Myanmar’s plan for police reform is an opportunity for the international community
MYANMAR sometimes seems overwhelmed with challenges. With barely half a year in office, the new government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy is expected to expand the economy, move the peace process forward, address the situation in Rakhine State, engage regional partners and ASEAN, and generally improve foreign relations. Meanwhile, it remains constrained by an awkward constitution and an under-resourced administration.
But while Myanmar’s challenges regularly make headlines, the country’s move to reform its national police and improve the rule of law is a hopeful step forward. The international community should recognise the value of these efforts and look for ways to expand support to the police.
Currently, the police in Myanmar are severely overstretched and are largely unable to meet their mandate. Laws, regulations, strategies and training are outdated; facilities and equipment are old and often in poor condition; personnel per capita are the lowest in Southeast Asia and very low by global standards; and they are not present in some parts of the country where crime and related public security issues are most challenging. Acceptance of the police is also hampered by the fact women and minorities are severely under-represented.
At the same time, the police are facing increasingly sophisticated transnational organised crime groups that benefit from the fact the country is the central hub for the heroin and synthetic drug and chemical trade in the Mekong region, and there are indications that other crimes including timber, wildlife and human trafficking are also expanding. Unfortunately, the police are unable to access parts of the country where ethnic armies and ceasefire agreements are in place and these issues are most pronounced.
However, the tide may be turning. As part of an overall reform effort, the government has signalled its intention to reform and restructure the police to perform the crucial public service and law enforcement role that police serve in most other countries. The approach being planned is based on an in-depth assessment that we presented to international partners with the police chief in 2015. The importance of the chief speaking candidly about the need for reform as he did that day cannot be underestimated.
The commitment to reform the police became clearer on May 16 of this year during a public event in Nay Pyi Taw, when the police chief recalled the importance of our assessment and endorsed additional UNODC recommendations to modernise the country’s police training academies, and he called for international partners to assist. While fixing a training system as antiquated as the one in place now will not happen overnight, the intention is that current officers and new recruits will learn about modern approaches to policing and different crimes, and what it means to engage and serve the public in line with international standards.
Importantly, reforming the police force in Myanmar will also contribute to resolving other challenges facing the country. For example, ensuring the police shift from a force to service approach will ultimately increase trust between citizens and state, which is essential if the government wants to engage in and stabilise regions where the police are not able to perform their duties.
Research we have conducted reveals that police forces, when given the training, resources, support and opportunity, have the potential to become professional and respected organisations with a focus on service and results. Police officials also express an eagerness to implement modern policing methods in-line with international standards when given the chance.
Police reform has the potential to help Myanmar on its path toward stability, peace and prosperity. As the government of Myanmar is seeking to enter a new relationship with its citizens, the international community should embrace this opportunity and provide support.
Jeremy Douglas is the regional representative for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Southeast Asia and has been working intensively with the Myanmar government on police issues the past three years.