Academic journal article Washington International Law Journal

Introduction: A Remarkable Occurrence: Progress for Civil Society in an "Open" Myanmar

Academic journal article Washington International Law Journal

Introduction: A Remarkable Occurrence: Progress for Civil Society in an "Open" Myanmar

Article excerpt


The past three years have seen remarkable change in the country of Myanmar (also known as Burma).1 With the "opening up" of Myanmar in 2011 after decades of repressive military rule, much attention has been given to reform efforts taking place domestically. Since President Thein Sein came to power in November 2010, the government of Myanmar transitioned from a strictly military government to a military-backed civilian government and has begun a significant reform process.2 The government freed many political prisoners, including luminary Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, relaxed censorship, and enacted economic reforms.3 Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy ("NLD") party, which boycotted the 2010 elections that saw Thein Sein's ascendency, has since rejoined the political process.4 The NLD party now enjoys a small presence in Parliament after winning by large margins in the April 2012 by-elections, which were deemed generally free and fair.5 In response to the reforms, many Western nations have relaxed sanctions against Myanmar and begun a process of engagement.6 Indeed, in light of these reforms and in an effort to bolster U.S. engagement in the country, President Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. President to visit the country.7

Corresponding to the opening up of the country, international nongovernmental organizations ("NGOs") and aid organizations have increased their activities in Myanmar. 8 While there is no doubt that international legal aid and non-governmental organizations can play an active and productive role in Myanmar, these groups should proceed with caution and seek to incorporate collaborative approaches to their aid provision if long-term, sustainable development that enshrines human rights is to be achieved. To that end, it is perhaps helpful to reflect on the criticisms of past international aid provision in order to offer lessons for those interested in assistance in Myanmar, before turning to a promising recent example of collaborative effort between the government and civil society organizations.

This introductory piece proceeds in three parts. Part II discusses the ethical and practical implications of international NGOs and assistance groups working in foreign countries such as Myanmar, with reference to lessons learned in the 1960s Law and Development Movement. Part II concludes with some brief recommendations for collaborative and participatory approaches that take into account these ethical dimensions. Part III provides background and context for the recent reemergence of civil society in Myanmar, including a short history and analysis of the repressive policies put in place by preceding government regimes. Finally, Part IV accounts the recent effort to revise and pass the law on associations, which affects all civil society organizations and NGOs with operations in Myanmar.


In her seminal article examining the ethical underpinnings of international legal assistance, Professor Shannon Roesler offered a compelling analysis of the legal profession's role in development work. 9 After a brief overview of the increasingly global nature of the practice of law, Professor Roesler posited that "in deciding whether the legal profession should support commitments to global justice, we must resolve another ambiguity: even if lawyers are responsible for the quality of justice in the broader sense, it is not clear that the responsibility extends beyond our national borders."10

In a direct response to criticisms of the alleged lack of sensitivity to local and cultural contexts of the Law and Development Movement, Professor Roesler examines the notion that lawyers who "intervene in the social and political processes of other societies in order to promote particular values" are therefore subject to the charge that they are "imposing their own moral and political beliefs on others. …

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