General Election Day, Myanmar, 2015: thousands of victorious red-clad supporters lined streets across the country, waving banners bearing the portrait of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who— until recently—had been under house arrest for 15 years. She had just helped lead her party and her longtime ally Htin Kyaw, the newly-elected President, to a landslide victory. “This is a victory for the people of this country,” he proclaimed.
After decades of military rule, Myanmar was on the verge of major change as the nation looked to build its first democratically elected civilian government. This electoral victory, however, was just the first step of many required to construct a democratic society that respects every individuals’ access to legal justice. Under military rule, Myanmar had inherited a tradition of a politically controlled judiciary and an oppressed legal profession. As a result, the public lacked confidence in the judiciary system and its institutional capacity was poor.
Since 2013, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has worked in Myanmar to support the country’s democratic development. A cornerstone, decade-long project is USAID’s promoting the Rule of Law in Myanmar project (PRLM), currently implemented by international development firm Chemonics International and formerly implemented by Tetra Tech. This project aims to create a more transparent and accountable legal system which simultaneously protects access to legal rights.
The project oversaw the creation of Myanmar’s first Law on Legal Aid, which laid the groundwork for civil society groups to raise awareness about access to legal aid, particularly for marginalized populations. In addition, USAID helped to improve the independence of the legal profession by creating the Independent Lawyer’s Association of Myanmar. The project also held education campaigns for over 600 judges and 200 state law officers on the areas of due process, case analysis, judicial ethics, and public outreach. Furthermore, USAID supported civil society organizations providing mediation services, victim’s services for gender-based violence, and paralegal services, through a variety of grants. In all, these programs provided legal services for over 1,400 people.
In addition, the project piloted in three courts an electronic case management system and automated budget management application alleviate the capacity to handle cases. The pilot program was so effective in boosting institutional efficiency that Myanmar’s Office of the Supreme Court of the Union (OSCU) chose to roll it out for all 400 courts across the country under the current PRLM program.
To date, USAID has held over 100 public sessions on key legal reform issues, including on topics such as land and ethnic rights, federalism, and natural resources, engaging over 66,000 members of Myanmar’s population. To build public trust, USAID has trained over 380 journalists on accurate and balanced reporting, and has awarded grants to support media outlets that cover public interest issues.
While recent developments in Myanmar suggest that there is much work to be done to develop an inclusive democracy, it is imperative that the United States continue to play an active role in promoting international rule of law and lead by example by supporting international human rights and governance programs.