During President Thein Sein’s first press conference ever, he addressed the problem of land disputes. Most reports, including one in The Myanmar Times, have focused on the conference as a sign of the president’s warming relationship with the media. However, his answers hint to his administrations larger views towards judicial reform.
In my article for the Australian Journal of Asian Law, I quotes several of Thein Sein’s speeches in which he seemed to urge the courts to work in harmony with the other branches of government. In the context of the Saffron Revolution and Cyclone Nargis, these warnings sounded like an ominous sign of judicial independence under a civilian government.
Of course, events haven’t panned out quite the way I’d expected. The Constitutional Tribunal was very bold in striking down government acts. Until, of course, it was impeached. As I’ve noted many times, it seems many in the legislature were unwilling or unable to conceive of courts acting as a constraint on government.
In the press conference, Thein Sein states that he prefers for land disputes to be settled by negotiation, with adjudication as a last resort. Of course, many people prefer non-litigious dispute resolution. Litigation is costly and frustrating. However, the president’s comments did recall those earlier speeches he had made and suggest he hadn’t simply made those comments under duress.
I have no reason to suspect the government has any intention to try to limit judicial independence in land disputes. However, between the impeachment of the Constitutional Tribunal members and Thein Sein’s own views, I wouldn’t be surprised if judicial reform in Myanmar focused on alternative dispute resolution (ADR), such as mediation and arbitration. Indeed, as Erik Jensen has often argued, for developing countries less formal dispute resolution might serve societies better.
So far, I haven’t heard much about a big push for ADR in Myanmar, but if that’s what was on the president’s mind during his press conference it might prove a useful direction for Myanmar’s legal reforms.