In July, 2016, four students from the Australian National University and the University of Queensland, undertook a four week Legal Studies Externship, with Bridges Across Borders Southeast Asia Community Legal Education Initiative (BABSEACLE). The externship began with a week of intensive training, in Yangon, on interactive teaching methods, access to justice and promoting an ethical legal profession. The training was undertaken by externs from the University of New England and La Trobe University, and by students and teachers from the Yangon University of Distance Education (YUDE) Consequently, the externs became more closely acquainted with BABSEACLE’s CLE English curriculum and interactive teaching methods, which are an important part of the Community Legal Education (CLE) methodology.
The presence of the Myanmar students, from YUDE, brought multiple benefits. Firstly, the Australian students were not only introduced to Myanmar culture, language and traditions, but also had the opportunity to forge lasting friendships. In addition to the important training, the Australian externs and Myanmar students had the opportunity to visit the Yangon Rule of Law Centre and the Yangon Justice Centre. Opened in January 2016, the Yangon Rule of Law Centre followed the establishment of similar centres, in three other cities in Myanmar, and focused on providing much needed training to lawyers, law teachers and civil society representatives. It also furnished legal resources and community outreach initiatives. The Yangon Justice Centre is a local pro bono legal clinic that is devoted to serving people and promoting justice. The visits to these two institutions provided great insight to the students, on the work that is being undertaken towards improving social justice and the rule of law, in Myanmar, and it emphasised the importance of helping foster these values, in the next generation of Myanmar lawyers, through CLE externship teaching.
At the completion of the training week, the Taunggyi team, which consisted of externs Ashley Chandler, Phoebe Kelly, Stephen Yates and Tammy Tang, Lauren Donnison (the Pro Bono and Externship coordinator at BABSEACLE) and Philip Ngin (a Myanmar native and BABSEACLE intern), boarded the night bus, bound for Taunggyi, the capital of Shan State. After a long night of travel, the team arrived to Taunggyi, early on Sunday morning. The team was greeted by the stunning mountain ranges and delicious noodles, for which Shan State is renowned, but, unfortunately, their accommodations were not yet ready. Undaunted, the weary travellers made the most of the situation, and began to explore Myanmar’s fifth largest city, which included an adventurous trek to the Salamuni Pagoda. After some much needed rest, the team set about preparing the lesson plans, for the first week of teaching, at Taunggyi University Law Department.
During this first week, the externs introduced the CLE content, at the law department, to willing and eager first year-to-masters students, law tutors and professors and others. With classes consisting of 5 to 45 students, with differing levels of English proficiency, there were initial challenges presented to the externs. During the first week, the lessons focused on introducing students to the interactive and reflective teaching methods that are a hallmark of CLE teaching methodology. Even though such methods were unfamiliar to many students who were accustomed to learning, in a very passive manner, Taunggyi participants took the new approach, with great gusto. The interactive style not only allowed students to begin learning important legal skills through practice, but also gave the opportunity for them to practise their English communication skills. Although English levels differed greatly across the year groups, the externship team was consistently impressed by the enthusiasm and dedication that the students showed, in making the most of this opportunity to try out their language skills, with native speakers. A mid-week refuel at Myanmar’s first winery, at Aythaya Vineyard, just outside Taunggyi, gave the team the strength needed to continue preparing the lessons for the rest of the week.
Using the newly introduced teaching methods, the externs moved forward in the curriculum, teaching Taunggyi participants about: the goals of CLE; the knowledge, skills, and values essential for law students, teachers, and lawyers; and the nationwide CLE initiatives that are already taking place, across 18 universities, in Myanmar. Students were excited to learn about CLE Mock Trial, Community Teaching, In-House Clinics, and Externship programmes. In fact, some students had participated in the mock trial program, previously, and were happy to share their positive experiences, with the rest of the class.
