There are, despite the odds, human rights lawyers in Burma. In fact the efforts of some to defend a working legal culture from official vandalism and neglect surpass those of their counterparts in more open societies of Asia.
Take the advocate representing someone accused of involvement in the nationwide protests of last August and September that arose in response to a dramatic hike in fuel prices. After being illegally imprisoned for over two months and kept in remand for a number of months more, his client was put on trial recently. When the arresting policeman took the stand, the cross-examination went in part roughly as follows:
Defense lawyer: I put it to you that your allegation is based upon information from sources rather than your direct knowledge.
Police officer: We investigated the information.
Lawyer: But you have not included these sources in your list of witnesses?
Officer: They are not included.
Lawyer: Do you have any documentary proof of the allegation?
Officer: I myself do not have documentary proof.
Lawyer: So on what basis are you prosecuting the accused?
Officer: On the basis of the information received.
Lawyer: But you have nothing to show of this?
Officer: I cannot present anything to the court.
Lawyer: It’s also correct to say that you have no photographs to show?
Officer: That’s correct.
Lawyer: Only the eyewitness accounts?
Lawyer: Is it not the responsibility of the police to obtain evidence like photographs with which to support the case?
Officer: It is.
Lawyer: Do you know that a case based only on eyewitness accounts and without any other types of evidence is not strong?
And so it went on, a heroic battle for rationality against overwhelming absurdity, an appeal for sanity to an insane system.
There are perhaps not many lawyers in Burma who would so vigorously question a policeman in court, let alone take this sort of case in the first place. Those who do are unable to continue ordinary practice, because persons with mundane criminal complaints won’t approach them. They are left to handle the matters that others won’t touch.
But there are a much larger number of interested advocates who have become experts in related fields, such as those handling land and labor cases, which have multiplied since the International Labour Organisation set up an office in Rangoon. Still others have familiarized themselves with laws on women and children, whose rights the government has acknowledged under international treaties [CRC & CEDAW].
The lawyers are sometimes joined not only by brave litigants, but by doctors who refuse to falsify evidence in support of government officials, by council members who speak against the police to protect local residents, and by journalists who write carefully in private journals on the need for higher quality criminal inquiries.
Together, these persons and others are acting as a kind of life-support for Burma’s judicial system. They are doing more than simply keeping alive hopes for justice in places characterized by injustice. They are also keeping professional conduct alive that would otherwise long ago have died out completely. And they are keeping alive prospects for a better society.
Burma’s new draft constitution, which is being put to a vote of sorts on May 10, stipulates that “the three branches of state power, namely legislative power, executive power and judicial power are separated as much as possible.”
It is amply clear that for the military “as much as possible” in fact means as little as possible. But it will not ultimately decide the extent of this possibility. That prerogative lies with those whose insistence upon principles to which the government is so violently opposed signifies that there is still something going on in Burma’s courts which can be equated with the upholding of justice, rather than its mockery.