Change the system – not just the people

First impressions of Myanmar

By Tomas Max Martin, Researcher, 21 December 2016.
Picture by Liv Stoltze Gaborit, all rights reserved.

In November the DIGNITY Legacies of Detention team – Liv S. Gaborit, Andrew M. Jefferson and I – met in Yangon to take the partnerships with our Myanmar colleagues to the next level and to strengthen relations with the key stakeholders of the project.

Our meetings and interactions with Justice for All (JFA) – the small but energetic and committed law firm that is one of the main partners of the project – were very encouraging. First of all, we found ourselves in the company of a group of friendly, motivated and experienced legal analysts and activists, who will be our close colleagues for the coming years. Ideas were tested, questions asked and decisions made over coffee and green tea in JFA’s cozy office. Practicalities and administrative elements of the cooperation was firmed up. Many issues are still pending, but important steps were taken, not least the formulation and announcement of job adverts for researchers and assistants. Our substantive discussions about capacity development needs and concrete directions of the project led to a number of initial activities: JFA and Liv will for instance engage in a series of research method workshops on observation and fields notes, and we will jointly develop a pilot case study with a multi-disciplinary and empirical analysis of “prisoners’ contact with the outside world in Myanmar”. Thanks to the competent facilitation by JFA, our joint discussions culminated in a launch seminar with invited members of Myanmar civil society and academia. At the seminar we presented the main ideas of the project and engaged in a lively discussion on issues like the prison law, academic freedom, and the notion of political prisoners. Our powerpoint presentation from the seminar can be found here.

The Faculty of Law at Yangon University is the other main partner of the project. Again we were welcomed by interested colleagues, who took time to engage in frank discussions with us about the directions of a future partnership. We jointly drew up a clear outline of the activities that we want to pursue together – including PhD scholarships and library development – and discussed different options for the administrative set-up of the cooperation. We were also invited to give a lecture for the law students on “international perspectives on researching criminal justice systems”. We introduced a social scientific understanding of systems and change and our teaching took off from the basic idea that systems are constituted by institutions, rules and people. By looking at one particular institution – the prison; one important set of rules – human rights; and a key actor – the prisoner, we suggested that a locally grounded understanding of systemic change in the justice sector could be teased out. Our personal, problematizing and empirical approach was probably a bit unusual for the law students, but the reception of our talk was good and the debate was lively: Can we risk to improve prisons so much that punishment does not deter crime? Is prisoners’ right to vote a human right? And so on. Our powerpoint presentation from the lecture can be found here.

Alongside the close interactions with the project partners, we met and (re-)introduced ourselves to a wide selection of stakeholders including NGOs, INGOs and national and international agencies. All in all, we were delighted and impressed with the promising prospects and the local responses to the project. Yet, the road is long. Partnership agreements have to be fully settled and approaches to accessing Myanmar authorities more directly need to be developed. And amidst the appreciation from all sides about the democratic thaw and what it enables in terms of research and reform, we also sensed concern about possible setbacks and difficulties, both in terms of capacities, expectations and conflicts. We did not directly experience the increased level of conflict or the crisis surrounding the Rohingyas – widely covered by international media – during our visit to the capital, but it is clear that rising tension in the country may influence the implementation of the project.

This was also my very first visit to Myanmar. First impressions supposedly last. The inviting integrity and downplayed elegance of Yangon will definitely stay with me for quite some time. It is also a place where you sense that control has been tight and widespread. A mundane but also very manifest example of this ‘top-down-ness’ that immediately caught my attention is the fact that motorcycles have been totally banned in the capital area by the former military regime – supposedly because of traffic safety. There are many rumors about other reasons for this ban (such as fears of drive-by shooting attacks), but in any case Yangon is just completely devoid of one of the defining technologies of most Asian cities – the common man’s ever-present motorbike – and the ban lingers on. Yet, the thing that probably made the most lasting impression on me – in a scholarly way at least – was the recurrent emphasis that people, who we spoke to about prison reform and democratic change, put on the need to change ‘the system’. “It is not enough to just change the people”, we were told, “you need to change the system!” Very different stakeholders said that on the one hand many good people were in the right places in Myanmar’s governance structures and on the other hand complaints and mismanagement often led to the displacement of the not-so-good people. Yet, for profound change to kick in and take root, the system has to change. But what is ‘the system’ if you look at the area of detention? How can it’s defining features, processes and history be identified? And influenced? Questions like these will probably puzzle us for the coming four and half years, but it is our ambition to come up with some answers.

