. The report is the 11th edition
of the Doing Business series.


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