Translating Rule of Law to Myanmar: Intermediaries’ Power and Influence


Kristina Simion

PhD defended at: 

Australia National University


With Myanmar’s 2010 general election, the country’s regime undertook a managed transition from military rule. As foreign organisations flocked to Myanmar to initiate rule of law assistance, development intermediaries emerged to mediate, translate, or broker a rule of law model proposed by foreign actors. In the broader field of development studies and anthropology, intermediaries have been identified as key subjects of analysis and as actors with significant agency and influence. However, little is known about their argument To address the lack of theoretical, methodological, and empirical analysis, this thesis poses the question -- How do intermediaries influence rule of law assistance in Myanmar?
Through an inter-disciplinary approach and extended field work in Myanmar during 2014-2015 that involved ethnographic observation and qualitative interviews, this thesis finds evidence that intermediaries come to possess significant influence and power in the rule of law assistance field. They steer the direction of development interventions, translate global concepts selectively, and mediate and buffer disagreements between development counterparts who do not share the same values and understandings. Intermediaries also influence rule of law assistance in Myanmar because foreign development actors, who often lack cultural and linguistic knowledge, are fully reliant on them to carry out their development activities. Because those foreign actors are distrusted by local actors, including the government, intermediaries are central to trust- building.

This thesis shows how a focus on intermediaries is an important vantage point from which to consider the enterprise of rule of law assistance. It is through the study of intermediaries’ experiences, as they try to introduce a global model of rule of law ideas and practices, that the rationales and complexities of rule of law assistance can be unpacked. This thesis makes an original contribution to theory by arguing that the conceptualisation of rule of law as a model provides better insights into the enterprise of legal development assistance because it shifts analysis from debates about the content of global norms or principles, to the ways in which intermediaries are vital for the model’s transmission, and then its adaptation and appropriation. In doing so, it provides a critical perspective on attempts to translate rule of law to new settings. Myanmar as a case study highlights in particular the difficulties of translating that model to a setting controlled by a military regime during political and economic transition. Empirically, this thesis shows that intermediaries influence rule of law assistance because they steer project allocation, deliver diffused messages of local needs, are central for trust-building between foreign, national and local development counterparts, translate rule of law selectively and recursively, and exercise the power to decide who will, or will not, be included in development activities. This thesis argues that, without understanding who these intermediaries are, and how they exercise their influence, we cannot fully grasp either the process, or the limitations of, the global transfer of the rule of law.