Launching into the relatively unknown

A post-launch reflection on transition as metamorphosis.

By Andrew M. Jefferson, Principal Investigator
3rd November 2016

In September we were pleased to hold an event at DIGNITY in Copenhagen, formally launching our research project Legacies of Detention in Myanmar. The event was well-attended by inquisitive and highly qualified stake-holders and sparring partners and we enjoyed it immensely. Cognizant of the fact that at this point our knowledge of Myanmar is still modest we used the launch to introduce the audience to the background to the project and its intentions (as introduced via this website) and to flag the journeys that the Denmark-based team have taken – via research on prisons and reform processes in the Philippines, Uganda, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Tunisia etc. that brought each of us to this project.

Since then Liv has begun her PhD fieldwork and Tomas and I are just about to embark on our first ever joint field trip to Myanmar. I’m excited but anxious. And I’m reminded of a blog I wrote a few years ago where I described the simultaneous feelings of trepidation and anticipation that typically accompany me when I approach the gates of a new prison (https://www.dignityinstitute.org/news-and-events/news/2014/lines-of-flight-on-the-desire-to-know-but-not-know-prisons/ ). The launch was one thing; now we are really getting down to business. This is a short duration visit and I don’t expect to be inside any prisons. It will mostly comprise meetings with partners and other stakeholders and the establishment of a clear and jointly understood platform for future collaborative activities. But it is also an opportunity to familiarise ourselves with the current socio-political climate and begin to develop a sense of how the developments of the past five years are understood locally. What is this process people are calling a transition?

The notion of transition is often used by scholars and political commentators to capture the idea of a country or a situation that is changing. It serves as a convenient short-hand for a vast array of changing political, legislative and social circumstances. A notion of transition can invoke the idea of before and after, of time on the move, of continuities and discontinuities but it may also run the risk of naively implying that change is inevitably for the better thus contributing to myths of progress.

The ethnographic sensibility that informs our research project implies that what is necessary are finely-grained, richly-detailed analyses of historical and contemporary events and the meanings attached to them by those who participate in them. Part of our task will be to try to unpack the substance and logics of convenient short-hand notions like transition in the light of empirical fieldwork and other scholarly analyses. One set of such analyses is provided by the recently published volume Metamorphosis. Studies in Social and Political Change (edited by Renaud Egreteau and Francois Robinne), which via its title and introductory chapter signals a similar desire.

The volume is inter-disciplinary and international though it springs out of a body of Francophone scholarship on Burma/Myanmar. For the editors, the choice of the term metamorphosis rather than transition is deliberate. They acknowledge the complexity of the developmental processes of social and political change that are underway and the plurality of ‘transformative powers.’ Their ambition is to emphasise what we, following anthropologist and prison scholar Lorna Rhodes, call persistence and mutation, and what they refer to as ‘deep-seated, incremental and observable transformations but with elements of resilience, if not (frustrating) persistence’ (2016: 4).

Our entry point to social and political change is the prison. Prisons are often understood to be intransigent monolithic institutions that simply endure. But our experience from other countries suggests that there are a plurality of transformative powers affecting even prisons. Prison practices are affected by legislative changes, management decisions, the whims of politicians or the winds of punitive populism and so on. They mutate and morph too. Our project aims to document ongoing mutations.

This is a professional project, of course, but it is also a personal project. At the launch event we referenced the journeys that brought us thus far and it is our expectation that this new journey will contribute to our own metamorphosis. Anthropologist Jean Lave refers to the way in which critical ethnography is about being an apprentice to one’s own changing practice, that is about learning through one’s mistakes, encounters and critical reflections. We hope – via this blog – to share what we learn along the way. And we hope you might keep reading.

New PhD project examines experiences of imprisonment in Myanmar


At a time when the harsh military regime in Myanmar has given way to a more democratically-oriented regime, DIGNITY researcher Liv S. Gaborit will be one of the first to start examining the historical and contemporary practices of imprisonment in Myanmar.

“Only in recent years, has Myanmar opened up to the international community. Previously it hasn’t been possible to conduct research on the country’s prisons. Today a political space has opened up, making it possible and I am proud to be among the first researchers to set out to develop the knowledge needed for us to understand and improve conditions in Myanmar’s prisons,” says Liv S. Gaborit.

