Alice Dawkins argues that foreign lawyers should not overshadow the work of Myanmar’s activist lawyers.
Last Friday, media releases all over the English and Burmese-speaking internet reverberated with the news that top human rights lawyer, Amal Clooney, will join the legal team for Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s ongoing court case.
I see at least two tiers of issues going on here, recognising that there are many others (such as the military’s cause of national security and the impunity that accompanies it, and the shameful layers of disinformation in Rakhine).
The first is personal, the need for a timely resolution and for Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo to be returned to their families as soon as possible. The second is more political and relates to the way issues of political freedoms transpire in Myanmar courts and the role local lawyers are enabled to play.
The first issue is self-evident: there is no good argument justifying the prolonged incarceration of the two journalists, who have been wrongfully prosecuted under archaic laws simply for reporting the news. Yet a tension emerges with the second issue: how cases of such international interest proceed in Myanmar and how the country’s lawyers can go about their jobs.
Reuters’ recruitment of Amal Clooney instantly elevates the case further into global exposure. For those of us who have not been privy to Reuters’ strategy meetings, we can only imagine it forms part of a mission to draw more attention to the case and place additional pressure on the Myanmar government, as we will hear back from the court next week.
I am a dedicated fan of Ms Clooney but her involvement in this way jars with me. Some further questions need to be asked: Has the current legal team requested outside help to argue the case? Were other senior lawyers in Myanmar approached to take this case and did they refuse to do so? I ask these questions because the recruitment of a foreign lawyer risks reinforcing a misplaced assumption widely held by numerous observers in the rule of law space that local lawyers are inept at their jobs.
I spent most of 2017 living in Myanmar and researching how particular local lawyers mobilise for justice, as part of a thesis for my own studies in law. I went to central Myanmar, where I lived with a team of dedicated lawyers and activists who advocate for farmers in land-grab cases. I went to the north, near the Chinese border, where lawyers rally against military power by representing ethnic minorities embroiled in criminal proceedings. Around Yangon, I observed the daily rhythm of law offices where lawyers act for unaccompanied minors, vulnerable women, and the homeless.
The fragmentation of political issues across the country leads to varying specialties for activist lawyers. Lawyers in Myitkyina aligned with the Kachin ethno-nationalist movement know the nuances of the Unlawful Associations Act far more intimately than their colleagues in Yangon. Lawyers working across the dry zone who operate in tandem with civil society organisations to advocate for farmers’ rights know the law of trespass extremely well. I would expect that there are numerous senior lawyers who have acted in Official Secrets Act cases – the law under which the two journalists have been charged – several times before.
Of course, the lawyers I met arguably represent the sector’s elites. It would be a stretch to claim their representativeness of Myanmar’s legal profession at-large. Following the military takeover in 1962, the practice of law fell swiftly into decline. Legal education deteriorated, the bar association lost autonomy. The lawyers who speak truth to power in activist communities across the country do so in spite of decades of adverse structural conditions. In some ways they are the exception to the rule: they have been able to educate themselves when the legal education has been deficient, through mentoring relationships with the profession’s elders, and opportunities for career development with local and regional civil society initiatives.
These lawyers and their mentors are no strangers to grave personal risk. Many of them, or their immediate community, have been political prisoners. Most of them are embedded in the pro-democracy movement. Throughout the career metamorphoses of the democratic transition, some veteran activist lawyers have entered political office and now occupy seats in the state-level and national-level legislatures as NLD representatives. One politician who I met, aged in her early thirties, juggles a position in the state-level legislature with taking land rights cases pro bono in her spare time.
I include these narratives because we too easily forget the toils and quiet victories of local lawyers when our eyes turn, star-struck, to a foreign import. Some may think it is terrific Ms Clooney is drawing more attention to the case, but, I wonder, looking into the long-term ramifications, if she could be better placed to play a different role.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s legal team have argued for the case to be dismissed on the grounds of insufficient evidence. Should this eventuate, it is more likely than not that Ms Clooney will receive credit for their achievement. Yet it is the lawyers on the local team who have done the legwork up until this crucial moment and who shoulder all of the personal risk for their involvement in the case.
These perceptions matter because, despite millions in donor funding pledged towards strengthening rule of law in Myanmar, many foreign consultants still know very little about the lawyers in the country who have fought for political freedoms all their lives. Ms Clooney’s inclusion in Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s legal team risks unwittingly sustaining tiresome and out-of-touch beliefs that there are no lawyers in Myanmar who are equipped to successfully advocate for justice and political freedoms of their compatriots – I would urge those tempted to think so, that there are plenty.
Alice Dawkins has written two honours theses intersecting with Myanmar studies; one on Chinese narratives of the Kuomintang incursion in the Shan states, and one on Myanmar’s young generation of political lawyers. She is a graduate of the Australian National University, where she co-founded a multimedia project about pan-Asia politics and culture.