Burma Fares Poorly in Global Rule of Law Gauge

By Andrew D. Kaspar 6 March 2014

A report measuring global adherence to the rule of law, released on Wednesday, finds Burma near the back of the pack, ranked 89th out of 99 nations studied.

In addition to its low global ranking, the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index 2014 placed Burma 14th among 15 countries surveyed in the Asia-Pacific region, in an assessment that weighed eight factors and 44 sub-factors related to the rule of law in a given country.

Regionally, the country fared better than Cambodia (91st) and Bangladesh (92nd).

“Restrictions on fundamental rights and freedoms are sources of concern,” the report said of Burma, while noting that “the country is safe from crime and places 3rd among 16 low-income countries in control of corruption [placing 63rd overall].”

Political interference by the executive branch within Parliament and the judiciary, weak administrative enforcement of regulations and insufficient nongovernmental checks on power also dragged down Burma’s Index score.

The World Justice Project describes rule of law as “notoriously difficult to define and measure,” but says it broadly consists of “a system of rules and rights that enables fair and functioning societies,” using four principles as the basis for its definition.

The Index based its rankings on interviews with more than 100,000 households globally, combined with consultations with experts, typically in the academic and legal fields, in the countries surveyed. It is the WJP’s fourth annual report on rule of law globally, but the first in which Burma is included.

Of the eight factors assessed, Burma performed most poorly on guarantees of fundamental rights, ranking 97th and ahead of only Zimbabwe and Iran. Those rights include due process of law, freedom of expression and protection against discrimination, among others, the report said.

Shortcomings were also glaring in the country’s adherence to principles of open governance, and in rule of law assessments in the realms of criminal and civil justice.

Speaking to The Irrawaddy following the report’s release, Juan Carlos Botero, executive director of the US-based World Justice Project, said open governance initiatives would likely constitute the easiest short-term means of improving rule of law in Burma, citing neighboring India as a potential example to follow.

“This area in particular is an area in which many countries, with a piece of legislation and a governmental campaign, can quickly see major advances,” he said.

“Changing the criminal or civil justice system is something that takes many years of sustained effort, whereas changing to open governance is something that can be achieved in one or two years of dedicated and mindful efforts, so that would qualify, I think, as the closest possible ‘low-hanging fruit.’”

The report describes open government as “the extent to which the society has clear, publicized, accessible, and stable laws; whether administrative proceedings are open to public participation; and whether official information, including drafts of laws and regulations, is available to the public.”

Burma currently lacks a freedom of information law, legislation that is a common feature of democracies globally and is designed to give citizens the legal right to request a broad range of government records. “Official communications” from Burma’s government often take the form of posts to the Facebook account of presidential spokesman Ye Htut and brief announcements in state-run media.

Despite reforms over the last few years lauded at home and abroad, concerns about the absence of rule of law in Burma have weighed on the country’s transition to a more democratic form of rule after the long-standing military junta ceded power to a nominally civilian government three years ago. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has frequently emphasized the need for rule of law in Burma, and heads a parliamentary committee on the matter.

The government has been criticized for its handling of several outbreaks of communal violence since June 2012 in Burma, where clashes between the nation’s majority Buddhists and minority Muslims have most devastatingly plagued western Arakan State. While several dozen people have stood trial in connection with the violence, it is believed that many more have eluded justice, and Physicians for Human Rights in a May 2013 report went so far as to accuse government forces of complicity in attacks on Muslims in Meikhtila, central Burma.

The country’s Constitution is considered inherently undemocratic, and includes a provision that prevents the prosecution of members of the former military regime “in respect to any act done in the execution of their respective duties,” an effective immunity that bars any substantive approach to transitional justice for the brutal wielders of pre-2011 power.

The country’s judicial system is said to be rife with corruption, while a lack of regulatory certainty and land rights issues are often cited as holding back prospective foreign investors to one of Asia’s last “frontier markets.”

“Myanmar is a country that has raised significant attention due to its general movement toward openness that is perceived, at least, in the international community,” Botero said, explaining the reason for Burma’s debut in the WJP’s rule of law index. “The other part of the reason is that it is a very important country with a significant population.”

The report’s lead author Alex Ponce acknowledged the limits of the WJP research, which may in fact undervalue the extent of Burma’s rule of law shortcomings. Based on a survey of 1,004 households and at least 16 experts, the Index compiles data gathered from Burma’s three biggest cities—Rangoon, Mandalay and Naypyidaw—but did not poll public or experts’ sentiment in the country’s ethnic minority border regions, where some of the harshest criticisms regarding a lack of rule of law have been made.

“We would say that they are a fair assessment of the situation of the three cities, but do not speak about the situation in other parts of the country, including the ethnic border regions,” Ponce told The Irrawaddy.