Out of 139 countries, the World Justice Project ranked Myanmar 128th concerning the rule of law in 2021. This was the same year Myanmar’s military junta had a coup against the democratic government. The military forces are creating a more brutal operating environment for those providing aid to the country, including NGOs and civil society organizations, by using legislation and bending the judicial system to their will. The situation in Myanmar challenges the foundational principle of the rule of law that no one is above the law.
In 2019, Mr. Nyan Lin Aung, Alternate Representative of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, gave a statement at the United Nations General Assembly. He stated that the rule of law is a fundamental principle of democratic governance for the government of Myanmar. Just two years after this declaration, the military deposed the democratically elected government. This led to fragility and the rule of law in Myanmar collapsing.
Myanmar has dealt with decades of colonial rule, ethnic conflict, civil war and more in its troubled history. Since its independence from British colonial rule in 1948, it has tried establishing a representative democracy, but it only continued until 1962. General Ne Win led a military coup, followed by military rule in Myanmar for 26 years from 1962. In 1974, the government introduced a new constitution, centered around an isolationist foreign policy and a socialist economic program. According to data from 2017 from the Asian Development Bank (ADB), 24.8% of the population lives under the national poverty line. The new constitution had negative implications for the country’s economy. It leads to a drastic fall in currency value, corruption and food shortages that continue to impact the country. This led to an increase in poverty levels in the country, as seen by a fall in currency value.
In 2007, the military began loosening its control slightly due to the Saffron Revolution. The countrywide protests due to the hike in fuel prices were the trigger point. They led to the formation of a new constitution in 2008. This gave the military immense power despite being under civilian rule. The dissolution of the military junta in 2011 prompted the establishment of a civilian parliament and the first nationwide multiparty elections.
Understanding the Coup and its Effect on Fragility and Rule of Law
Despite the political system favoring the military due to the 2008 legislation, institutionally, the military was losing power under democratic reforms. The 2008 constitution allows for three main ministries, namely the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Border Affairs and the Ministry of Home Affairs, to be controlled by the military commander-in-chief, along with 25% of seats in the parliament reserved for military personnel. This reservation allows military personnel to dictate legislation in their favor.
So far, the military forces have tried to misuse their power through legislation, enabling them to misuse their power and oppress the country’s citizens. One such piece of legislation is the Organization Registration Law, also called the CSO Law. Under its provisions, registration is mandatory for all civil society organizations, NGOs and other associations. Also, these organizations cannot provide services to the opponents of the military junta. This has enabled the military to shut down the resistance movements rising after the coup.
The practices of the military government blatantly disregard the four main tenets of the rule of law. These include accountability, just law, open government and impartial justice. The tentative numbers show that the military takeover resulted in the deaths of around 3,000 people and the arrests of another 20,000. The people of Myanmar being cut off from humanitarian assistance mandated by international human rights laws due to the CSO Law was the reason for the fragility and rule of law in Myanmar collapsing.
Improving the Rule of Law Situation
Myanmar requires strong institutions to recover from the fragility of the justice system that the collapse of the rule of law created. To address the fragility and rule of law in Myanmar and support the transition to a democratic government, the U.S. is funding the Promoting the Rule of Law Project (PRLP). The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has selected Tetra Tech as the implementing agency. The project aims to develop political reform, capacity building and ethnic reconciliation.
The major issues associated with the justice system are government corruption, limited resources and knowledge, political control of the judiciary, disregard for citizens’ rights and the rule of law. To resolve these issues, the PRLP called for an open dialogue between citizens and the government to build faith and credibility in the justice system. The PRLP began developing a draft justice sector comparative law and best practices compendium. It published a three-year strategic plan and a five-year strategy in a measure to restore trust among the citizens. This would work to transition into democracy smoothly.
Thus, it is evident that the rule of law cannot be maintained in a country without a strong and impartial judicial system backing it. The judiciary should uphold the values of impartiality, integrity, equality and diligence to ensure that all public and private individuals, institutions and entities, including the State itself, are accountable before the law to prevent the fall of democracy as observed in Myanmar.
– Anurima Deshmukh