Despite the seemingly dramatic pace of reform in Burma—starting with the release of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in November 2010, up to multiparty by-elections last April—Burmese lawyers say they’ve seen little substantive change so far and still doubt the sincerity of the nation’s transition to democracy.
“Make no mistake: We remain suspicious of the motives behind recent reforms and continue to criticize the process by which the current government took power,” says U Thein Oo, chairperson of the Burma Lawyers’ Council (BLC), in a statement last week.
BLC is an independent organization that operates in exile out of Thailand. For years the organization has condemned the imprisonment of political prisoners and the military’s abuse of the judicial system in Burma (also known as Myanmar).
Established in 1994, BLC was declared unlawful by the military junta in Burma in 2009, for being “hurtful to the rule of law in the Union of Myanmar, stability of the state, and community peace.”
In a phone interview from Bangkok, Thein Oo reported that there are more than 30,000 lawyers working in Burma, yet they cannot practice their profession freely.
“In Burma, lawyers are afraid for their daily life. Thousands have had their licenses revoked.”
Thein Oo explained that lawyers in Burma are treated as criminals by judicial authorities. For example, if a lawyer takes a case defending the rights of a farmer or a worker, the court might find his complaint offensive to the authorities, sue the lawyer, and take away his license.
Lawyers are treated as defendants if the court decides they have ‘challenged’ the court, or dared to ‘discuss’ the government. This is not a transition to democracy.
— U Thein Oo, chairman, Burma Lawyers’ Council
“Lawyers are treated as defendants if the court decides they have ‘challenged’ the court, or dared to ‘discuss’ the government. This is not a transition to democracy.”
Because of this, very few lawyers take cases involving civil rights, says Thein Oo. Moreover, if a client knows that a lawyer had his license revoked at some time, they will not go to him again. This makes the situation of lawyers still worse.
Last May, the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) lauded the decision of Burma’s Parliament to allow lawyers who have lost their licenses or even spent time in jail for prior involvement in politics, to apply to get them back.
“None of these lawyers violated any laws or rules to warrant the revocation of their licenses,” AHRC Executive Director Wong Kai Shing said in a statement.
“Furthermore, government authorities themselves violated the rules by unilaterally revoking the licenses, and by failing to allow these lawyers to represent themselves in full and open inquiries into their alleged infractions,” he noted.
For Thein Oo, the most important guarantee for sincere reforms in Burma is securing freedom of speech and freedom of association. For example, nongovernmental organizations are still restricted in Burma, and there is no official organization to represent lawyers.
“It is easy to see: If the NGO is pro-government, they grant registration. Otherwise, they tell you, ‘You are not acceptable.’ If they don’t want some kind of NGO, they just reject registration,” says Thein Oo.
Though elected, Parliament still has little power because of the enshrined role of the military inside the powerful National Defense and Security Council (NDSC), which exercises executive powers.
“[The NDSC] is keeping a close watch on political developments and may decide to step in to curb changes that threaten its power,” says the lawyer.
Amending the constitution created by the ruling generals in 2008, and endorsed in what was widely deemed to be a sham referendum, is a top priority for Burma’s democracy movement.
They strongly criticize the constitution for enshrining the supremacy of the military and ensuring impunity for the army’s long record of human rights abuses.
President Thein Sein, a former general, publicly claims to be willing to institute reforms, but Thein Oo does not see him as a reliable reformist.
“He is not a good reformer, but a good performer,” says BLC’s chief.
While significant changes are still lacking, the BLC is happy there are oppositionist National League for Democracy members inside Parliament, and activists outside Parliament, to drive reforms.
“Fortunately, after the elections in April, we have some MPs who help us by asking questions in the Parliament. We are also strongly willing to work with Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, in the name of democracy in Burma.”
The Epoch Times publishes in 35 countries and in 19 languages. Subscribe to our e-newsletter.