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IRI: Asia Regional Mission (Myanmar, Part 2)

Saturday, March 1, 2014

In March 2014, the International Republican Institute (IRI) organized and conducted a follow-on workshop for four Southeast Asian parliamentarians to examine land rights and laws in Yangon/Rangoon, Myanmar/Burma.  This workshop was the second and final portion of a program funded by the State Department’s Bureau for Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) in partnership with the Institute for Representative Government (IRG).  The program was originally designed to take place entirely in Washington, DC in December 2013.  However, the program was unexpectedly truncated due to the sudden and tragic death of the son of one participant (Dr. Khin Maung Swe of Myanmar/Burma). Therefore, in consultation with IRG and ECA, IRI quickly adapted the program to include a follow-on session in the Southeast Asia region to provide participants with a comprehensive, multi-level examination of land rights issues originally intended.  After receiving approval from IRG and ECA, IRI implemented this workshop in Myanmar/Burma.  Participants included Dr. Khin Maung Swe of the Union Solidarity and Development Party of Myanmar/Burma, Ms. Khin Htay Kywe of the National League for Democracy Party of Myanmar/Burma, Mr. Steven Tha Bik of the Chin National Party of Myanmar/Burma and Mr. Bounthiam Phommasathith of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party of Laos, the same parliamentarians that participated in the initial portion of the program in December 2013.  

Collaborative Challenge Identification

During the first session of the workshop, IRI utilized a participatory process to help the Members of Parliament (MP) to identify key issues of interest broached during the first portion of the program (a study tour) conducted in Washington DC in December 2013.  IRI’s expert trainer, Mr. Kirk Talbott, also assisted the parliamentarians to recognize common or critical land rights disputes or concerns in their constituencies.  Cumulatively, the topics identified helped inform and guide the remainder of the two-day workshop, which ensured the discussions would be meaningful for the MPs.  Salient issues identified by the MPs included the rule and the implementation of law, land seizures lacking any or adequate compensation or a consultative process, deforestation and the pressures of urbanization and infrastructure development on land tenure and use.

Examples from Abroad

Drawing on the challenges identified in the first session, Mr. Talbott presented a range of best practices and lessons learned both from the American experience on land rights and law as well as several Asian case studies.  Regarding land rights in the U.S., Mr. Talbott presented briefly on the evolution of land law and focused significant attention on the power of eminent domain which the participants indicated as a topic of particular interest during post-December study tour interviews and follow-on conversations.  Mr. Talbott, a lawyer by training, was able to provide the MPs with a succinct but complete explanation of eminent domain and specify examples of the use and misuse of eminent domain in the American context.  Further, Mr. Talbott provided a powerful example from his own experience of the implications of unclear laws and the impractical application of land law.  During the post-workshop evaluations, participants repeatedly noted how Mr. Talbott’s personal case study helped them understand the ramifications land laws can have on individuals.  Several Asian case studies were also examined during the first day of the workshop including the Philippines and Timor-Leste, which provided examples of best practices and lessons learned in the Asian context.  Particularly within the Timorese post-conflict environment, the vastly different evolutions of land law and tenure in Asia provided rich case studies to examine.  The Asian examples highlighted the important role that a robust civil society can play to fill gaps in government and human capacity.

Throughout each of the case study presentations, IRI emphasized the importance of recognition of and consultation with citizens in mitigating or preventing land disputes.  The varied manifestations of these principles in the diverse practices and policies of other countries helped the MPs understand the need to customize land laws and policies according to the country’s specific context.  Countries with customary legal systems, modern legal systems or a combination of the two can all incorporate the critical principles of recognition and consultation into their legal framework.  During a post-workshop interview, Ms. Khin Htay Kywe, a parliamentarian from Myanmar/Burma said, “…the land cases in the U.S. and Myanmar are similar but there are different solutions.  I realize the options to solve the problem and I know how to use them in my constituency.  For example, using the principal of good governance and the combination of customary and modern laws will be helpful.”

