Human Rights in Action: A Trip to Troubled Myanmar

Bonnie Cantwell '19
Guest Columnist

On the neatly gridded streets of downtown Yangon stands an abandoned Italianate building. It is turquoise in color, but a careful eye will notice a pop of verdant green. That green, on further inspection, is a tree. The building’s foundation is surprisingly stable, despite the misplaced garden and weather-worn exterior. This building, with its bright coloring and steadfast foundation, attests both to the harshness of the twentieth century in Myanmar and the opportunities for growth in the twenty-first. 

In the last century, Myanmar experienced British colonial rule, independence, occupation by Japanese forces during World War II, and the formation of a military government. Now, in the twenty-first century, the country is ruled by coinciding civil and military governments. The establishment of a legitimate civil government is no easy task. It requires the confidence of the citizenry, from both ethnic majorities and minorities. This confidence rests on the guarantee of essential liberties, which in turn requires the institutional capacity to safeguard individual rights. At each turn, there is an opportunity for reflection and dialogue. 

The students of the UVa Law Human Rights Study Project are learning from this ongoing process. We have each selected a discrete research topic, ranging from social entrepreneurship in Yangon to freedom of speech, land use, the peace process, and rule of law. During winter break 2018, we commenced field research to develop our academic pursuits in the context of Burmese culture. This semester, we will continue the project by preparing research papers on our respective topics. We now apply our academic tools, but our stay in Myanmar allowed us to appreciate the tangibility of our topics.  

If you would like to learn more about Myanmar (Burma), explore these books and film: 

Finding George Orwell in Burma, Emma Larkin 

The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma, Thant Myint-U

The Lady (2011)