Legacies of Detention in Myanmar


Start date: 1 July, 2016 End date: 31 December, 2022 Project type: Research projects in countries with extended development cooperation (earlier Window 1) Project code: 16-04-DIGN Countries: Myanmar Thematic areas: Conflict, peace and security, State building, governance and civil society, Lead institution: Danish Institute Against Torture (DIGNITY), Denmark Partner institutions: Justice for All, Myanmar Mahidol University, Thailand Yangon University (UY), Myanmar Project website: go to website (the site might be inactive) Project coordinator: Andrew M. Jefferson Total grant: 9,644,206 DKK

Project summary

Prisons and detention practices play a fundamental role in modern states in general, and authoritarian and post-authoritarian states, in particular. This project explores the historical and contemporary role of detention in Myanmar and its significance for the reconfiguration of state and society. It will generate field-based knowledge about the history and consequences of detention practices (including structures, policies, institutional arrangements and everyday life) in Myanmar and explore how the contemporary penal system responds to the current political thaw. Using the notion of the legacy to capture the idea of practices of the past having powerful and productive effects through time the project explores how practices of detention persist yet mutate and have consequences for individuals, institutions, state and society. The project will illuminate people’s experiences of detention and the ways in which detention practices contribute to or detract from the establishment and maintenance of democracy and peace. Richly textured descriptions of changing practices of detention will illustrate how state and peace-building processes do not follow a linear, transparent trajectory but are multi-layered and unpredictable. Careful analysis of the experiences, technologies and politics of detention will enable us to explain the ambiguous and contested nature of detention practices and efforts to reform them and offer insights to policy-makers committed to supporting nascent moves toward rule of law and the realization of democracy and human rights.

The project features joint research with the Department of Law, Yangon University and the organisation Justice for All as well as organisational, academic and methodological capacity-building. It will promote the application of empirical research and field-based methodologies reinvigorating research-led policy debates and providing important theoretical insights on the relationship between state formation and detention.


Midterm report
The Denmark based team’s knowledge of Myanmar has become quite extensive as revealed through case studies and publications. A PhD based on extensive field research (“We are like water in their hands” – experiences of imprisonment in Myanmar) has been completed. A strong relationship with partners Justice for All and Mahidol’s Institute for Human Rights and Peace has been established. Two Burmese PhD students have been accepted on scholarships. Access to prisons was granted for the Denmark based researchers. This access is a massive achievement for the project, vindicating the patient, incremental ‘appreciative’ approach. Additionally, fieldwork-based data collection has been conducted by the local research team for three case studies: on Prisoners’ Contact with the Outside World; Gender and Imprisonment; and Prison Governance. Myanmar Prisons Department visited DIGNITY in Denmark as did JFA. A range of publication projects are underway and opportunities for dialogue between academia, civil society and state authorities have been identified and tested.

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