One of the biggest challenges of working in Myanmar is the lack of trust created by five decades of military rule, in which the law was used as a weapon of control. Lawyers often have limited education, and are not respected in a system in which corruption is not just an add-on, but the very oil that makes the wheels turn.
Beginning in November 2013, Partners Asia, with support from the Oak Foundation, has been assisting local groups in their efforts to fight back and bring fairness back to the justice system. Working with our technical partner, the East-West Management Institute, the Rule of Law program works to build capacity and support reform advocacy through both smaller more flexible “action grants” and larger organizational grants, particularly to communities in ethnic and rural areas.
In the first two years, the program has:
- Provided 126 grants to 85 organizations
- Established four Legal Resource Centers in rural and ethnic areas
- Held eight workshops for lawyers and community organizations on topics including:
- Using peer learning to understand new land laws and policies;
- International programs aimed at developing the rule of law in Myanmar;
- Trainings in grant management and advocacy strategies so that groups are able to develop or improve their accountability to their prime communities.
The Legal Resource Centers (LRCs) support groups of lawyers from different law firms coming together to work on public interest cases, with guidance from senior lawyers who trained in the 1960s. These allies have fought the oppressive system throughout military rule (many of whom spent years in jail as a result) and are now mentoring the younger generation.
At the Legal Resource Centers, lawyers pool their resources to take pro-bono public interest cases, train younger lawyers and paralegals, develop reference libraries and provide a space where the senior lawyers can give advice on difficult cases. Importantly, LRC staff members have begun documenting cases digitally, so that baseline information becomes available for evidenced-based advocacy around specific interventions that can immediately improve the way the system works.
One such intervention is to identify and address areas where the courts are routinely breaking the existing Criminal Procedure Code. [see Related below]
A key role our grantees play is in educating rural and ethnic communities about the new land laws and other regulations affecting their livelihoods. One grantee, Doe Mye Kun Yet (Land in Our Hands) conducted research among their member organizations. Among the over 2,600 survey respondents, 80% did not know about the 2012 land laws.
These people lack information because, while there has been good international coverage about land tenure in Myanmar, very little of it is translated into Burmese, and less still made available outside major cities. To ensure that the people of Myanmar are included in the discussions about the future direction of their country, electronic documents are distributed at every workshop, and several important reports have been translated and distributed in electronic and hard copy.
As it continues to open up to the world, Myanmar’s relations with its neighbours will shape its future. The ASEAN countries are critical, and making links between civil society in Myanmar and regional groups is an important part of enabling regional alliances on issues that affect all countries – most especially on individual rights and land grabbing.
Partners Asia, working with our colleagues at East-West Management Institute has organised four exposure trips to Cambodia, and we have funded partners attending conferences and workshops in the Philippines, Bangladesh, Japan and India. By continuing to build networks of advocacy across the region, we can leverage the knowledge and support needed to help those who need it most.
After fifty years of brutal military dictatorship, it will take time to develop a justice system that recognizes individual rights. Helping people understand and exercise their rights is a first step towards this important goal. Long-term progress involves supporting organizations and networks that are skilled in holding the government accountable. Our partners in Myanmar are rising to the challenge with courage and commitment. Please join us to support these efforts.