Gabrielle Maginness writes about challenges to Myanmar’s transition to federalism.
Editor’s Note: In July this year, nineteen Criminology students from Monash University travelled to Myanmar on a two-week study tour, sponsored by the New Colombo Plan Mobility Grant. This was the first Monash study tour to Myanmar and the first study tour to Myanmar with a focus on crime and criminal justice. Students engaged with a number of representatives from government, non-government, INGOs, universities and other agencies, as well as individuals including young activists and journalists, all working within Myanmar’s law enforcement and criminal justice sector. Through this learning experience, students developed and deepened their knowledge and understanding of the complexities behind Myanmar’s human rights, political, diplomatic, education agendas and how they intersect.
It appears to me that Myanmar is failing to develop as a successful federal state. Although attempting to put in place robust policy and procedure , Myanmar’s deficient educational system, history of dictatorship and an abundance of internal ethnic conflicts, continue to inhibit Myanmar’s progression towards federalism. However, over just two weeks, our study group witnessed Myanmar citizen’s long-standing tendency to obey orders, heard about Myanmar’s lack of resources and realised the complexities of pleasing over 135 ethnic groups. I have come away asking myself, and others, are our demands of Myanmar realistic?
A federal state consists of numerous sub-national entities. Therefore, the underlying aspect of federalism requires the acquisition of sub-national consent before making national changes. For Myanmar, this will mean the consent of many ethnic groups. However, the approach to obtain adequate consent can differ depending upon the State. Nevertheless, Myanmar’s current situation with the 2008 constitution and the residual presence of the military in government, constitutionally holding one-third of elected seats, prohibits the equality of sub-national representation and therefore, a successful federal system.
From discussions with locals, professionals and university students, it was clear to us that after eight years of transitioning to a federal system, Myanmar’s government is still struggling to provide adequate health and social services, access to a fair and honest legal system, and access to critical education. As fundamental elements of a functioning society, these were some of the areas in which we explored the ideas of crime, criminal justice and the broader social elements that affect the operation of Myanmar’s legal system.
Knowing little of Myanmar’s history other than the narrow information reported by the media, I was curious and concerned about their political and legal climate. Discussions into what amounts to a human right and whether such rights are universal is a contentious area and beyond the scope of this piece. Therefore, I continue this discussion from the point of view that— agreeing with X, Y, and Z—Myanmar military/government have committed a number of serious human rights violations.
Before commencing my studies, I struggled to understand how serious violations continued to occur under Myanmar’s new federal system, particularly the events in Rakhine as these were heavily reported in western media. However, I have since come to learn that the unrest in Myanmar extends beyond the atrocities in Rakhine and includes a complex series of interrelated social, political and cultural problems to solve. As an extremely diverse country, the Myanmar government is tasked with the responsibility of creating a federal system that is inclusive of over 135 ethnicities, whilst also establishing policies and procedures that enable the distribution of standardised social services.
Throughout the program, I was surprised at how similar the current challenges faced by Myanmar were to those faced, in the past and present by my home country, Australia. The Australian government is all too familiar with the detrimental effects on individuals when exerting force in cultural conflicts, resisting acceptance of equality due to arbitrary factors, and the lack of adequate social services in rural areas. Upon realising these parallels, I could more clearly recognise the unrealistic expectations we have of Myanmar’s development.
Discussions about combatting violence against women during our visit to the Ministry of Social Welfare, was a situation in which I questioned whether our expectations of Myanmar were realistic. At the Ministry, we were informed of the awareness programs that the department was implementing to educate people on matters of family violence, and general violence against women, in the hope to denounce the behaviour. Alongside these awareness programs, the Department also informed us of the National Strategic Plan for the Advancement of Women (2013-2022) they have produced to empower and support women within Myanmar. The ten-year plan endeavours to address issues that affect women’s lives, focusing on the 12 priority areas outlined in the Beijing Platform for Action and the principles of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. The four pages dedicated to violence against women gives a general outline of a four-step process to achieve the objectives of responding to the needs of victims and eliminating all forms of violence against women. Including:
- Research and surveys to identify issues, needs and satisfaction with current services;
- Awareness raising programs to be introduced to Government Ministries, influential occupations (judges and police) and for the general public;
- Implementation that will allow for the establishment of services and access to justice, and lastly;
- Budgeting and policy making to ensure there is funding for implementation of services and policy creation and a process of review.
However, it was clear from the questions asked by students that we were more interested in hearing about detailed action plans and implemented policies and/or services that were having effect on the prevalence of violence against women and the experience of survivors.
