Community-Based Dispute Resolution: Exploring everyday justice provision in Southeast Myanmar


Executive Summary

Justice provision in Myanmar is characterised by legal pluralism. There is a wide range of justice providers, different co-existing legal systems, and varied justice perceptions. Despite this pluralism, a common pattern is that most citizens predominantly seek solutions to disputes and crimes within their own village or neighbourhood. Official courts are feared, distrusted, and associated with high costs. They are places that most people try to avoid. When people decide to report a dispute or crime, community-based dispute resolution (CBDR) with its focus on negotiating a mutual agreement is the preferred justice option. While this empirical reality is increasingly acknowledged, very little international support has so far targeted this level of justice provision in Myanmar. Formal justice sector reform and improving the rule of law are crucial in the current Myanmar transition, but these are long-term processes. This calls for the need simultaneously to engage with existing community level mechanisms that already work and are seen as legitimate by ordinary citizens. To do so requires a deep understanding of actual practices in each particular setting, rather than pre-conceived normative ideas about what CBDR means.

This research-based report provides in-depth empirical knowledge of how disputes and crimes are resolved in practice at the lowest, most utilized level, in selected areas of Southeast Myanmar. The aim is to inform the International Rescue Committee’s (IRC) support to access to justice through CBDR. It identifies the various justice providers, and those informal justice facilitators who people approach to help resolve cases.

By drawing on a range of case examples and direct observations, it explores people’s justice seeking practices and details the varied resolution procedures, remedies, complaint mechanisms, and rules/norms that are applied in CBDR. Examples are given of how some cases travel between different justice forums, including to the formal legal systems.

Geographically the report covers areas administered by the Government of Myanmar (GoM) and by the main Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) in Karen, Mon and to a lesser extent Kayah States. All three states have experienced decades of armed conflict, but since the ceasefires in 2012, they have been relatively stable. Parallel state systems de facto prevail, including different legal systems. To set out the wider context for CBDR, a chapter is devoted to an outline of the GoM as well as the EAO’s legal systems, including how they tend to operate in practice. The report discusses the similarities and differences between CBDR in GoM and EAO areas, including their official mandates and practices. As a basis for identifying entrance points for IRC support, the report outlines the strengths and limitations of CBDR.

The main insights of the report draw on data from the EverJust research project, coordinated by this report’s author1 . Everjust conducted interviews and participant observation of everyday justice provision in 12 research sites over a one-year period (February 2016 to January 2017) in Mon and Karen states. Longerterm research and direct observations of dispute resolution provide unique insights into everyday practices and ordinary people’s perceptions of problems and justice, which hitherto has been lacking in Myanmar where interview and survey-based research has dominated. In this report, Everjust research insights are supplemented with other recent studies of access to justice2 , and IRC’s own work.

Overall, the report recommends that international support engages from the outset with already existing CBDR forums, rather than trying to establish alternative or parallel institutions. Support should be firmly grounded in how disputes and crimes are already dealt with and understood in the target communities. A good starting point is to focus on what already works – on success stories - and then identify areas for improvement, based on participatory dialogues with local justice providers and ordinary citizens.

Reliance on a standard set of externally defined concepts and intervention models should be avoided. Although legal awareness is needed, it is important to be realistic about what formal justice options can entail for ordinary citizens. Programming must be sensitive to the socio-cultural and religious beliefs that inform people’s justice preferences towards either not reporting cases at all or seeking localised solutions. There is a need to gradually increase the inclusion of vulnerable groups in CBDR forums, including women and minorities.