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Aid programmes need to understand what ‘justice’ means in Myanmar

Written by Lisa Denney


Following decades of authoritarian rule and on-going conflicts in its borderlands, Myanmar’s gradual transition to openness is exposing a range of injustices and disputes that people face on a daily basis. Yet resolving such issues is complicated by different understandings of justice, which have developed based on local beliefs, the history of authoritarian rule and a lack of trust of the justice system, which is widely seen to be corrupt.

Common disputes and injustices

Discrimination is commonly experienced by religious and ethnic minorities, women, migrant workers and non-conforming genders. This includes Muslims being unable to obtain citizenship, migrants being unable to formally purchase land and women being unable to divorce abusive husbands. 

Domestic and sexual violence is widespread (pdf): almost half of women surveyed in 2015 had experienced non-intimate partner rape, sexual assault or harassment but rarely reported. Land grabs committed by the military, government or businessmen over the last 30 years remain unresolved and have forced people from their homes.

One of the most common but rarely reported disputes between citizens is over debt. In 2014, it was estimated that 6 million people took loans from informal moneylenders – more than five times the number taking out formal loans. Informal lenders charge up to 60% interest, leading to high levels of default. However, these loans are not legally recognised, making resolving debt disputes incredibly difficult.

Aid programmes often bring their own ideas of ‘justice’

In the face of these injustices and disputes, there is widespread interest in justice programming in Myanmar. Such programmes – a frequent part of post-conflict reform efforts – often aim to ‘strengthen justice’, for instance by drafting and raising awareness of laws, training lawyers and judges, or supporting how courts function. But these efforts make little sense without first understanding what justice means and how it is accessed locally.

Recognising this, a new EU-funded justice programme, MyJustice, is beginning its 4-year programme by trying to understand local meanings of justice in a welcome effort to get away from assuming ideas of ‘justice’ are universally shared.

‘Justice’ in Myanmar has multiple meanings

Recently, to inform MyJustice, ODI and Saferworld asked communities in Mon State and Yangon about what they think justice is – and got some very different answers:

  • Justice is when there is a dispute that is resolved with both sides agreeing.
  • Justice is about being at peace with yourself.
  • Justice is when the right decision is reached.
  • Justice is when the administrator mediates and resolves an issue without bias, including punishment to fit a crime.
  • Justice is when there is a fair hearing of all parties.
  • Justice is the absence of bribery.

The most common answer we heard was that justice ‘makes big problems small and small problems disappear’.

This diversity of meanings complicates any efforts to ‘strengthen’ justice – which ‘justice’ are we addressing?

Why people in Myanmar don’t report injustices

In Myanmar, most disputes or injustices are not reported, are downplayed or are resolved at the lowest level possible.

Part of the reason is cultural – to do with how problems are seen to be appropriately dealt with. Myanmar’s overwhelmingly Buddhist population practice a conservative branch known as Theravada. Problems are considered to be the result of fortune and are resolved by coming to peace with them. This is seen as a way of paying off past life debts, ensuring good karma in future.

If a problem is reported to the authorities, it can mean past debts are not paid. And people commonly believe that those who cause harm will be punished in their future lives – making reporting problems unnecessary. As a result, many people see injustices as deserved; a consequence of fortune that must be personally endured.

Myanmar’s political history has also influenced ideas of justice. The military government promoted ideas of justice as law and order – focusing on stability and the (often brutal) enforcement of laws to protect the peace. The law is seen to exist for punishing wrongdoers, rather than for protecting rights.

Finally, people do not trust the justice system: the courts and police are the least trusted institutions in Myanmar. This is connected to the politicisation of the judiciary under military rule (four out of the seven judges of the Supreme Court, including the chief justice, are former military officers). ‘Justice’ does not have positive connotations in this context.

Donors and NGOs need to listen and learn

‘Justice’ in Myanmar is thus a complicated picture. Efforts to strengthen it – often the focus of aid programmes – need to start by learning about what justice means and who provides it locally.

Learning from local experiences can open up opportunities for capitalising on the positive aspects, such as the focus on reconciliation, instead of winner-takes-all approaches to justice.

Instead of rushing to draft new laws or set up new forms of dispute resolution, programmes should prioritise community-level conversations to learn from Myanmar’s complex experiences of justice. Most importantly, they must work ‘with the grain’, supporting citizens to exercise their rights and resolve disputes in a way that protects those rights.