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An article from BBC Media Action in Myanmar Making a World Debate Local which explores the view of ordinary people in Myanmar about the current changes in the country.

The changes over the past eight months in Myanmar seem to mostly manifest themselves in the form of new apartment blocks, shopping malls, extra cars of the roads and meetings about the change.

“What is really changing for ordinary people?”

This article discusses an event in the World Economic Forum where recordings by BBC Media Action researchers were put to members of the government, NLD and Mizzima.

Here is an extract from the article with some of those voices and those questions:

“If we work, then we eat”

….A motor-cycle taxi driver in Rangoon … said that Burma’s much celebrated economic transformation has had no positive effect yet on his own daily life.

“For people like us, there is no change,” he said. “No change because if we work today, then we eat today.”

The government representative on the panel was challenged by questions on issues of corruption, lack of investment in rural communities and energy supply. A day labourer, for example, asked,”Myanmar doesn’t get enough electricity so why do you sell [energy] to our neighbours? When will Myanmar get electricity?”

A woman who runs a flower stall in Htauk Kyat Market on the outskirts of Rangoon also took the chance to urge government ministers to find out what was really going on in the country.

“In order to help people who really suffer,” she said. “The country minister should come down, check and analyse every quarter (of the township). They should share the feeling of what is happening in the quarter.”

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A sequence of human rights films last week at the Human Rights Human Dignity International Film Festival Yangon  brought together my past life in Egypt and my current one in Burma.

A Myanmar film about a whistle campaign to prevent harassment against women in the Myanmar buses. The audience howled with laughter as men picked up whistles, desperate to also receive a free gift. One women said harassment was much better now, because of the whistle, we wondered?

“No” she replies, “because now I am old the men no longer want to harass me.”

“The men want to touch everyone”, says another woman , “so I am grateful for this campaign.”

The film seemed to go full circle as while in Egypt last year the grassroots campaign against sexual harassment by Harassmap and others was going strong. Myanmar has not had the same bad press as Egypt for its sexual harassment and violation of women’s rights, but there is an underlying problem here and dealing with sexual harassment will just be the first hurdle. (For more posts on sexual harassment see here and here).

The other film Back to the Square, brought us to the streets of Cairo themselves through the lens of Petr Lom. An in-depth and interesting documentary which explores the abuses of the Egyptian military authorities since 2011 through the stories of 5 different Egyptians. The film shows the continued corruption and abuse of authorities by the military and police through individual cases, highlighting current injustices but also the energy, defiance and humour which marks the Egyptian character.

Egypt might seem very far in distance and culture from the streets of Yangon, but the Burmese audience reacted audibly to the images of Egypt. They laughed out loud as the police officers spoke of the fairness of their system and gasped at the images of torture, manipulation and abuse. Whilst laughing as a police officer attempted to charm the camera with his version of good practice and justice, my neighbour excitedly whispered to me:

“It is just like our country.”

This moment highlighted the human nature of justice and the common understanding of abuse by authorities as wrong. Though they are worlds apart these people are tied by similar experiences and similar anger at their powerless in the face of such abuse. We so often debate the cultural nature of human rights, yet human moments like these remind us that justice its is broadest sense is something that we all hold strongly within us, whatever our cultural background.

A series of photos on Betel Nut from Dawei in the south of Myanmar. Betel is popular in Myanmar and is chewed as a stimulant. The production of Betel is an important source of livelihood for farmers in the Dawei area.

rolling betel

The ingredients of Betel

Betel ready to eat

An interesting article to share : ‘Rights Claiming in a Rule of Law Vacuum‘ by Jill Davison on practical approaches to human rights. She argues for approaches to securing human rights which do not rely on state institutions and rule of law. As the article very accurately points out in the rural parts of Burma, rule of law is a distant dream, whereas threats to human rights are a current concern. Methods which support local approaches to securing rights will allow for rights to be obtained through informal methods.

Here is an excerpt:

“It should come as no surprise that, given the persistently closed nature of political and legal institutions in Burma, villagers attempt to prevent displacement or secure some form of tangible redress through informal rights-claiming strategies like negotiation, non-compliance, complaint and open protest.What is surprising however is the development agenda’s persistent focus on support for state institutions, rather than for the concrete ways in which communities are already attempting to claim rights without institutional support. While civil society and NGOs tend to laud the increased space since the advent of civilian government in March 2011, this is often space for their own engagement with policymakers, rather than for village-level grievance airing or access to remedy.The assumption remains that the claiming of rights vis-à-vis business will predominantly be shaped by the internalisation of international norms into domestic laws, not to mention voluntary exposition of principles in corporate charters. While this is well and good, and the exposition of sound regulatory frameworks in Burma to be welcomed, the lack of clarity that plagues business and human rights norms, not to mention the enforcing role of National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs), will long hinder attempts to institutionalise them, even in non-transitional contexts.

