By Zahava Moerdler
Since Myanmar’s transition from military rule to democracy began in November 2010 , there has been increased space for democratic debate and human rights advocacy. This opportunity presents a unique historical moment for those working in human rights to help propel and sustain real change.
In November 2015, Myanmar hosted elections where, for the first time in decades, non-military civilian leaders were voted into power. Unlike past elections, the military allowed the election results to stand and pledged to support a transition in leadership. The military generals who had controlled the country for over fifty years ceded power to the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Despite the NLD’s victory, the military still retains control over the country through de facto parliamentary veto power authorized by the constitution. The military also has control over all national security matters. Although the military could have suspended or reversed the country’s progress towards democracy, the military chose to accept and back the democratic election outcomes.
A resource-rich country with a population of over 56 million people, Myanmar is the second largest country in mainland Southeast Asia. Sixty-eight percent of the country’s population ethnically identifies as Burman, and there are significant proportions of other ethnicities, including Shan (9% of the population), Karen (7%), Rakhine (4%), Chinese (3%) and Indian (2%). While the largest religion represented in Myanmar is Buddhism, there are also Muslim and Christian populations. Myanmar became a British colony in 1885 and finally achieved full independence on January 4, 1948. Although Myanmar gained independence, the country was ruled by a dictatorial military junta for over 60 years.
Since coming into power, Aung San Suu Kyi —who cannot be President because of constitutional provisions, but has acceded to a role “above the President”—has demonstrated a number of strong policy stances. She reflects the country’s trend towards democracy, which has helped ease U.S. tensions. However, clear examples of backsliding, from before the election and after, remain troubling. In 2014, new legislation promoting Buddhism over other religions and instituting state control over inter-faith marriages, polygamy, religious conversion and family planning, was introduced. Additionally, sexual violence, particularly within conflict zones, remains a rampant issue that is not being addressed either at a local or national level. There are also concerns over freedom of expression and freedom of press. In 2015, student protesters in Letpadan were arrested for refusing to disperse during a protest. Finally, Suu Kyi has refused to call the Rohingya, the Muslim minority in Myanmar, by their own name or to address the rampant discrimination and abuses they face. Under Suu Kyi’s leadership, Rohingya are not only to be called Bengalis, which calls into question their nationality and Burmese citizenship, but they are also denied basic human rights and excluded from the peace process. Additionally, there is not a single Muslim legislator in the country.
Despite many challenges since 2010, including the backsliding on democratic advances, many human rights activists now see an opening to push for concrete and widespread change. While reform must undoubtedly come from within Myanmar, there is still much space for international groups to play a role. Close international attention and sustained action in ensuring small steps by the Burmese government may lead to substantive reforms. International groups must, of course, understand the complex political situation in the country, the informal and formal institutions that abound, and the nuanced conflicts in ethnic minority regions. As Myanmar sees an increase in funding and capital, international groups should work closely with civil society and grassroots organizations to adhere to their in-country mission, support tailored programs and solutions and promote coalition-building at the local, regional and international level. They must also center and empower local activists and marginalized groups, such as women and ethnic minorities, to take the lead.
Since gender justice remains an urgent issue in Myanmar, the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice worked with Justice Trust, a U.S. based human rights non-profit working with grassroots lawyers and activists in Myanmar, to conduct a training on women’s rights and gender equality this past May. The training was prepared for local civil society leaders to come together and discuss the issues they are tackling and to plan concrete strategies for the future. During this training, we sought to meet the needs of local activists while presenting nuanced information and facilitating meaningful dialogue.
As part of the Crowley Program in International Human Rights, three other Crowley Scholars and I, under the supervision of Executive Director Elisabeth Wickeri and Senior Fellow Joey Lee, worked to prepare and present a training on international legal mechanisms that can be used in the fight for gender justice. The Crowley Scholars each looked as a specific issue within gender justice: sexual violence in conflict, domestic violence and sexual harassment, participation in politics, and rights to marriage and family planning. The training analyzed the topic of gender justice from both domestic and international law perspectives. On the first day of the training, our partner, Justice Trust, led discussion on legislation pertaining to domestic violence and sexual violence in conflict. They also provided a legal framework for activists to understand their rights so as to work on advocacy campaigns and strategy building for their communities. On the second day, the Leitner Center presented international human rights law framework and delved into the international protections provided for our four focal areas. The goal of the training on the second day was to incorporate the strategies developed for domestic and international advocacy together to create a long-term calendar or campaign of human rights advocacy on these issues.
This was our first introduction to the activists working on women’s rights and gender justice in Myanmar—a brave, proud and energetic group. The women and men in the room represented activists working on many different issues from around the country. It was incredible to be able to hear from them and learn from them. One of the most rewarding parts of the training was when activists were given the opportunity to discuss the issues they face in their work. In Part II of this blog post, my fellow Crowley Scholar, Carolina van der Mensbrugghe will discuss one of the most important conversations we had with local activists (teaser: it was a rich discussion about sexual harassment) and some of the strategies developed at the training.
Zahava Moerdler is a 3L at Fordham Law School. She was a 2015-16 Crowley Scholar in International Human Rights.
Photo credit: Leitner Center
The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.