This week I returned to Yangon to participate in Partners Asia’s summer workshop on land and law in Myanmar. Prominent lawyers, legal consultants, development advisors, and academics both from Myanmar and abroad flocked to the city to discuss what many consider to be one of the country’s most pressing issues under the new regime – the need for legal reform protecting citizens’ land rights. It’s a hot topic here, and for good reason; as the government increasingly welcomes foreign investments and promotes tourism, companies and wealthy locals (not to mention the state) have snatched up private lands with little or no justification, notice, or compensation. Those whose lands have been confiscated – usually poor farmers – have virtually no recourse. Very few cases make it into court, and those that do are rarely successful.
The workshop opened with a session on the politics of law drafting. Nick Cheesman, an Australian scholar whose research focuses on the rule of law in Myanmar (or lack thereof), kicked off the panel with a discussion of the role of law in Myanmar’s land cases, especially those relating to land acquisitions, land sales, and disputes over use rights. In turn, local lawyers U Thein Than Oo, U Myint Thwin, and U Kyaw Min San shared their experiences defending a variety of land cases, most of them pro bono.
Another session considered distortions of the Criminal Procedure Code and misuses of the law in Myanmar. Basil Fernando, a Sri Lankan human rights attorney who now serves on the law faculty of the university in Hong Kong, conversed with Nick Cheesman about potential reality-based reforms of Myanmar’s current legal processes that could bring about improvements in justice. After this introduction to the theme, workshop participants split into five break-out groups to look at specific laws, regulations, promulgations, and directives that are regularly broken or distorted in Myanmar’s courts. Topics included the lengthening of cases by habitual adjournments, the lengthening of sentences by multiple charges and judicial areas, non-legal responses to land confiscation, the confiscation of land for special economic zones, and communal land rights in Myanmar’s ethnic areas.
A third session centered on knowing the law, practicing the law well, and improving justice with an eye towards evidence-based reform. Workshop participants discussed what each of them could do within the context of their professional work to generate accountability mechanisms, or at least evidence that could be collected to support such a dynamic; they also considered how lawyers and consultants could influence the writing of a new comprehensive land law, looking at what would be needed both in the process and in the content. A recurring theme was that, in the future, arbitration will be essential to addressing past land claims.
Continuing with these themes, the fourth session revolved around the processes, participants, and use of alternative arbitration in drafting a new comprehensive land law. Considering the lessons that can be learned from current practices in Myanmar, the participants discussed the extent to which consultation has worked in the past, is currently working, and could be improved from the grassroots-level up. One of the most pressing issues in Myanmar relates to competing claims for land dating back through years of military government. Given the country’s oppressive political history, who should decide what’s fair? Who should arbitrate the claims? Are there models of local arbitration in Myanmar that can be formalized towards this end?
I was the official note-taker for the workshop, transcribing as much as I could from real-time translations of the participants’ speeches and the audience’s input. My colleagues at Partners Asia will comb through these notes and produce a short report of the workshop’s main themes and proceedings, keeping all names anonymous so nobody will be accused of sedition or otherwise opposing the government. For many years, the government has kept a tight rein on the country’s lawyers, who feel like they have no voice and little power; even under the new regime, with its slightly more relaxed approach to censorship, many lawyers feel like they can’t speak their mind, especially when it comes to criticizing the government. We Americans should really treasure our freedom of speech.
As busy as they were all week, my colleagues at Partners Asia took the time to devise a thoughtful Burmese name for me: Zun Shwe Yee. According to Ko Kaung Nyunt, it represents my astrological birthday (the day of the week on which I was born), the month in which I came to Myanmar, the “golden” color of my hair, and the paleness of my skin. I love having such a creative name, and the locals love it even more when I introduce myself with a Burmese name!