International Development Law Organization

An historic window of opportunity for rule of law in Myanmar

7 Jul 2016

IDLO's Victoria Harrison Neves, spoke to our Country Representative for Myanmar, Kartik Sharma, about the transition underway in that country, the opportunities for supporting the rule of law at this time, and the practicalities of working in such an environment.

IDLO - When did you arrive in Myanmar?

KS - It was in March 2015, from South Sudan; it was an exciting time in Myanmar. It was a country in transition with lots happening, including the lead up to the historic 2015 national election, talks on a national ceasefire agreement, and a gradual opening up of Myanmar.

 

IDLO - What were your expectations?

KS - They were mainly shaped by conversations with people who’d worked there before and from reading books, briefs and reports about the country. I envisaged a closed off, slow-moving country, with limited will for reform.

But this is not at all what I found. While the complex challenges in governance, peace and protecting human rights were all present, the country had also changed enormously in the 2-3 years since most of the people I had spoken to had been there.

For example, take something like SIM cards, as recently as 2010 they used to be very expensive, 200-1000 US$. Now you can buy one on any street corner for 2-3 US$ and mobile penetration reaches much of the country today. People can talk more openly, and are exploring that freedom in unexpected and interesting ways.

It was certainly true that the government wanted to limit and manage both the pace and extent of change, but it is hard to put the genie back in the lamp.

IDLO - So what were your first impressions?

KS - There was a real energy about the place, it was completely unexpected. Everywhere you looked something was going on, buildings were being constructed. There were new art galleries in Yangon, where many former political prisoners were expressing their experiences. Groups and civil society were meeting and communicating with each other and foreigners. There was a much more vibrant and energised feeling than I had expected.

IDLO- What kinds of challenges did you come across?

KS - There are many challenges in a place like Myanmar from what you can address in your work to logistical challenges – until recently everything was tightly controlled. Things like the banking system are very rudimentary. 

And from our perspective, there are numerous challenges in the area of rule of law. Law in Myanmar had been reduced from a profession with standards and responsibilities to a broker of transaction – lawyers are seen as brokers or intermediaries for bribes and back-room deals or as a tool of oppression.

There are also still rights issues such as the role of the military in political life and discussions between the government and armed minorities; these are complex, highly charged areas, which you have to approach very cautiously.

 

IDLO - How long has IDLO been working in Myanmar?

KS - Since 2013, firstly providing legal analysis on statelessness issues and more recently leading on capacity building with the Rule of Law Centers Project, the Supreme Court and Attorney General’s Office. We have developed effective working relationships with national partners and conducted joint programming with development actors such as UNDP and UNHCR.

IDLO - How has IDLO’s work developed over this period?

KS - We started as a one-person team, but have more firmly established our presence since 2015. We have almost finished Phase 1 of the Rule of Law Centers and exceeded all targets for these.

We have strengthened our relationships with the Supreme Court and Attorney General’s Office by modernising their training programs and helping them meet their strategic goals for the transition period; with both, we now have significantly more credibility.

IDLO – But how can you really have any impact in such a complex environment?

KS - The only way we’ve been able to is by building relationships with the people of Myanmar, including parts of the government, and due to the goodwill of the Myanmar people for change – this has been the biggest enabling factor. People really want to improve and really want change.

We’ve also had to be flexible and able to adapt to the conditions in Myanmar, such as how we develop training and how we manage logistics and finance. In Myanmar, you can’t just ‘cut and paste’ solutions, you need to adapt them to the local context.

IDLO - How has IDLO managed the changes taking place in Myanmar?

KS - We worked with people on both sides of the political spectrum during the historic election period, it was extremely tense. But we managed through focussing on the shared priorities of both sides to promote the rule of law, by building relationships, and by making sure we were even-handed and impartial in our approach and genuinely engaged with each side.

We’ve had success, alongside UNDP, with the Rule of Law Centers program overseen by Daw Aung San Sui Kyi and at the same time we built good relationships with the previous government, which were cemented by the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding with the Attorney General’s Office earlier this year.

This was all achieved at a time when both sides were contesting a game-changing, historic election.

IDLO - What does the future hold for IDLO in Myanmar?

KS - The needs of the country are many. Rule of law has been emphasized as a high priority by the incoming government, but many things are needed: new laws to be passed or reformed; international treaties to be ratified, institutions to be modernised; and the public to be informed and educated on how to use the legal system to access justice and their rights.

On a practical level, priorities for Myanmar include reform of land governance, dispute resolution and informal justice, laws relating to freedom of expression, addressing the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine, promoting reconciliation and securing the human rights of the Rohingya, tackling corruption and improving the criminal justice system.

At the same time, in Myanmar lots of people don’t access justice through formal channels, so we are looking at ways of harmonising informal and formal justice.

Achieving these goals will require sustained effort and commitment from the Myanmar government and we are committed to supporting their effort as best we can.

Our task, to the extent that we can, is to advise our counterparts on how to achieve the priorities they have set, how to deliver on the huge promise the new government represents for most people, and how to pave the way for Myanmar to become a successful democracy.

IDLO - How is IDLO’s work reaching ordinary people?

KS - One of the key things for us is to try to show ordinary people how justice and the rule of law affects their everyday life.  The Rule of Law Centers, through training, promoting discussion between government and civil society, and public awareness initiatives, try to draw the link between universal principles like equality, transparency, participation in decision making and the everyday concerns of people. The feedback we get from the centers and the mobile training we undertake in rural communities is that this is new, rule of law is something new for them.

IDLO - But wouldn’t you say the country has more pressing needs?

KS - I think in this case there has been agreement from both the old and new government that rule of law is a leading priority. It was one of the things that both sides could agree on even back in 2012. It is seen as critical to the success of democratic transition in Myanmar.

IDLO - How do the local people feel about this?

KS - When we evaluate our training, the participants are asked what was most and least helpful. The highest-rated module has been the Introduction to Rule of Law Principles, which points to the fundamental idea that there is a difference between government ruling by decree and through legal means, the difference between “rule of law” and “rule by law”. It may seem obvious but in the context of Myanmar, it’s game-changing. And we need to build on that foundation. People want to know more; they realise it empowers them to be an engine of change.

IDLO - What has surprised you most since your arrival in Myanmar?

KS - The extent to which people are hungry for knowledge. We’ve had people travel over 15 hours by bus twice a week for 5 weeks, at their own expense, to participate in our courses.  That’s inspirational.

IDLO - What are you most proud of?

KS - That, through our programs, we are supporting, in some way, the incredible, historic democratic transition in Myanmar.

And I am particularly proud of the team, which is made up mostly of Myanmar nationals; some were, even, participants in early courses, who have gone on to become trainers. They’re a talented and dedicated team, which is driving the work we do and is a huge part of our success.

Also through our work, we have put women’s rights and gender at the forefront of what we do. Most of our staff and beneficiaries are women – 62% of participants are female and 67% of staff.

IDLO - What do you think the outlook is for Myanmar?

KS - This is both an exciting and a challenging time for Myanmar. I think people in the last election – in a way not anticipated by national or international observers – voted for change, an open society, and improved lives. They want to feel the benefits of democracy.

It gives the government a window of opportunity and a strong mandate for change, but also a huge weight of responsibility. I think the outlook is positive, Myanmar will tackle the challenges ahead but it will require political will and leadership and international and regional support.

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