After nearly 50 years of military rule ended in 2011, Myanmar has experienced rapidly evolving reforms. ICTJ provides technical assistance to Myanmar in its effort to incorporate transitional justice into the reform process in order to strengthen democratic institutions and increase confidence in the peace process.

Rangoon, Myanmar, September 26, 2007 - novice Buddhist monks run to join an anti-government protest. (Will Baxter)

Background: The Legacy of Military Rule

A series of military leaders ruled Myanmar from 1962 to 2011. Reports of human rights abuses by these highly repressive regimes include evidence of recruitment and use of child soldiers, forced displacement, forced labor, detention of political prisoners, sexual violence, and extrajudicial killings as well as severe violations of economic, social, and cultural rights.

Since coming to power in 2011, the government of President Thein Sein has instituted a series of reforms: lifting restrictions on fundamental freedoms, negotiating tenuous ceasefire agreements with over a dozen non-state armed groups, and releasing hundreds of political prisoners, including opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

Still, a series of contemporary problems, rooted in the legacy of military rule, has developed. Ceasefire agreements remain tenuous and human rights violations continue in areas of armed conflict. Economic liberalization has led to an epidemic of land grabs, while narrowly-increased space for dissent has led victims of past land grabs to raise claims to restitution or compensation. Anti-Muslim violence and rhetoric throughout the country threatens to undermine positive developments.

Human rights violations have persisted, especially in areas where ceasefire agreements are tenuous. Authorities have responded poorly to popular opposition to unabated land-grabs for major infrastructure projects and other economic development projects. Anti-Muslim invective and violence by militant Buddhist nationalists have now spread from Rakhine State to central Myanmar. Authorities have failed to control the violence and, in some cases, allegedly helped instigate it.

Over one hundred political prisoners remain in jail. While most political prisoners have been released, many of them face a range of challenges of reintegrating back into society, such as mental and physical health problems due to mistreatment, a lack of formal education, and social stigma associated with having been a prisoner. Meanwhile, victims of human rights violations from the past and present have started to speak out and demand redress. In most cases, these demands have been met with official silence, faulty investigations, and criminal charges of defamation. The escalation of conflict on these issues can be attributed, in part, to the unwillingness of the government to deal with violations of the past.

A constitutionally-entrenched tradition of impunity enjoyed by the government, military, police and non-state armed groups means there are few official avenues to redress for victims of human rights violations. However, with the peace process slowly moving toward a political dialogue process, there will be increasing opportunities to discuss how dealing with the past can support a sustainable peace and national reconciliation. During this process, it will be crucial to involve the voices of civil society, communities, and victims of human rights violations to ensure that their needs and desires are adequately reflected.

ICTJ's Role:

ICTJ engages with a range of stakeholders in Myanmar to provide technical assistance and training to help analyze the role of addressing past abuses in strengthening the transition process and to develop effective transitional justice policy options.

ICTJ works to increase knowledge about transitional justice among civil society and national and international policymakers in Myanmar by:

  • Producing manuals and other training resources on how to document and evaluate abuse claims with civil society organizations, including the Network for Human Rights Documentation-Burma (ND-Burma);
  • Facilitating trainings for government authorities and civil society on transitional justice concepts and mechanisms. For example, ICTJ brought together recently released political prisoners to identify key challenges in their reintegration into society and strategies for easing that transition;
  • Working with stakeholders to upcoming political dialogue to ensure they are prepared to discuss dealing with the past, and to facilitate consultation with civil society and communities;
  • Presenting critical analysis on unfolding dynamics relating to reparations, accountability, and institutional reform through briefing papers and reports.

ICTJ provides assistance and strategic advice on formal and informal initiatives to address the legacy of human rights violations:

  • Within the context of the current reform process, there is a danger of transitional justice being kept off the agenda as policymakers prioritize peacebuilding, economic development, and democratic reform and view accountability for past human rights violations as a threat to those reforms;
  • Political dialogue will present an opportunity to begin discussing how to deal with the past, and it is important that the relevant stakeholders be prepared to discuss these issues, including being well-appraised of the opinions of civil society and communities, particularly victims of human rights violations.
  • Through publications and policy interventions, ICTJ emphasizes how transitional justice can reinforce efforts to strengthen rule of law, build confidence in the reform process, and foster reconciliation.