As Myanmar’s military struggle consolidated its control of a rebel country, it increasingly targeted a different type of resistance: lawyers defending political prisoners. In the past month, at least five lawyers across Myanmar have been arrested for defending politicians and activists. This is an escalation of military attacks on the justice system.
First, in late May, the police arrested Den Leighton, a lawyer for the deposed Nay Pyi Taw Council Chairman Miao Aung, who was a co-defendant of Aung San Suu Kyi. The former democratically elected leader of Myanmar was overthrown by Army Chief of Staff Min Aung Lai in a military coup on February 1, after her National Democratic Alliance won the November election by a landslide.
According to the Political Prisoners Aid Association, which has been monitoring the situation, the military government has killed approximately 883 civilian protesters and arrested, charged or sentenced more than 6,000 opponents since the coup.
Thein Hlaing Tun and five other lawyers were with their clients on May 24, when he was arrested and prosecuted under Section 505A, an incitement charge punishable by three years in prison and has become a favorite of generals tool. The head of Aung San Suu Kyi’s defense team, Chin Maung Tso, said that Miao Ang would not meet with other lawyers until June 7 before being informed of his arrest.
“Then he appointed a new lawyer among us,” Khin Maung Zaw said in a text message. “We are worried about other lawyers,” he told Al Jazeera that the situation has become “very difficult” due to the danger of being “harassed or arrested” and internal disagreements on how to proceed in a distorted legal system.
Soon after, on May 28, a lawyer in Irrawaddy Province was arrested in a trial defending a dissident. According to local media reports, she received some well-known clients, including the dean of a hospital, who did not work under the military government but went on strike. She was also charged under section 505A.
On June 2, lawyer Thet Tun Oo was arrested in Kachin State while trying to participate in the trial. According to reports, he represents more than 100 political prisoners, including detained members of the Kachin State government. Fearing reprisals, a colleague of his spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity and said that the arrest had increased the already existing atmosphere of fear.
“After he was arrested, we went into hiding, but we are still working hard to continue to defend the case,” she said. She said that when lawyers go to defend cases, uniformed police officers often take photos and videos of them in a threatening manner, and female lawyers have become too scared to appear in court alone.
The lawyer said that before she went into hiding, she felt that she had been under surveillance and often noticed that “strangers were watching around my house.” She also received a suspicious call from an unknown number, requesting to meet with her in person to seek legal advice immediately, but she did not dare to accept these requests.
“We know we might be arrested, but I can’t avoid it. Because if we stop doing this, who will defend these cases?” she said.
‘There is no real justice’
On June 12, two lawyers were arrested in Kayin State while trying to cross the border into Thailand because they found they were wanted by the military. Both Nilar and Phone Myat Thu are members of the legal team of the Chief Minister of Kayin State, who was removed from office in February and prosecuted along with most civilian leaders.
A close friend of the two lawyers said that he received a call from another mutual friend around midnight to tell him about his arrest.
“These two lawyers have been hiding in Myawaddy because they heard that they will be detained soon…Until today, we have not seen them or seen them,” he said. Like others, they have been charged under section 505A.
“We don’t think there is any rule of law. If lawyers are arrested like this, we should have a chance to meet them. Now, no one can protect us, not even the law can protect our rights,” he said.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Department, said that targeting lawyers could also cut off important sources of information about other detained prisoners.
“[R]Restricting this relationship with clients by intimidating lawyers also means less information from prisons about what is happening to people inside,” he said, adding that this information helped human rights organizations document “torture and ill-treatment in prisons.” “.prison.
Just last week, the vice chairman of the Naypyidaw Committee revealed through his lawyer that he had a rib fracture during the interrogation. Lawyers are usually the only way for family and friends to communicate with relatives, and the only way for well-known detainees to convey information to the public.
“Arresting lawyers and interrogating their activities and their clients will ensure that no one is willing to provide legal advice to activists-this may be the real intention of the military government’s actions here,” Robertson said, warning that “there is no real “Justice” will be discovered as long as the judicial system is “under the control of the military.”
The military takeover and subsequent pressure on the judicial system are also a blow to the younger generation of Myanmar, who grew up during the country’s open period and believe that things may be different.
A law student in Yangon said that the coup destroyed her hopes for her chosen career and made her question whether she should complete her degree.
“Although I have hope for the future… On February 1, everything was in vain,” she said. Although she believes that the legal system before the coup had “many flaws and flaws,” the situation now “has become more terrifying.”
“what is [the law] What if the military government arrests all those who disagree? She asked.
She said that she wanted to become a lawyer and “give me the strength, voice and confidence to help the society in which I live”, but she began to feel “powerless”.
But she did not give up.
She told Al Jazeera that the pressure faced by lawyers has also made people in the legal profession “angry and motivated to fight this unfair and unjust system.” “Our generation should and must be the last to experience a coup.”