On the weekend of 16 – 17 July, a big step was taken towards the implementation of a CLE Externship programme, for students at Taunggyi University. BABSEACLE, in conjunction with the Taunggyi Rule of Law Centre, and with support from the United Nations Development Programme, held the CLE Externship Programme Supervision and Report Writing Workshop. The Workshop was attended by local members of the legal profession and of the civil service, as well as teachers, from the Taunggyi University Law Department. Over the two-day workshop, participants learnt how they could implement and supervise a CLE Externship programme. The Australian externs had the opportunity to assist the workshop, which is an experience that allowed them to see the future direction of their work with students, and where it could lead.
Throughout the weekend, the lesson planningcontinued, as the externs prepared for the second week of teaching. The focus, of this week, was on access to justice. Lessons focused on helping students to understand the access to justice concept and the barriers that prevent members of society from acquiring it. Students learnt that access to legal education, legal services and courts are all necessary for the implementation of access to justice, in communities, and about the ways to overcome the barriers to accessing such entitlements. These are not simple concepts and ideas, and the externs worked hard, in order to distil them down to their most basic level, so that the Myanmar participants could better understand and learn more about them. By the end of the lessons, and through interactive and fun activities, students demonstrated a strong understanding of access to justice. BASEACLE externs were also invited to participate in a tree planting ceremony that represented commitment to the environment and the continued growth of knowledge, at the University. A public holiday, on the following Tuesday, gave the team the opportunity to pay a visit to Nyaung Shwe and Inle Lake, where they took a relaxing break, and enjoyed an interesting cultural experience that included trips to traditional boat making, silk weaving, and paper and umbrella making workshops.
At the end of the second week, the team said goodbye to Philip, who headed back to Yangon, in order to undertake a week of advanced English instruction, with the YUDE students. Philip’s delightful company and contribution, as an administrative and translating wizard, was to be sorely missed by the team. Following Philip’s departure, the team again braved the overnight bus, in order to explore the ancient city of Bagan. The weekend proved an enjoyable adventure, and was a truly fascinating and meaningful experience. They had the opportunity to donate and serve breakfast, at a monastery, donate essential stationery to a village primary school, play with the students and participate in a collection morning, with the Bagan Plastic Campaign, which aimed to help clear plastic waste. (from the archeological zone – note: only refer to it, if you explain what kind of archaeology is involved).
The team arrived back from Bagan, early Monday morning, and were ready for the final three days of teaching. Despite the action packed weekend away, the team found time to prepare the final topical lessons, regarding legal ethics, professional responsibility and pro bono lawyering. These lessons were a challenge for the team, as they had to be prepared, from scratch, by the use of the CLE English Manual, as the content base. Constructing lessons, on such topics of importance and relative complexity, proved challenging, and the team had to re-evaluate and find innovative ways, in order to teach the material and to ensure a deep understanding of it, amongst the Myanmar students. Despite the difficulty, the reward of seeing understanding tick over in the students’ minds proved well worth the effort. This challenging, but rewarding, teaching experience has motivated the externs to continue their participation, in similar initiatives, in order to further spread the CLE knowledge, to the nation and beyond.
On Wednesday 26 July, the team said goodbye to the students at Taunggyi. Presenting participants with their certificates and feeling the full gratitude of the Law Department, meant that the team left with more than just a little sadness. Throughout the time spent at Taunggyi University, they were overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity that was shown by all, at the university. Team members were gifted with traditional Shan dress, and the highly coveted Taunggyi law jackets: items that not only helped them to fit in with the local fashion, throughout the externship, but also will remain treasured keepsakes, for many years to come. The warm welcome and enthusiasm shown, by all at Taunggyi, helped to make this a truly unforgettable and rewarding experience. The team cannot thank Taunggyi enough for this, and is incredibly grateful for the opportunity to have taught there.
The return to Yangon provided time for debrief, reflection and story swapping, with the group of externs who had been posted to Pyay. The team was also grateful for the opportunity to catch up with its newfound friends, from YUDE, before returning to Australia. The Myanmar externship with BABSEACLE has given Tammy, Stephen, Phoebe, and Ashley the experience of a lifetime. They have returned home, incredibly grateful for the opportunity, and with new friendships, an increased understanding of the Myanmar people and culture and a renewed passion to contribute to creating a social justice, within the Australian legal profession, and abroad.