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.

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