Prof Helps Myanmar Modernize Legal Training
For the last three years, Georgia State University Professor Lisa Radtke Bliss has trekked to the opposite side of the globe to help train law students and instructors in the developing nations of Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and India.
Bliss, an associate clinical professor at the College of Law, took a break from her work recently to talk about her most recent experiences in Myanmar, a nation emerging from generations of military dictatorship and rushing to embrace new economic opportunities.
Q. What are your impressions of Myanmar?
A. Yangon is a very busy city, and it is vibrating with the energy of a place that is undergoing changes. There are tons of NGOs (non-governmental organizations) coming in to assist with different needs, and thus lots of outsiders in that city. There are university students from all over the world doing internships there. I met interns from England and Australia, Sweden.
People are just flooding in there, working out all kinds of things, information technology, library systems, education and the justice systems. The NGOs have a huge presence. It’s this really happening environment, which makes it very exciting to work in.
Q. Describe a typical classroom.
A. As in much of Asia, the teaching tradition is to use a lecture and memorization format.
So, the teacher is lecturing. The students are listening, but they are not accustomed to being engaged. It is also not assumed that every student in the class will have a textbook to go with the course.
I have worked in two universities in the country. In both places, they did not have a lot of resources.
For example, during one of the tea breaks at a rural university I worked at, I went with several of the trainers to the library. The law books occupied only one shelf. That was the law library.
Q. Until a few years ago, Myanmar was often mentioned in the same breath as North Korea, viewed as repressive regimes that kept their people cut off from the outside world. Why is Myanmar now inviting westerners to help them change their legal system?
A. They want their country to develop. They want to establish a presence. They want to strengthen their economy and create opportunities for the people of Myanmar and that means lots of people coming in and doing business there.
They need lawyers to be trained to handle contracts and business, international, import-export, all of those things.
The role of lawyers in a developing society like that is very important in terms of their ability to do business in the larger international context.
I think they’re trying to build infrastructure, good teachers, good lawyers, good judges, good processes, good laws. They’re kind of doing all of that simultaneously.
When you think about it, it can be kind of overwhelming, but that’s the reason why I think it’s a very exciting place.
Q. The United Nations is funding this work. Why should outsiders care about how future lawyers are taught in developing nations?
A. I think that having healthy, functioning governments with an emphasis on justice and following the rule of law and human rights is something that everyone should care about. And I think we are global citizens. Sometimes we don’t remember that.
What happens halfway across the world does affect me. In terms of our international relations, in terms of our cooperation with other nations, I think we all have a vested interest.
By teaching students, we are influencing the future. Their understanding of ethical and professional practice and their development of professional identity will support and positively influence the administration of justice and the justice system.
Developing countries have a need for law graduates to be competent in all areas of practice, and particularly those that intersect with business, finance and immigration, because those are the issues that directly intersect with development.
Q. Your work is focused on clinical legal education. What is that?
A. Clinical legal education is a method of teaching law students how to develop as professionals through supervised experiences that allow them to assume the role of a lawyer while assisting real clients.
In Myanmar, we introduced law teachers to several experiential methods. We did role plays, simulations and a mock trial. We also talked about setting up legal clinics where students would work with real clients. That model would take some time to develop there.
We also talked about community teaching. That’s a model where law students may go out into villages. They might survey people or contact a representative ahead of time to find out about legal needs. A common issue is people without birth certificates or other documents. The student would research issues and go to the village to teach people about the issue and what their options might be. The goal is to make the teaching in the village an interactive, fun experience. Students learn more and retain their knowledge when they have to teach others.
Q. Traveling to developing countries can be exciting, but it can also be uncomfortable. Did you pack any must-have items?
A. This kind of work is not for everybody. You have to be a little flexible. When you’re in a place that remote, you’re not going to get the kind of stuff that you like to have unless you bring it. I brought oatmeal and tea, so every morning I had my brand of oatmeal and I had my tea. That was good.
Q. What are some of the other challenges you saw?
A. I did not realize how attached I was to the Internet until I could not access it for two weeks. It was really difficult to get online. It was also nearly impossible to get cash from an ATM. Fortunately, I brought what I needed because it was almost impossible to get cash there.
The classrooms were large and made of concrete, so it could be difficult to hear in a classroom with 50 people in it. Standing on a concrete floor teaching for eight hours can be hard.
Q. Tell us the Frisbee story.
A. I usually take Frisbees with me when I travel. I took some Frisbees to Myanmar so I could teach faculty and students how to throw them. During one session, I held up a Frisbee and promised that I would teach people how to use them during our lunch break.
A very engaged participant came up to me, picked up the Frisbee and said, “Oh Lisa, I really want to have this plate.” I laughed and told her that she could have it and that I would show her how to use it at lunch.
I realized we make assumptions based on our experiences. To her, the disc was a plate, and to me, it was a Frisbee. We were both right. It was through communicating with one another that we discovered we were attaching different meanings to the same thing. It was a good example of how working internationally enhances learning for the host as well as the visitor.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Portraits by staff photographer Steve Thackston.