Even as the civil war rages on, many pro-democracy groups in Myanmar have begun building their own governance and security institutions. As these new structures emerge, it’s important that they do not repeat the mistakes of the past.

Pro-democracy protesters hold makeshift shields as they prepare for a crackdown by security forces in Yangon, Myanmar. March 14, 2021. (The New York Times)
Pro-democracy protesters hold makeshift shields as they prepare for a crackdown by security forces in Yangon, Myanmar. March 14, 2021. (The New York Times)

Many institutions in Myanmar were originally designed as top-down structures without any space for civil society input. The Myanmar Police Force (MPF), in particular, originally existed as an arm of the British empire. When Myanmar achieved independence, the MPF then operated as a mechanism of state control rather than a public service to protect civilians. Consequently, the MPF grew into a hub of systemic violence and brutality that has continued to this day.

If the resistance is going to turn their democratic vision into a reality, the process of building new institutions must be more inclusive and sustainable — and that requires collaboration with civil society. This is particularly pertinent for security institutions, which both define and monopolize the legitimate use of force.

The First Step: Building Trust

For these new security institutions to establish legitimacy, they must first create trust between themselves and the communities they serve. They can do so by structuring these institutions around civil society’s needs. But how can that work in practice?

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which has exported many democratic policing models across the world for decades, advocates for mechanisms such as open forums between police and civil society, community policing initiatives, and representative composition. Developing relations between community and policing through simple acts such as face-to-face engagement can increase local perceptions of legitimacy. While the MPF has historically been hesitant to participate in local community dialogues, emergent policing groups affiliated with the pro-democracy movement and Ethnic Revolutionary Organizations — such as the Karen National Police Force (KNPF) — have demonstrated greater interest in community engagement.

During interviews with USIP, women police officers in the KNPF shared their thoughts on the role of policing in their community. One police officer remarked that “only with the people’s support, the police are able to establish their foundation. It is required to build trust from the community. The police have a responsibility to show their good character to be accepted by the community.”

Another officer shared that policing laws have operated similarly across Myanmar. However, “the distinguishing [thing] is that … we have our own requirements and some adjustments based on the community needs.” Creating security institutions structured around community-specific needs can give birth to more sustainable justice and security practices.

Addressing community needs requires rethinking how to make access to security more inclusive. Rather than envisioning security as a service limited to the select few, or as a means of state control, more sustainable security institutions should honor all community needs by prioritizing building mechanisms to address the insecurity of the historically marginalized — including ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, women and gender minorities. Expanding access to security across the whole community supports trust-building and strengthens legitimacy.

Operationalizing Inclusivity

A practical starting point for emergent security institutions could be building on existing gender-inclusive practices. Women in Myanmar have faced significant gender-based violence throughout the country’s history — both directly at the hands of Myanmar’s police and indirectly as a result of conflict-affected insecurity, such as the threat of sexual violence in displacement camps or physical violence from civilians without accountability. This has left most women without trusted security resources.

Building security institutions that serve an entire community, however, is not as simple as “adding women and stir” to reshape power dynamics. Although women’s civil society groups are active in more liberated areas, such as Karen and Karenni States, gender-inclusion should not be outsourced to civil society. Civil society needs to inform the structure of the security institutions.

In Karenni State, the emergent Karenni State Police try to serve a wide community. Due to limited resources, the Karenni State Police often must prioritize conflict-related security concerns and lack the capacity for addressing gender-based violence specifically. Civil society leaders assessed that the Karenni State Police have a “limited awareness” of gender issues, however the Karenni State Police have expressed interest in expanding its capacity to serve a more inclusive population, including by addressing gender-based violence in Karenni State.

In Karen State, the Karen Women’s Organization (KWO) is more integrated into the justice system. The KWO has spearheaded efforts to address gender-based violence with the KNPF through the provision of legal support, shelter and assistance to victims of gender-based violence.

However, this still means that these institutions are dependent on the KWO for advocating for protections for women. This is not practical for all liberated areas in Myanmar, and security institutions need to be designed to serve inclusive populations without overreliance on women’s groups to guide them.  

The case of Brazil can offer some lessons, as feminist movements in the 1980s played a large role in the creation of all-women police stations and generating attitudinal shifts toward greater advocacy for victims of gender-based violence. Further, women’s police stations in Brazilian metropolitan areas were strongly correlated with decreases in the female homicide rate. Rural areas did not experience this change, but this is thought to be due to cultural norms regarding gender-based violence in those areas.

The case of Brazil demonstrates that if there is political will that values women in civil society, opportunities for justice can shift. Creating security institutions that factor in culture and the lived experiences of civil society — particularly women — as a fundamental part of their operations can truly enhance security and justice for communities.

Reconsider Power as a Community-Owned Good

As momentum builds among emerging security institutions in Myanmar, it’s important to take a step back and recognize that these institutions represent new centers of power among communities. Questions of power dynamics will emerge, such as: Who wields the legitimate use of force? Who has the authority to represent communities? Who grants access to resources? The allocation of power within communities will set new precedents. It is imperative that communities truly have ownership over this power by shaping new security institutions.

Emerging police institutions should develop community-informed systems to protect the community and prevent criminal activity in a holistic way. These systems should go beyond outsourcing labor to civil society. Community dialogues could address these embryonic questions of legitimacy, authority and use of force to inform the foundational principles of these institutions. Creating open spaces for communities to re-envision security in partnership with security providers could promote greater buy-in across all stakeholders. Other structural practices could include regular consultations and dialogues with community leaders at the policy level, designing police training curricula in partnership with community leaders, and trust-building initiatives with communities.

In another example, community-nominated civilian representatives have joined rotations of the community auxiliary police in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea. It should also be noted that a meta-analysis of community policing in the Global South found that community policing interventions did not affect community trust or perceptions of insecurity. Rather, these community policing interventions were limited by a lack of prioritization of community engagement at the leadership level, a rotation of champions of community engagement, and limited resources. Building new security institutions from the bottom-up allows a unique opportunity to overcome these limitations by instilling norms of prioritizing community in the strategy, training and practices of the institution itself.

While it is encouraging that the KNPF has initiated some community-oriented policing approaches, this should be strengthened and promoted across other security institutions in the resistance network. As one KNPF police officer shared, “Policing work [has] to be endorsed, recommended, appreciated by the people. That is really important. In order to be a police force, it has to be trusted by the community.”

Developing trust between police and civil society is key to sharing community knowledge and building the political will to create more secure and just spaces in Myanmar. For security to be an accessible good for all, then all must respect and center the power of the community.

Hkawn Htoi is a program manager for the Myanmar team at USIP.

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