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.

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Esther Wah