The Alternative Law Groups (ALG) and Namati organized the “Learning Exchange on Land Rights and Paralegalism” on March 12 – 19, 2019 in Myanmar. Nine participants from six countries participated in the learning exchange. Four participants came from the Philippines, representing the ALG Secretariat and three ALG member organizations working on land rights issues (KAISAHAN, ELAC or Environmental Legal Assistance Center, and LRC or Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center). The other participants came from Cambodia (Community Empowerment and Development Team), Indonesia (YLBHI or Indonesia Legal Aid Foundation), Laos (Law and Development Partnership), Malaysia (Development of Human Resources in Rural Areas), and Thailand (International Rescue Committee). Namati Myanmar was the host of the Learning Exchange.
The Learning Exchange was the first major regional activity of the Global Legal Empowerment Network for the year. The activity was held based on the workplan that was agreed upon by a small core group of network members in South East Asia in a planning session held in Manila last November. The planning session was convened by the Alternative Law Groups (ALG), the network’s Regional Anchor in South East Asia.
The Learning Exchange started with a general introduction to Myanmar context in relation to land issues, which was given by U Shwe Thein of LCG (Land Core Group). After that initial discussion session, the group headed off to Kalaw (9 hour drive from Yangon!) to join the “All Paralegal Retreat” convened by Namati Myanmar, where they listened to the experiences of the paralegals, and shared their own experiences and contexts in paralegal work.
After attending Namati Myanmar’s All Paralegal Retreat, the team went on to visit communities involved in 8 cases from different areas: Pon Paoh (Htee Khar), Yay Phyu Kone (Taunggi), Shwe Nyaung, Lwal Mal (Aungban, Kalaw), Yay Cho (Aungban, Kalaw), Na Mae Khan (Aung Lan), and Bago Region. Most of the cases involved landgrabbing, community forests, and VFV (Vacant, Fallow, Virgin) lands. This became an excellent opportunity for the group to get a deeper sense of the actual cases, and the actual work of the paralegals in the country.
The group had discussion sessions with the Namati paralegals and the clients in the 8 selected communities. During the discussion sessions, contrasts and commonalities resulting from the different country contexts emerged. Towards the end of the discussions, the team members had a deeper understanding and appreciation for the work of Namati Myanmar and the paralegals, while the local Namati team, paralegals and community members felt a sense of pride and accomplishment in their work, and a greater feeling of solidarity with grassroots justice advocates from other countries in the region.
Throughout the Learning Exchange, the Namati team (Tim, Ye Yint, Nwe, Aye Aye, Po Muh, and Marlon) provided the country and local context, interpreted back and forth, and were attentive to the group’s varied needs (from foreign exchange, to food needs [“not too spicy, please!”], to looking for the nearest toilet, to taking pictures, etc).
Asked about their experience during the Learning Exchange, Ms. Jocelyn Caseres (ELAC, Philippines) said the case that struck her most was the Paoh village case. Due to their distance from the government offices and an unresponsive government, the paralegals and clients (indigenous hilltribe people) have to endure many difficulties in following up their case (distance, lack of funds, language, discrimination, etc).
Mr. Manivannan Kandasamy (DHRRA Malaysia) was similarly inspired most by the Paoh village case. The community prioritized fighting for their land case, despite the lack in basic social services, which highlights the utmost importance of land in people’s lives. He added that a more holistic approach is urgently needed to better help rural (especially far-flung) communities (including educational facilities, health services, livelihood opportunities, basic infrastructures, etc).
Ms. Kimberly Alvarez (KAISAHAN, Philippines) said the case which struck her the most was the Bago Region case because by looking at that particular case, you could easily say that it was already a hopeless case. But despite that, the paralegals and their clients persevere with hope and a positive attitude, and thus were getting some positive results.
Ms. Atchara Chan-o-kul (International Rescue Committee, Thailand) felt that the paralegal retreat we attended (March 12) was important in that the paralegals themselves shared their victories (further inspiring the other paralegals), as well as discussed their common issues. The trip to the different communities was further enlightening to see the specific cases and problems encountered by each of those issues. Another thing which she appreciated was the commitment and active participation of the paralegals to the program.
Ms. Siliphone Phetbounsou (Law and Development Partnership, Laos) was grateful for the opportunity to pick up some strategies that the paralegals employed to be able to more effectively work with government and solve land issues. She said she was inspired to bring home and try the strategies which worked in Myanmar.
Ms. Lidya Marwani (YLBHI-Indonesia Legal Aid Foundation) said she learned a lot about the land issue from discussions with the cases in the communities and with the other countries. She also learned about the importance of having a determined spirit, and using the law to the advantage of the community.
Ms. Vorlin Pao (Community Empowerment and Development Team, Cambodia) said that through this learning exchange, she witnessed first-hand the role of paralegals and their important role in resolving land issues in the community. She said that in the Cambodian context, the CSOs/NGOs cannot challenge the government outright. But for the landgrab cases we visited, she saw that it is indeed possible for the paralegals, the clients, and even the government authorities to work together.
Mr. Arjay Barrios (LRC, Philippines) said that despite the different Asian contexts, the Namati mantra of “Know the law, Use the Law, Shape the law” describes in a nutshell how paralegal work can and should be used to resolve land issues, drawing on parallels from the experiences of the participating countries.
Mr. Rene Clemente (ALG, Philippines) said that having people from different countries provide a good backdrop for a study in contrast and commonalities. But despite the varied contexts, there are actually a lot of common issues being experienced in the region – such as land issues, need for paralegals and paralegal work, use of the law to further the people’s rights, importance of advocacy work, government ineptitude and/or corruption, etc. He thanked the participants for taking the time to participate in the activity.
After the Learning Exchange, the team committed to sustain their communication and sharing of experiences. The team formed an email group to share insights, comments, pictures (and even jokes) from the Learning Exchange experience. After the final hugs, goodbyes and thank you’s to the Namati team for their excellent “babysitting” chores, the Learning Exchange participants each headed off to their own destinations, inspired and energized, and ready to face the challenges of legal empowerment anew.