The professional life of lawyers in Myanmar was not easy even before the coup, Now, it’s worse.
In Myanmar – especially for litigation lawyers – popularity, social connections and the favor of court clerks play a greater role in their success than specialization and lawyering experience. Due to their lack of legal knowledge and guidance, the majority of Myanmar people do not know what kind of lawyer they should choose for the legal matter they’re facing. Instead, they go with suggestions from court clerks. Many corrupt court clerks make deals with lawyers to bring clients.
Before the coup, Myanmar’s judiciary was not at its best either because there was still corruption in some places, but at least we were on the right track for democracy transition. So, at that time, lawyers could give constructive criticism and suggestions to judges, counsels and court staff. Decades of corrupt conduct in courts cannot be changed overnight but at least there were good chances of improvement. But that’s all gone now.
Myanmar’s judiciary does not provide fair and independent trials anymore. The judiciary is no more than a puppet show which only play by the rules of of the military juntas by neglecting all fair trial principles. The ‘so-called’ judges who hold hearings lack intellectual and moral values and cannot properly exercise their discretionary power. A lawyer who has represented political prisoners tells me “I am very disappointed in judges.” Their judgement is already scripted by SAC and they do their job as puppets by simply delivering unjust orders in the courtrooms and sending innocent people off to prison.
Lawyers who represent people charged under section 505(a) of Myanmar’s Penal Code (incitement against the military junta) are closely monitored and sometimes get threatened. The location, personal information and family members of these lawyers are tracked and some lawyers even get abducted. A lawyer says “The law is not even on paper; it’s in someone’s mouth. Whatever they say becomes law.”
Because of the coup, many citizens face grave financial crisis and have lost lose all faith in the judiciary, People do not seek judicial dispute resolution anymore and they cannot afford to hire lawyers. This makes it harder for lawyers to get clients and majority of lawyers do not charge a penny for people who are charged with section-505(a).
In court, lawyers are finding it a struggle to plead. They must choose words very carefully not to go against the junta because speaking the truth in the court can literally end their life. It is also difficult for lawyers to plead for all the rights their clients should get and there is nothing more they can do but watch people suffer. We all know there is no rule of law at all in the whole country, but lawyers who go to the court witness this very closely.
Due to lack of income, pressure from clients’ families, political instability, the junta and security concerns, many litigation lawyers want to quit their jobs. Regarding the troubles of lawyers, the failure of the country’s Bar Association to stand up for lawyers in this crisis is clear, One lawyer has spoken his mind “They should not form the Bar Association if they’re that cowardly.” Myanmar lawyers have a lot of pressure on their shoulders and they’re risking their security with the hope of getting innocent people released, but now, seven months after the coup, lawyers are starting to think that there is no point searching for justice when it does not exist anymore.
On 30 Aug 2021, the junta announced for lawyer license renewal a special payment of 300 Kyats is required. Without license renewal, lawyers cannot represent their clients at the court and they might have to give up their profession till we get democracy. The bravery of lawyers who have represented political prisoners is well-proven. Some are now participating in CDM [the Civil Disobedience Movement] just like other professionals to show that lawyers stand with Myanmar people. On 1 Sept 2021, the shadow National Unity Government’s Ministry of Justice announced that lawyers do not need to serve the unjust judiciary anymore and encouraged them not to apply for lawyer license renewal and pay the fees.
As a law student who one day aims to become a lawyer, I believe that it is time to stop playing along with the junta’s judicial puppet show. Speaking of laws, human rights and truth does not help anyone’s case. It is time to boycott the fake courts by not acknowledging their existence.
By attending unjust court hearings and pleading our cases, we are just cooperating with the junta, helping them pretend to run the country’s judicial system country. Even though they are concerned for their clients, lawyers can do nothing because the system is controlled by the junta. The junta will abduct anyone they want and give punishment. Also, detainees will understand their lawyers’ choice to start participating in CDM and refusing to plead. A third year law student from the University of Mandalay seized and imprisoned by the junta this summer recently made a brave decision to boycott the court by refusing to speak before the court. She is not the only detainee who did such a remarkable act.