There nonetheless exists in Burma enormous opportunity for well-crafted programmatic measures that go far beyond institutional capacity building. Community rights-claiming strategies are directed not only at states or political institutions but at corporate or even non-state armed actors with financial stakes in business. They represent nascent movement towards rule of law in a transitional context. Their persistent portrait as untouchably ‘political’ and oppositional in relation to the state is flawed and hinders vital programmatic support that aims inexorably at apoliticism.

Villagers in rural Burma do not have time to wait for the institutionalisation of norms into domestic policy. For those seeking to secure some tangible remedy at the community-level, programmes that foster community empowerment and confidence building now provide a powerful complement to existing strategies.”

This is the reality that not just the Burmese communities face, but rural and urban populations worldwide who live outside of the rule of law. Legal approaches to human rights, references to declarations and recommendations will not solve their problems. Listening to their approaches to the problems that they face and finding a way for human right to interact with their understandings of their problems will lead the way to solutions.

My own research in rural Nicaragua highlights similar observations. Communities are seeking solutions to their own problems. Adherence to stiff legal mechanisms will not aid them and risks alienating them using technical language.

A other few articles to share which have inspired me on this subject:

Can Human Rights Survive? Lecture One: The Crisis of Authority by Conor Gearty,  Hamlyn Lectures 2005.

Why More Africans Don’t Use Human Rights Language’ by Odinkalu from Carnegie Council Human Rights Dialogue 2.1

Reflections on Human Rights at Century’s End by Larry Cox from Carnegie Council Human Rights Dialogue 2.1 

Human Rights for All? The Problem of the Human Rights Box’ from Carnegie Council Human Rights Dialogue 2.1

A new month, a new round-up of rights news from around the world. In addition as I am just starting a new job in South East Asia the regional focus will expand a little to reflect interesting new resources I discover here in the course of my work.

Firstly, an interesting short piece in the IHT on the situation of women in Myanmar. The author Didi Kirsten Tatlow highlights some of the major issues being addressed in terms of gender. She reports on “very active” women’s groups taking advantage of the new political liberalisation. She highlights legislative need such as the preparation of a law on domestic violence. Also interestingly she highlights a role for women as peace-keepers in the communities affected by war, such as the current violence between Buddhist and Muslim communities. She also states that a more general survey of women in the country to understand better there status and role in this society. I look forward to seeing the results of some of these interesting ideas.

Secondly, a piece in 500 Words Magazine, a magazine publishing essays on Sudan through the words of the Sudanese Youth. I particularly like this piece
Why Breakfast should be banned in Sudan which recounts in an amusing way the problem of inefficiency in Sudan’s working culture. Another nice piece is What we used to be and what we are now which reflects on the changes in Sudan since his childhood and discusses the responsibilities of the youth of today in addressing development.

Finally, a compelling look at sexual harrassment and sexual violence around the world by the Fair Observer. These selection f articles compare and contrast the issue of assuring safety for women in their day to day lives in a number of different contexts, from implementing laws in post-conflict DRC to combatting traditional values in post-revolution Egypt, to creating safe public spaces in Latin America. to the difference class can make in protecting women from violence in India. All the articles highlight a common idea of women being perceived a certain way by society, requiring certain special treatments or being required to limit themselves to certain feminine behaviour or actions.

The origins of these ideas are very nicely highlighted by the South African contribution, an interview with Bernadette Muthien. She states:

(l)et’s just try to understand how the violence works: Gender based violence obviously occurs based on gender and the root cause of all violence we would argue is patriarchy. It precedes all the economic systems we know today … And patriarchy has been around for thousands of years … What patriarchy does is it uses violence in general to control people and gender based violence specifically to control people. This can be seen by looking at child rape and child sexual abuse. When a child is raped, then that person is marked by that rape for the rest of their lives. Sometimes they themselves become perpetrators. In other words, if you rape a child, you have that person incapacitated for almost the rest of their lives. It can become an incredibly powerful source of control, and then you have an automatic cyclic existence of rape: generation after generation gets raped. I become a parent, I rape my child – it perpetuates itself and the mechanisms of control become almost unconscious. It is a system to maintain control over people, and women in particular.

She goes on to conclude with a vision which takes sexual abuse and harassment out of the box of gender issues and women’s issues. She highlights a wider aspiration which includes aspiration for a new form of masculinity and an idea of feminism which is cooperative rather than competitive. A difficult goal perhaps, but one which could really make a difference.

In her words:

I would like to continue to have hope. We must try and find hope for what we do and it would be good if we could continue to do the work we do – To find more and more people using cooperation rather than competition, and if more and more men come along and say “We have to construct better models of masculinity, better ways to relate to one another”; more and more women saying, “I do not want to be a victim. I want to take my own agency and power but I don’t want to be like Margaret Thatcher either. I want to be a woman who is not patriarchal.” and women coming together, working with one another, that could be very wonderful.

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