The text below is a blog post Liv S. Gaborit has published through the Border Criminologies network, an international network of researchers and practitioners based at the Centre for Criminology at the University of Oxford. Original blog post

Legacies of Detention in Myanmar

Post by Liv S. Gaborit, PhD Student, Roskilde University and DIGNITY – Danish Institute Against Torture  Published 07 July 2016

Myanmar, formerly Burma, is notorious for its harsh military regime and famous for Aung Sang Sui Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize winner and the country’s new leader who has been fighting for democratic reforms for decades. These two elements, contradictory as they are, exemplify the history and present of Myanmar. Historically, the country has been ruled by authoritarian regimes, be it foreign colonial or national. In recent times, the country has taken important steps towards democracy, though not democracy typical of the west, but an Asian version described in the constitution as ‘disciplined democracy.’ Several national elections have taken place, the latest one being the presidential election in 2015, leading to the accession of the new government last April. The new government is the first to be led by the former opposition party National League for Democracy and as such this election represents a pivotal moment for the history and future of Myanmar. Although the opposition has gained power in the formal democracy, traces of previous authoritarian regimes remain. This is exemplified by the constitution forbidding the formal leader of the winning party, Aung Sang Sui Kyi, from taking seat as president, the allocation of 25% of the seats in parliament for military representatives, and three ministries (i.e., Defence, Home Affairs, and Border Affairs) controlled by the military.

A political space has opened in Myanmar and changes are taking place. It’s in this context a new research programme called Legacies of Detention in Myanmar was launched, which seeks to document the changes as they occur by studying the relations between state and citizen as illustrated by the relations between prison and prisoner. The research programme explores the historical and contemporary role of detention in Myanmar and its significance for the reconfiguration of state and society. Through the concept of ‘legacy,’ the programme seeks to capture the persistence and mutation of practices of detention as they affect individuals, institutions, state, and society.

The programme is based at DIGNITY – Danish Institute Against Torture headed by Andrew M. Jefferson and includes a PhD project by myself, a postdoctoral fellowship by Tomas M. Martin, and a partnership with the Department of Law at University of Yangon and the network for human rights lawyers called Justice for All. The programme will approach legacies by studying three dimensions―experiencestechnologies, and politics of detention―to explain the ambiguous and contested nature of detention practices and efforts to reform them, and aims to offer insights to policy-makers committed to supporting nascent moves toward rule of law and the realization of democracy and human rights.

Within this broader programme, my PhD project will focus on the dimension of experiences.  I aim to explore how experiences vary depending on what group a prisoner belongs to (ethnic or political), what point of history and thus under what political regime the detainment took place, and what kind of facility detention took place in (e.g., prison, labour camp, or IDP camp). In this study, experiences of different political and ethnic groups subjected to detention will be used to trace patterns of mutating and persistent detention legacies, and explore how different penal practices cause different processes of subjectification. By tracing patterns of prisoners’ individual experiences, the study will be able to explore how different techniques of governance are applied to and experienced by subjects of the state through a phenomenological approach. The study also aims to contribute to understanding  how prisons change, thereby creating important knowledge for prison reform work in Myanmar as well as in other countries.

The project will explore issues such as relations and identity of the more than 136 different ethnic groups in the country to study the connection between state and citizens through documenting experiences of detention practices. Some of these groups engage in armed struggle to free themselves from the influence of the state and the state has responded by seeking control over its territory and population through military operations and policies seeking to create a shared national identity, as evident in, for example, the presidential speeches of former president Thein Sein. This places the study in a melting pot filled with concerns for nationalism, ethnic identity, natural resources, and political influence, in which political imprisonment, deprivation of the freedom of movement, and the creation of IDP camps become part of the conflicts.

The study will apply field based ethnographic methodology inspired by action research. To conduct fieldwork in prisons in Myanmar is to endeavour into a complicated setting for fieldwork filled with sensitive issues. At the moment, access to prisons in the country is very limited. Some of the few actors that have access are family members, lawyers, and the ICRC, whom have recently regained their access to conduct monitoring visits after a fall out with the government in 2012. Researchers or NGOs offering service delivery have so far not been granted access to prisons. The prisons will therefore be approached incrementally, starting with indirect studies of the prisons through fieldwork with ex-prisoners and then slowly approaching the actual prisons. Many prisoners have been released on amnesties, both historically and in connection to the recent election. Despite ex-prisoners’ first-hand knowledge of how the state can act to stifle opposition, they are among the most outspoken critics of the continued use of detention to close down political space.

It’s with great excitement that I venture in to this new project and I hope you will follow and contribute to discussions as the project progresses. Updates will be posted on this blog as fieldwork progresses.