Applying Principles and Utilizing Tools

With a clear understanding of the challenges in their constituencies and an array of lessons gleaned from international examples, IRI assisted the parliamentarians to identify specific legal frameworks and policies regarding land rights and tenure applicable to their individual districts.  For example, the village tenure model, whereby a community (rather than an individual) is granted title to a plot of land, could be a useful practice to help incrementally transition from a system where the government owns all land to a system where citizens are permitted to own plots of land.  The MP from Laos noted that this was already a practice in some parts of his district and he was able to explain some of the intricacies to his colleagues from Myanmar/Burma.  In IRI’s assessment, this kind of peer-to-peer exchange is particularly meaningful and often leads to a deeper understanding of the challenges and potential solutions.  IRI also provided the lawmakers with numerous practical tools and resources such as a simple land contract template and a brief description of the participatory rural appraisal method to help gather and triangulate data regarding land use and rights. 


Post-workshop evaluative interviews revealed a number of positive outcomes as a result of the workshop in Yangon/Rangoon.  In particular, the parliamentarians now have a better understanding of the role international, national and sub-national actors, including civil society can play in strengthening legal frameworks and polices concerning land rights.  Dr. Khin Maung Swe of Myanmar/Burma noted that he now recognizes the important role a trusted intermediary, such as a non-governmental organization, can play in facilitating communication between government officials and citizens.  He noted this was particularly useful for farmers in his district because, in his opinion farmers are often afraid to talk to the government authorities directly.  Though he was first introduced to such an organization during the initial study tour to Washington, DC in December 2013 when visiting the Institute for Justice, the in-depth discussion during the workshop in Yangon/Rangoon helped him fully understand the value of such organizations.

The parliamentarians also indicated a deeper understanding of the linkages among land tenure, human security and national stability.  Mr. Bounthiam Phommasatith of Laos said that before the study tour and the workshop, he thought that land seizures were not that serious of an issue. However, after the program he realized, “These are real, serious issues and have serious implications for the country.”  Importantly, this forum also offered the MPs the opportunity to discuss the sensitive issue of land rights and potential reforms in a neutral setting outside of parliament.  While the MPs, particularly those from Myanmar/Burma, were familiar with the laws governing land use and tenure in their respective countries, this workshop provided an opportunity to examine the long-term implications of those policies.  According to discussions with the parliamentarians, these issues are rarely discussed to this level of detail at parliament, often because their limited time in session prevents such in-depth analysis.  Mr. Phommasathith explained that the workshop’s deep dive into land tenure and the corresponding legal issues helped him understand the real-life implications that legal ambiguity can cause for those seeking clarity on land laws.  The other parliamentarians echoed Mr. Phommasathith’s sentiments regarding the value of the workshop’s in-depth analysis.  Each indicated his or her interest in future programs conducted in a similar format on a variety of salient topics including health and education policy.  In IRI’s assessment, more opportunities to delve into the regional and local implications of laws and policies developed at the national level would bolster the capacity of parliamentarians as they craft laws and policies for their countries. 

To enact a multiplier effect, IRI repeatedly encouraged the MPs to share the knowledge gained with other parliamentarians and constituents in their respective countries.  Mr. Steven Tha Bik informed IRI that the workshop has caused him to start thinking about ways that he can disseminate information on land laws to his constituents, especially farmers.  According to Mr. Bik, “I recognize the importance of sharing this legal information with the people so they understand the laws and their rights because right now, they do not.” 


Although this program was implemented differently than originally proposed, the outcome was positive and deliverables satisfactorily achieved.  IRI recognizes the flexibility and understanding of both IRG and ECA in allowing program modifications to respond to real-time events were vital to the program’s success.  Furthermore, IRI notes this program was conducted at a strategic time, especially for MPs from Myanmar/Burma – as the country nears the 2015 national elections, the MPs were increasingly concerned with re-election, as demonstrated in conversations during the workshop.  In IRI’s assessment, based on the types of questions the MPs were asking, they are beginning to understand the importance of consistent and meaningful constituent outreach.  As recognizing and incorporating citizen concerns and priorities into policy development is a key responsibility of elected representatives, IRI is eager to build on the foundation established during this program.  Accordingly, IRI recommends future programs to incorporate more parliamentarians into this discussion and a civic education program to disseminate legal information to civil society.  On multiple occasions, the MPs noted their constituents were unaware of laws currently in force in their respective countries.  IRI looks forward to exploring ways to continue to assist parliamentarians and other relevant stakeholders in Myanmar/Burma and Laos in their efforts to manage the land with the highest regard for national interests in mind while also protecting land rights of individuals.