Case study on land in Burma

This is a case study on land tenure reform in a fragile and post-conflict state


This case study has been produced in response to a request made to the Evidence on Demand Helpdesk. The objective of the request was to write a detailed case study on land tenure reform in a fragile and post-conflict state, Burma, and provide the reader with an understanding of how land tenure reform can work under the country’s particular social, political and economic conditions.

Burma is a fragile state undergoing a period of profound economic and political reform following a period of conflict and isolation. As the poorest country in South Asia, land is the main asset for many people, especially in rural areas where most of Burma’s population lives. However, most farmers have weak tenure security, and in the recent past have been exposed to land expropriation by the Burmese army and the other state institutions of a military dictatorship. Additionally, in conflict-affected border states, the strategy of government forces and non-state armed groups to finance military operations by leasing land to investors has led to land grabbing on both sides.

The recent political changes that have put the country back on the road to civilian rule have profound implications for security of land tenure. Land legislation passed in 2012 is meant to strengthen the formal land administration and provide more rights for landholders, including the right to lease and sell land. It also introduces a system for issuing land use certificates, which the government plans to roll out swiftly over the next few years. At the same time, the government’s policy to open up to foreign investment for large-scale agriculture, mining and industrial zones threatens to place further pressure on access to land. How recent legal reforms translate into land tenure reform, i.e. into changes in the terms and conditions of how land is held and transacted, remains to be seen and depends on whether state institutions desist from, and prevent, further expropriation, and whether the new Farmland Management Boards that administer land at the local level function effectively. Commentators warn that weaknesses in the legal framework potentially disadvantage farmer’s tenure security in the face of powerful state-backed interests; however, evidence suggesting if these fears are confirmed is unavailable. This case study discusses the content of these legal reforms in the context of Burmese politics, noting how some of the changes intended in the laws may have an impact on the tenure security of landholders.

Donors can support improved land administration by increasing dialogue on land issues with political leaders, by funding technical expertise to assist land administration functions and land governance processes, and by highlighting learning experiences from other countries with similar characteristics. They can help rural landholders to improve their security of tenure by funding civil society groups to carry out research and awareness-raising campaigns among landholders, by providing direct training to farmers to better negotiate land sales or leases, and by funding activities that raise the awareness of private sector entities on how to avoid poor practices associated with leasing land.

This report has been produced by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) with the assistance of the UK Department for International Development (DFID) contracted through the Climate, Environment, Infrastructure and Livelihoods Professional Evidence and Applied Knowledge Services (CEIL PEAKS) programme, jointly managed by HTSPE Limited and IMC Worldwide Limited.


Henley, G. Case study on land in Burma. Evidence on Demand, UK (2014) 21 pp. [DOI:]

Case study on land in Burma

Published 1 January 2014