Myanmar law students are reporting for JURIST on challenges to the rule of law in their country under the military junta that deposed the civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi in February. For privacy and security reasons we are withholding this law student’s name and institutional affiliation. The text has been only lightly edited to respect the author’s voice.
Yesterday [Thursday, 16 Dec 2021], I went to Mandalay district court (located bet. 35th and 36th streets, on 65th street) with other chamber students. A lawyer from our firm was already there to copy a case file for another case and she called us to bring some case files on her desk and her coat to the court. There was a court hearing schedule and I carried a case file and a black lawyer coat. When we reached the courtroom, the hearing was already started. So, we entered the courtroom quietly and approached the defendant lawyer’s desk to hand over her case files and her black coat.
Before I handed her the things, I heard a sound and looked at my left side and in the courtroom there’s a guy with a rifle pointing his gun at me. He’s not wearing any uniform but just dressed like a civilian. He said nothing but just raised his gun and by his facial expressions (raising his chin and eyeing on the black coat in my hand), he was asking me what is the black thing I’m carrying in my hand. I raised the black coat and said loudly “It’s just a black coat which is the uniform lawyers wear.” He was still not lowering his gun. I didn’t know what else to explain. Whether to shoot me or not, it’s up to him. I just stood there. Then, the lawyer from our firm shouted that “It’s just a black coat and she’s bringing it for me to wear.” Then, he lowered the gun and let me pass the coat and case files to her. This is not the first time a junta [agent] pointed a gun towards me but here, in a courtroom! I don’t think any lawyers, judges and legal interns in other countries would have ever faced such thing.
Before, I have heard many lawyers said they have to be careful of their word choice in the court because it is not a good place to talk about justice anymore. But now, I’m witnessing it myself. I was also wearing a black coat which means they surely knew I might be a lawyer. Yet, they did not even hesitate to point the gun at me. Rather than fear, I felt so angry about the way they’re desecrating the courtroom with their guns and military boots. In this situation, how are we going to talk about Justice and Human rights? They have their guns ready.
As the hearing went on, I sat in the courtroom and listened to the hearings. Two more juntas with guns entered the room and all three of them occupied the entire front line bench so we had to sit a bit far from the ring where witnesses were examined. We took the notes of witness statements and cross examination questions from the plaintiff sides. First, total 8 witnesses were supposed to be called on that day but the examination of just one witness is taking long with all chief, cross and re-examination. This is a very strange thing I’ve heard from a judge. The judge told the lawyer who was re-examining the accused person “to keep it short.” It’s not that she’s pleading something irrelevant to the case. She was just letting the person explain his case fully at the court so that a fair judgement can be made for him. But she told off to keep it short and that she had other things to do. She could either arrange another court hearing for other witnesses if she’s exercising her power reasonably instead of making an order which prevents a person from exercising his right to be heard at the proceeding. A person’s life depends on her decision and that’s what a judge said. I don’t ever want to practice law in a courtroom ruled by such judge who is ignorant of her duty to comply with fair trial principles and a room full of loaded guns. “Puppet judge” is not just a metaphor but a literal meaning of a “non-CDM [government officers who do not participant in Civil Disobedience Movement] judge” in the courtroom of Myanmar.
After that, while the hearing still went on, we went to buy a food box for our client (an accused person). The detained people are not fed by the prison or by the court on the day of court hearing. There is no enactment regarding that but that’s how the court system is practicing now so if any relatives of the person or the lawyers bought anything for the accused persons, he/she might have to share food with other detainees or just starve for that day. Our client had no relatives to visit him so we bought lunch for him. The hearing went on till 3:30PM MMT and then we passed him a plastic lunchbox and a water bottle. But the police guarding the entry to underground prison at the district court did not allow us to give him the lunchbox. So, we waited more than 15 minutes and repeatedly told him that our client had not eaten anything yet. Then, the junta who pointed the gun at me came to take the lunchbox from us and said he would give that to our client. We just hope he received the lunchbox that day.
It was miserable to witness so many unfair things right in front of my eyes. As a law student, I question if the human rights we talked about in our law classrooms and moot court competitions really exist in real life because I’m witnessing the opposite. For now, in Myanmar, enforcement of human rights would be just daydreaming.