Myan­mar’s plan for po­lice re­form is an op­por­tu­nity for the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity

The Myanmar Times - - News - JEREMY DOU­GLAS news­room@mm­times.com

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.

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