“Rule of law reform” is an abstract concept for most people, understood to be important, but hard to explain. This is especially true in Burma, where government officials and citizens alike are trying to grasp a relatively rapid transition from decades of authoritarian rule to democratic governance.

Burma Rule-of-Law Reform: USIP Work in Progress

USIP’s Burma Program has been working on rule-of-law issues in the country since January 2012 to help clarify the concept and support thoughtful reform at all levels of society, government and business.  As part of that effort, we recently posted a report from a trip to Burma by four representatives from USIP’s Rule of Law and Religion and Peacemaking programs. The hope is that the report will spur further discussion and feedback that everyone involved can draw on to keep the conversation going and help guide progress.

The concept of rule of law gets a lot of attention in Burma (also known as Myanmar). Daw Aung San Suu Kyi champions rule of law as the key to a successful democracy and also heads the Rule of Law Committee in parliament. But there is still confusion between “rule of law,” with its elements of accountability and justice, versus “rule by law,” which carries connotations of the authoritarian system they’re trying to leave behind. 

Rule of law has a prominent place in the Burmese context. Many figures in civil society and government say it’s a top personal priority and that they understand its importance for peace and security, both human and national. A participant in a USIP workshop in Taunggyi, Shan State, sums up how rule of law impacts everyone in Burma:

“No rule of law, no justice;
No justice, no peace;
No peace, no development.”

The fact that rule of law has become a buzzword in Burma even among the general populace indicates the country is uniquely receptive to the changes that will be needed to put the principle into force.  Civil society leaders and government officials seem eager to understand the concept, anxious to see it applied properly and are voracious in their desire for information about it —all in an apparent effort to make sure they know what rule of law “looks like.”

In the time that USIP has been working in Burma, our local partners and others we’ve met have identified numerous fundamental challenges to promoting the rule of law at all levels of society across the country.

For instance, there is a perception in Burma that laws are not applied equally to all and that current law-making processes do not provide for any meaningful level of public participation. Many have indicated that all those involved in government and civil society need international support to ensure a strategic approach to rule-of-law reform. That includes, for example, systematically identifying needs, prioritizing and sequencing changes, and ensuring broad participation.  Many communities, especially those in areas where groups feel they’ve been marginalized in the past, lack knowledge of basic laws, legal procedures and mechanisms for exercising their rights.

During the February-March trip, the USIP team convened several workshops and facilitated discussions designed to gather information from participants (including local officials and parliamentarians, political party representatives, journalists, farmers, teachers, students and justice sector representatives) about rule-of-law challenges and priorities, and proposed strategies to strengthen the reform process.  The workshops were also used to share lessons that USIP has learned about how best to advance rule-of-law reform in transitioning conflict countries in ways that can promote sustainable peace.

The purpose of the trip report and the resulting feedback we are seeking is to facilitate a sharing and learning process that will be useful for those engaged in rule-of-law reform in the country.

The report provides a detailed account of USIP's experiences and takeaways from consultations and workshops with a wide variety of officials and civic leaders in Yangon (also known as Rangoon) and Naypyitaw, and in Mon, Karen, and Shan States. We also include recommendations offered by local leaders and by USIP on where and how international assistance for justice reform can be most useful.  

The report also contains a wealth of insights into community perspectives, hopes, and doubts about the reform process. Moreover, the report highlights the differences in the understanding that various regional and ethnic groups have of the rule of law and their priorities for reform.

We have distributed copies of this working document in English and in Burmese to colleagues in the United States, as well as to our partners in the country.  We’ve asked for comments and encouraged wide distribution of the report. We welcome your feedback as well.

Additionally, one of our colleagues from the trip is in Burma this summer working directly with civil society representatives and key government officials on strategic thinking, planning and technical assistance to advance  rule-of-law reform. Following these discussions, USIP will add to or amend the report as needed.

Please contact Kay Spencer at kspencer@usip.org with your questions, comments or input.

Kay Spencer is a program specialist in USIP’s Rule of Law and Burma programs.

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