A day in the life of a volunteer with the UNDP, Myanmar

By Lydia Mudryj, AVI volunteer in Myanmar from 2015-2018.

A typical day in Mandalay; the day would begin relatively early with preparation for teaching various legal sector trainees. Each day my driver would pick me up from my hotel around 7.30am and perilously navigate the chaotic traffic of motorcycles, buses, cars, pedestrians, dogs, bicycles and carts. All literally inch their way through intersections and around each other and with horns blaring. I avoid the best seat offered to the teacher (next to the driver) as it is also known as the “death seat” in some circles. There are no seat belts to be found, no road rules followed and few traffic lights or traffic police to control traffic.

My students greet me with huge welcoming smiles and the frustrations, heat, and the inconveniences in our classroom (no air conditioning, wooden floors eaten by termites and covered in plastic sheeting that gives easily under my feet and no resources, to name but a few) disappear with the beginning of class. Fresh water, green tea, sweet coffee and snacks are always provided on my arrival.

A typical language class (then and now) comprises a mixture of vocabulary building, conversational English, reading, writing and grammar lessons; much of it interspersed with laughter and a combination of learning on both sides of the teaching table. I learn about the daily working and personal lives of my students while my students learn about the intricacies and absurdities of the English language and life outside Myanmar.

I spend at least 30 minutes travelling, in chaos, between each of the organisations where my classes are held, and, there can be up to five classes a day. But I am never bored; in one class I can be discussing the proper usage of prepositions, in another intellectual property rights while in a third, trying to avoid the snake that has dropped into a class on women’s legal rights .

With the end of the day, the return journey is again by car, through crazy traffic with a side trip to a market for some dinner at a local tea shop or a more formal dinner with colleagues or a quick drink at a local beer and barbeque station with friends.

While in Mandalay, out of about 100 trainees, on any day I could be teaching a combination of ;

  • students from the law faculties of Mandalay University, Yadanabon University and the Distance Education University;
  • law officers/ prosecutors from the Advocate General’s office,
  • staff from the local Rule of Law centre opened by UNDP
  • members of various other departments of Mandalay University; or
  • two judicial officers of the District and High Courts for casual English conversation followed by a dinner at restaurants around Mandalay.

Since my arrival in February 2015, I have had the privilege of teaching general English, legal English and various law topics to legal sector participants in Taunggyi (in the Shan State), Naypyitaw, the capital of Myanmar as well as Mandalay.

In Naypyitaw, I am working with some of the most senior officials in the Union of the Attorney General’s office (UAGO) and at the Office of the Supreme Court of the Union. I had the experience of being in Myanmar at a time when the country was in the midst of their democratic elections and then immediately post the elections when so many changes took place in the country. In 2017 I started working with a large group of law officers and senior officials from the Constitutional Tribunal, a relatively new organisation set up after the creation of the 2008 Constitution.

The need for English language training in the legal sector is huge. This is because many of Myanmar’s laws are written in English as a bi-product of Britain’s occupation of Myanmar. Some laws have also been “imported” from India, again due to British rule in this region. The English common law is still applied where no local laws exist to govern a particular matter.

So for the general population, the legal system is a mixture of local and British made laws, customary laws, religious laws and the common law with the police, village and township authorities also playing a powerful role in the governance of the local community.

In the circles I work in, the demand for information about law topics to which there has been little or no exposure to date, is significant. Topics I have had to teach have included judicial and legal ethics, the concepts relating to the right to remain silent, the right to legal counsel, human rights, legal aid, jury systems, LGBT rights, whistle blowing legislation, digital law, electronic law and most recently surrogacy and euthanasia.

As an example, Myanmar’s Electronic Law has been enacted since 2004, but there are no computers in use in Courtrooms or generally in the working environment. Many are used simply as typewriters. While all have Facebook , the internet, is an unknown entity. To date none of my students have ever had to read or consider legal issues relating to the use of computers and digital technology. The same applies to commercial law issues, while intellectual property and insolvency laws are only just being drafted.

So much is new in Myanmar. The legal sector participants are in this never- ending round of “catch up”, attending various training sessions and workshops on offer from various competing aid organisations, virtually on a daily basis. Many are now offered overseas training courses, which can be as short as one week or three months or longer. All this while at the same time trying to fulfill their daily duties and maintain family life. Stress is high for many.

So no day is the same, each is full of surprises and I feel very privileged to be able to share my days with members of the legal sector in Myanmar as a volunteer trainer.