Burma’s Right to Information Movement Can Learn From India

By Bidhayak Das 19 May 2016

One of the many buzzwords hovering around Burma’s transition to democracy is “access to information.” Indeed, the call for crafting legislation on the right to information could not have come at a better time.

Some initial steps have likely been taken to put together a draft. The initiative is no doubt laudable as it creates the much-needed environment to kick-start a discussion on this very vital subject matter. However, a lot more needs to be done, and civil society, the people, farmers and the marginalized have to play a role, rather than only depend on the media or any one group to show the way.

When I hear all the talk surrounding “access to information,” I am reminded of how the Right To Information (RTI) Act unfolded in Burma’s next-door neighbor, India.

The movement in India started in 1987 with farmers demanding their right to information about land use and government policies in a small village called Devdungri, in the western state of Rajasthan.

It began with three friends from different backgrounds coming together and settling down in Devdungri to work for social justice. The three were Aruna Roy, who resigned from the civil service and began working on issues related to the poor and marginalized, Shanker Singh, a leading figure in “people’s theater,” and Nikhil Dey, a US-educated scholar. Together, they formed the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS).

During the next 10 years, they patched together an alliance with farmers and workers to form one of India’s most successful social justice movements. Thus, the RTI effort was a movement that touched every segment of society and did not solely rely on media, which served as more of a partner in the information dissemination process.

The grassroots community contributed a lot to the movement. As a journalist, I was a small part of the movement stationed in a hill station called Shillong, where I witnessed activists, musicians, journalists, artists and students take to the streets to advocate for the implementation of the RTI Act. Visuals of police crackdowns on demonstrations, arrests of demonstrators and their release followed by a long period of open dialogue between the government and the people are all still vivid to this day.

To see a movement started by poor people succeed surprised many. That is exactly what many in Burma are perhaps yet to fathom. RTI activists in India are of the opinion that “information is an effective tool to force open the doors of citizen participation in governance.”

RTI activist Vivek Kumer recounts in his study, “The Right to Know Movement in India,” “It was against this background that an organization emerged in the late 1980s with a rather unusual demand—the right of citizens to obtain government information and official records. The MKSS saw the right to information as critical to enable citizens to question officials about public resources and to demand accountability.”

According to scholar Prashant Sharma, the RTI Act was “a radical departure from the access to information regime that existed prior to the enactment of this law.”

Previously, under the Official Secrets Act of 1923, all information held by public authorities was considered secret by default, unless the government itself deemed it otherwise. Sharma goes on to add that the specific nature of the RTI Act makes it “a very strong one within the context of access to information laws throughout the world and is seen as a transformatory piece of legislation that is fundamentally altering the citizen-state relationship in the country.”

Today the Central Information Commission and State Information Commissions are tasked with facilitating the passage of information from the government to the people. It is estimated that more than 2 million applications for information from all over India were submitted under the RTI Act from 2005, the year the legislation was passed, to 2008.

The RTI Act has been used by NGOs and citizens to unearth all forms of information from the government, including conversations and exchange of notes between the prime minister and members of parliament, ministers and the bureaucracy.

Burma could perhaps take a leaf out of the annals of the RTI chapter in India and use it to prepare a robust law that cannot be disregarded or misused by any government in power. The issues surrounding the Burma polity are not too different from how things were in India, so there would be several lessons that could be drawn from India’s RTI story.

The culture of the struggle for justice is nothing new to the people of Burma. They have been engaged in it for more than five decades under military rule. However, this is not to suggest that every RTI story requires a hard-fought battle. If there exists political will to develop an all-inclusive law that caters to the needs of all, especially the marginalized—farmers whose lands have been confiscated, forests that have been taken from the people, the poor and working class who lack proper wages, migrant workers (documented and undocumented) that are stuck in the bordering areas of Thailand and in Malaysia—then things are already moving in the right direction.

With a new government in place that has been elected through a largely free and fair election, the expectations are high for passage of just laws that will improve the lives of farmers, reduce unemployment, provide minimum wages to workers and protect people’s land and livelihoods.

The author is a former journalist currently working on elections, communications outreach and governance issues. The opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not reflect that of any organization. His email address is [email protected].