At first, I was unsettled at the department’s focus on awareness raising, knowing that awareness is not enough to prevent such acts of violence with the hindsight of Australia’s ongoing struggle with violence against women. However, upon reflection it occurred to me that without awareness programs, more complex policies and procedures in relation to violence against women are unlikely to have the desired effect on the public as individuals do not necessarily understand the issue that is being addressed. Therefore, I found myself partly reassured that Myanmar was making steps in the right direction, as awareness raising programs are an important stepping stone to developing new laws and policies that are accepted and can effectively achieve their desired outcome.
I again experienced a similar situation when visiting the Rule of Law Centre in Yangon. During our visit, we engaged in a number of activities the centre uses to teach Myanmar locals about the rule of law. It was an experience that shocked me. The activities taught very basic concepts that are related to the rule of law ideology, such as defining biases, equality, and fairness. It was only upon reflection that I could appreciate that after such a long period of military rule, and the lack of even a “thin” rule of law (or rule by law) that locals in Myanmar would have very little understanding of what the rule of law is. Cheesman outlines that a ‘thin’ rule of law can be characterised by a focus on how the law can control behaviour (rule by law) and how consistently said law is applied. Conversely, a ‘thick’ rule of law is focused on the content of the law and whether it upholds individual and group human rights. Through case examples, Cheesman concludes that that in the past Myanmar’s legal approach has not met the ‘thin’ interpretation of the rule of law. Therefore, it is understandable that Myanmar locals need to be taught concepts that underpin the rule of law such as fairness, equality and discrimination, before they can understand the rule of law as we perceive it.
I imagine that when beginning to understand the theory of the rule of law and its relationship to once-taboo issues such as family violence, Australia too, began the process with basic learning techniques and awareness programs. Recognising these parallels between Myanmar and Australia’s progression, I started to question whether members of the international community were being hypocritical in their treatment of Myanmar considering their own historic development involving grave human rights violations. For example, in Australia the horrific treatment of indigenous Australians upon British arrival and the continuation of such treatment in differing forms to date.
Viewing Myanmar’s development and transition to federalism through a lens of historical and developmental relativism is not intended to minimise or condemn the human rights infringements occurring. But to give some perspective on the processes and complexities involved in transitioning to a democratic system. My short time in Myanmar has left me unable to reconcile the inner conflicts I had at the beginning of the program. I believe that more needs to be done to ensure that the rights of all individuals within Myanmar borders are upheld. Additionally, I do not completely understand or agree with some of the beliefs and values we encountered during our travels. However, I also cannot ignore the history of my own country, and many other developed countries.
Therefore, I have compassion for the difficulties Myanmar is facing: Trying to successfully develop a federal system for the first time, taking 135+ ethnic groups into consideration, and attempting to meet the expectations of the international community in the 21st century without the necessary educational resources and infrastructure to develop solutions to their myriad of social, political and economic issues. I struggle to comprehend how the international community expects Myanmar to develop such a comprehensive federal system within the short time frame of 3-8 years. Australia for example, has had over 100 years of development as a federal state and still struggles to implement sound approaches to managing cultural conflicts and promoting the rights of oppressed and/or minority groups.
To achieve adequate levels of development and a successful federal system, Myanmar needs our support. The international community needs to be openminded and understanding of Myanmar’s history and culture to tailor their assistance to achieve outcomes that benefit Myanmar residents. The cross-cultural interaction is essential to allow a once inward-looking country, to look beyond their borders and develop real and tangible solutions to their social and political problems. With numerous years of development, western countries have the insight and knowledge from past mistakes to assist and guide Myanmar on this journey to establishing effective education systems, governmental structures, policy and procedures, an honest legal system, and adequate health services.
Relativism is not an excuse for poor governance. However, it provides a lens to assist our understanding and ability to implement appropriate solutions to multifaceted issues. By utilising such an approach to assist the development and transition of Myanmar, the international community can support the locals and the government to address the restructuring of their society and help prevent further human rights violations within Myanmar’s boarders. I have highlighted above that throughout Australia’s development from colonial rule to a federal system, Australia has, and continues to face many challenges of a similar nature. Therefore I ask, is there a duty on us, and other developed countries, to use our knowledge and hindsight to assist Myanmar in their struggles? And if not, can our condemnation of Myanmar be hypocritical?
[Image credit: Gabrielle Maginness]
 Melissa Crouch and Tim Lindsey, 2018, London: Hart Publishing, 2014. 33–56. Bloomsbury Collections.
 Cheesman N. Thin Rule of Law or Un-Rule of Law in Myanmar?. Pacific Affairs. 2009;82(4):597-613.
Gabrielle Maginness is in her fifth year of competing a double degree in the Bachelor of Arts (majoring in criminology) and Bachelor of Law. She recently underwent a Study Tour with Monash University to Myanmar, exploring crime and criminal justice within the country.