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date: 18 April 2024

Legal Pluralism in Myanmarlocked

Legal Pluralism in Myanmarlocked

  • Helene Maria KyedHelene Maria KyedDanish Institute for International Studies


Myanmar (Burma) is characterized by a strong degree of legal pluralism, understood as the existence of more than one set of binding rules and normative orders for regulating society. Disputes and crimes are resolved by a plurality of actors and justice systems, and state law is but one among many other sets of rules and norms for defining wrongdoing and remedies. The plural legal landscape in Myanmar derives only partly from the diversity of ethnicities and customs dating back to pre-colonial times. More importantly, colonial reification of ethnic divisions and postcolonial armed conflicts and military state authoritarianism have shaped and consolidated justice systems that operate in parallel to and often in competition with the state-legal system. Empirical research and surveys conducted since the political opening in 2015 amply demonstrate that ordinary Myanmar citizens and denizens prefer to resolve disputes and crimes at the lowest level possible, predominantly within their own ethnic group and without the involvement of the state-legal system. This preference is caused by a mixture of political-historical, socioeconomic, and cultural-religious factors. Mistrust in the state’s willingness to serve the justice needs of ordinary people and discomfort with the formalistic procedures and punitive justice applied in state courts draw people toward using local justice system that apply reconciliatory and compensational justice. These local systems are also more in line with cultural and religiously informed perceptions of wrongdoing and justice. Despite the strong role of local justice systems, these are not recognized by state law. The decades of armed conflict between the military state and ethnic armed organizations have also given way to the development of more state-like, hierarchically ordered ethnic justice systems and laws, which are applied by the ethnic armed organizations in the areas they nominally control.


  • Legal
  • Southeast Asia

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