Access to Justice in Myanmar

Sunset over Hpa An, the capital of Kayin state, Myanmar Sunset over Hpa An, the capital of Kayin state, Myanmar © Remko Tanis/flickr

This is a presentation of the report "Justice Provision in south east Myanmar: Experiences from conflict affected areas with multiple governing authorities", released by Saferworld in February 2019.

“Peace and justice are two sides of the same coin.” – US President Dwight. D. Eisenhower, Radio and Television Address to the American People on the Situation in the Middle East, February 20, 1957.

A new report by Saferworld has examined access to justice in southeast Myanmar, as part of its study on  the provision of justice in conflict-affected areas. The goal of the study was finding ways for international programs to improve access to justice for vulnerable groups living in conflict-affected areas. This access contributes to building the foundations for peace. Justice and peace are linked for communities in ceasefire areas, where individual and community safety and security are considered priority needs.

In the short-term, international programs must work with existing justice mechanisms that are seen as legitimate by all communities. In the longer-term, justice reform is key  to developing a security sector and state institutions that are diverse and appropriate in a federal system. It will also be crucial for addressing the needs of civilians and communities affected by more than half a century of conflict.

The southeast of Myanmar is a complex landscape of governance arrangements. These have developed over 70 years of conflict, between the armed forces of the Government of Myanmar (GoM) and various armed ethnic groups, the most prominent being the Karen National Union (KNU). In 2012, the GoM and KNU agreed a ceasefire, and in 2015 the KNU, along with two splinter groups, signed a Nationwide Peace Agreement (NCA). This agreement was a step towards governance based on democracy and federalism, but has yet to define territorial boundaries and negotiations over governance and justice systems are ongoing. In some areas, authority between multiple groups overlaps.

The locations covered in the report included an urban ward administered by the GoM; a village administered by the KNU; a village officially administered by the GoM, but influenced by the KNU and splinter groups; and a village under mixed KNU and GoM administration.

The study established that the highest-quality justice provision was found to be from KNU and GoM administered areas. While this depends mostly on local politics, it also reflects the procedures in place. These include using justice committees instead of individual judges, the use of written documents such as case records, and codified laws and written rules. Importantly, the justice system administered by the KNU was seen as the most legitimate by affected communities.

The study further found that people in the Karen ceasefire areas often sought justice outside the formal legal system, or failing that, sought justice at the lowest possible administrative level. It also found that communities preferred restorative, rather than punitive, justice – an important cultural consideration. Worryingly, the report outlined that it was difficult for marginalised groups – including Muslims, internally displaced persons and ethnic minorities – to access justice.

The report contained several  recommendations for international policy and programming. The first was to improve linkages between the peacebuilding and justice sectors. Additionally, the authors of the study advised improving existing justice delivery mechanisms at the community level, as these are the most trusted and understood by the affected communities. Women’s and youth groups, community-based organisations and other facilitators should be empowered, as they provide checks and balances on more formal institutions, but also encourage communities to access justice despite cultural reluctance.

The study also recommended that GoM institutions are supported to address barriers faced by conflict-affected communities in accessing justice. In areas where one group has control, formal justice systems should be supported, while in mixed control areas, the provision of justice at the local-level is most effective. These lessons can be used to inform the provision of justice in other areas of Myanmar affected by conflict.

Original report available here:


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