Here is a piece that a colleague and I wrote on Burma’s transition and my recent trip to the country to meet with officials and civil society to discuss the rule of law issues. It was an inspiring trip and despite the challenges faced in the present and future, there were so many people who hold a positive vision for the country that transcends Burma’s past. (I am cross-posting this piece as it first appeared on the website of the United States Institute of Peace at http://www.usip.org/in-the-field/burmese-officials-civic-leaders-examine-challenges-transition)
Burmese Officials, Civic Leaders Examine Challenges of Transition
April 22, 2013
A recent two-day U.S. Institute of Peace workshop in the southern Burmese capital of Mon State, Mawlamyaing, was intended to be a discussion of the rule-of-law and mechanisms to promote it amid the country’s rapid transition. But the occasion also illustrated some of the very fundamental questions that bewilder national, state and local officials and civil society leaders in environments of such rapid political and economic change.
USIP began to engage with counterparts in Burma more than a year ago, following the U.S. Government’s move to renew direct engagement with the country after decades of isolation and sanctions that followed the military regime’s 1988 crackdown on the democratic opposition. USIP’s engagement started with unofficial discussions to strengthen relations between the two countries. This track 2 dialogue was in partnership with the Asia Society and Blue Moon Fund. Government legal advisers from the capital Naypyitaw also have come to Washington D.C. to discuss the way forward for their country, and civil society as well as government representatives have attended courses at USIP’s Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding. USIP’s Burma Team also works with civil society, particularly the religious and media sectors. The February/March visit to the country this year also included two one-day workshops in Shan state, the Mawlamyaing workshop, as well as other meetings and discussions with government and nongovernment actors.
In the two-day workshop, the presenters were Colette Rausch, director of the Institute’s Rule of Law Center of Innovation; Susan Hayward, a senior program officer in USIP’s Center of Innovation for Religion and Peacemaking; and Leanne McKay, an independent consultant in rule of law.
More than 60 participants flooded to the February 16-17 course from Mon and Karen States, twice the number planned, but with so much interest, USIP felt it had to meet the need. The participants included a range of actors: state parliamentarians, police, judges, lawyers, academics, youth, journalists, and civil society activists. The participants’ active engagement in the group work and discussion similarly demonstrated the intense and genuine level of interest across all sectors on issues regarding the rule of law.
The aims of the workshop were to define rule of law as a concept and a practical end-state; describe how it relates to other concepts of justice, security, human rights, conflict and peacebuilding; help the participants identify both institutional and community-driven responses to rule-of-law issues in their context; and design strategic responses that would promote rule of law in Burma.
But as so often happens in cases of transition, discussions veer from those specific points to the broader context and underlying functioning of a whole society.
During breaks and over dinner in particular, the questions came tumbling out:
What happens when you feel national security is threatened and you need to take action that some might see as violating rights?
How do you balance law and order with rights and citizens’ concerns?
What do you do when some people in a country think they are above the law?
How did Kosovo deal with these issues? What are people in Libya doing about them now?
The thoughtful questions dug deep for answers. Participants were particularly eager to hear about the experience of establishing and strengthening democracy within the United States. They asked about the dilemmas and debates between national security and civil liberties the U.S. experienced in the years after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks on New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon, that also included the crash of another hijacked flight in a field in Pennsylvania. Debates that, to some extent, continue even today.
The participants also worried about the accountability of big companies in their country as economic sanctions are lifted and more transnational businesses enter the scene. They asked how the U.S. handles such situations. They didn’t pull punches on sensitive questions – they’d heard of the Ku Klux Klan and asked if it was still active. They asked about corruption and greed in our country, and what Americans do about it.
They were the kinds of questions that are impossible to duck, especially when the credibility of a training in rule-of-law rests on openness and transparency. Their willingness to probe deeply seemed to reflect a level of trust and a feeling that this was a safe space where they could express their concerns.
They seemed to understand our explanation that democracy is a dance — an ongoing process that constantly reinvents itself, hopefully improves itself, around fundamental principles. That in the U.S., the democratic system is not perfect, but reflects the human beings who constitute it, with all their prejudices, weaknesses, aspirations, and convictions. And for this reason, establishing the rule of law begins with each person recognizing and fulfilling their own rights and responsibilities.
The discussions provided a reminder that such a workshop is often simply a vehicle for looking at the broader context of a transition. It’s easy to jump right into a discussion of systems, when a more effective approach for the creation of sustainable peace is to reflect first on the root causes and drivers of the conflict.
The good news, as one of the participants pointed out, is that two years ago, they couldn’t even have had that discussion. Now, another said, it is time to begin the dialogue in order to understand one another and together build a peaceful future.