The administration of justice in Myanmar is characterized by legal pluralism. There is a wide range of justice providers, different coexisting legal systems and varied perceptions of justice. Despite this pluralism, a common pattern is that most citizens are primarily looking for solutions to disputes and crimes within their own village or neighborhood. Official courts are feared, distrustful and associated with high costs. These are places that most people try to avoid. When people decide to report a conflict or crime, the preferred justice option is community-based dispute resolution (CBDR), which focuses on negotiating a mutual agreement. While this empirical reality is increasingly recognized, so far very little international support has been directed at this level of justice in Myanmar. Formal reform of the justice sector and the improvement of the rule of law are crucial in Myanmar’s current transition, but they are long-term processes. This calls for the need to simultaneously commit to existing mechanisms at Community level that already work and are considered legitimate by ordinary citizens. To do this, you need a deep understanding of the actual practices in each particular environment, rather than preconceived normative ideas about what CBDR means.
This research-based report provides in-depth empirical knowledge of how disputes and crimes are resolved in practice at the lowest and most widely used level in selected areas of southeastern Myanmar. The aim is to report on the support of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) for access to justice through the CBDR. Identifies the different justice providers and those informal justice facilitators that people approach to help resolve cases.
Based on a series of case examples and direct observations, it explores people’s justice-seeking practices and details the different resolution procedures, appeals, grievance mechanisms, and rules / rules that apply to the CBDR. Examples are given of how some cases travel between different forums of justice, including formal legal systems.
Geographically, the report covers areas administered by the government of Myanmar (GdM) and major ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) in Karen, Mon, and to a lesser extent, the states of Kayah. The three states have experienced decades of armed conflict, but since the ceasefire in 2012, they have remained relatively stable. De facto parallel state systems prevail, including the various legal systems. To set out the broader context for CBDR, a chapter is devoted to an outline of GoM and EAO legal systems, including how they usually work in practice. The report analyzes the similarities and differences between the CBDR in the areas of GoM and EAO, including its official mandates and practices. As a basis for identifying entry points for IRC support, the report describes the strengths and limitations of the CBDR.
The main ideas of the report are based on data from the EverJust research project, coordinated by the author of this report1. Everjust conducted participatory interviews and observation of daily justice delivery at 12 research sites over a one-year period (February 2016 to January 2017) in Mon and Karen states. Long-term research and direct observations of dispute resolution provide unique insights into the day-to-day practices and perceptions of ordinary people about issues and justice, which has hitherto been lacking in Myanmar, where research based on interviews and surveys has dominated. In this report, Everjust’s research knowledge is complemented by other recent studies on access to justice2 and the IRC’s own work.
In general, the report recommends that international support be committed from the outset to existing CBDR forums, rather than trying to establish alternative or parallel institutions. Support must be firmly grounded in the way disputes and crimes are already handled and understood in the target communities. A good starting point is to focus on what is already working – in case of success – and then identify areas for improvement, based on participatory dialogues with local justice providers and ordinary citizens.
Reliance on a standard set of externally defined concepts and models of intervention should be avoided. While legal awareness is needed, it is important to be realistic about what formal justice options may entail for ordinary citizens. Programming must be sensitive to the sociocultural and religious beliefs that inform people’s justice preferences so as not to denounce cases at all or to seek localized solutions. There is a need to gradually increase the inclusion of vulnerable groups in CDR forums, including women and minorities.