Promise and Peril: Martus for Human Rights in Burma

By Benetech, posted on

I recently had the pleasure of visiting one of our longtime Martus partners in Thailand, The Network for Human Rights Documentation – Burma (ND-Burma). It was so gratifying to see firsthand how Martus, a free and open-source software tool developed by Benetech, is empowering people to be the change they wish to see. Martus enables human rights workers to securely document and organize information about violations in a way that protects those who would face violence and repression for telling their stories.

In the years since the 1988 suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations, the military junta in Burma has committed many thousands of human rights violations, including killings, torture, forced displacement, rape and political imprisonment. ND-Burma, a Thailand-based coalition of over ten human rights groups, has been collecting narrative testimonies from victims and witnesses of human rights abuses by the Burmese regime. We have extended Martus capacity building and technical support to ND-Burma since its inception in 2004.

ND-Burma member groups regularly send observers, at great personal risk, across Burma’s borders with India, Bangladesh, Thailand and China. To understand the grave risks involved, consider this one account from a ND-Burma observer about her trip across the border: After interviewing and collecting information from witnesses and victims in Burma, this woman had to hide scraps of paper with scribbled notes on her person and then cross back over the border. At one point, she was stopped and interrogated by Chinese border security who were looking for drug traffickers. Luckily, the hidden notes escaped detection and she was released. As soon as this brave observer could reach a place of relative safety back in Thailand, she used Martus to secure the sensitive information she had risked her life to obtain.

Our Martus team has worked closely with ND-Burma over the past eight years, strengthening the capacity of member groups and of the coalition as a whole. To date, ND-Burma member groups have secured thousands of narrative accounts documenting human rights abuses by the Burmese government and they now utilize their collective documentation to reveal patterns of violations. For the past three years, member groups have produced regular reports on continuing abuses as well as thematic reports that examine specific aspects of the Burmese human rights situation. For example, ND-Burma’s May 2012 report, “Extreme Measures,” sheds light on torture and ill treatment in Burma since the 2010 elections, demonstrating that the Burmese government continues to commit abuses despite its being bound to international human rights treaties and norms.

ND-Burma’s growing archive of detailed abuses—mostly documenting issues of forced labor, torture, forced displacement and property rights—informs its current advocacy, bolsters its calls for change and provides a rich evidence base in preparation for a Commission of Inquiry, when such a Commission (or a similar mechanism) comes to fruition. Equally important, as noted by Patrick Pierce, Head of the Burma Program at the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ):

“ND-Burma has used Martus as a basis to foster a spirit of solidarity and mutual good will among its diverse members. This cooperation is a harbinger of the stability and unity that could develop in a democratic Burma.”

Burma has seen dramatic reforms and there is now a momentous opportunity to strengthen current advocacy and prepare for future justice measures. However, a great deal of work remains before realizing democracy in Burma. The recent hacking of email accounts of journalists in Burma and last November’s brutal crackdown by the Burmese government on peaceful protesters against the China-backed Letpadaung copper mine are painful reminders that ongoing reforms are fragile and reversible.

During my visit with ND-Burma member groups, we reflected on their achievements to date through their Martus implementation, discussed the opportunities and challenges ahead and considered the ways in which Martus can best support their future work. They had short-term feedback on the need for Martus to support a new Burmese font: something we worked with our donors (thanks, OTF and OSF!) to prioritize.  We expect to have this new font support done already in the next month or so.

This bigger picture feedback on Martus, from ND-Burma and other partners, has been instrumental in shaping the product roadmap for the next generation of Martus. For instance, after the first global Martus Users Group Meeting, which ND-Burma hosted in Chiang Mai last year, it became clear that it was paramount to prioritize our development of a Martus mobile application. We are now gearing up to beta test the prototype application and hope to soon release it to our growing Martus user community.  I’ve been showing the prototype around to our partners and supporters for the last month: it’s quite elegant!

Benetech is committed to doing this kind of ongoing development to help advance the broader human rights movement. We believe that technology can improve the lives of people all across the world, and in some cases that means developing tools that help document fundamental human rights violations. The data and stories collected are often what is needed to pursue reform, seek justice and begin reconciliation.

Although Benetech’s social enterprises often generate most or all of their budgets from revenues, the human rights movement just doesn’t have that kind of funding to support even nonprofit social enterprises! Almost all of the money in the human rights field comes from donors who believe in the importance of fighting injustice and oppression around the world. Our sustainability model for our work is that 90% of the funding for Benetech’s Human Rights Program should come from the third-party supporters of human rights (that is, donors to the issue of human rights) either through our larger partners as revenue for services or directly.  [The balance comes from unrestricted donations to Benetech as a cool overall nonprofit organization!] Your support gives us the resources and capacity we need to continue and grow these efforts. Please consider donating today or reach out if you’re interested in partnering with us in other ways to help advance the global cause of human rights. Thank you in advance!