News / Asia

Report Urges Reform for Burma's Hobbled Justice System

FILE - A Buddhist monk walks near the High Court in Rangoon, Nov. 26, 2011.
FILE - A Buddhist monk walks near the High Court in Rangoon, Nov. 26, 2011.
VOA News
— A new report warns that although Burma has made progress in improving its legal system in the past two years, lawyers still face restrictions in their work, especially when it comes to politically sensitive cases.  

This week's report from the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) warns about a legal system that erodes the independence of lawyers in Burma.

Although lawyers reported their independence had improved since Burma's political reforms started in 2010, outside analysts says there are still serious gaps including pervasive corruption and intimidation of lawyers who are representing politically sensitive cases.

Sam Zarifi, the regional director of the ICJ in Asia says that the government has shown willingness to address its shortcomings, but has yet to take concrete action.

"As we go into a very political year I think that's going to be a real challenge in terms of strengthening the judiciary in terms of strengthening the independence of lawyers and clearly the need to reform parts of the constitution," he said.

Burma still considers itself a common law country, a legal system largely based on the judgments of courts over the years. Much of its penal code dates to the law books of the British Raj, from when it was still a British colony.

Under Burma's former military dictatorship the legal system was reduced to a political tool of the government. Now, parliament is considering reforms, but it's still unclear how far they will go.

Thein Than Oo is a lawyer and former political prisoner whose license was revoked for over 11 years after he took on numerous politically sensitive cases. Recently, he represented Muslims accused of killing a Buddhist monk, a high-profile case at a time of sectarian tensions.

He says a major structural flaw in the legal system lies in the powerful role of the attorney general, who is appointed rather than elected, and also heads the Bar Council, which is not independent.

"Attorney general in person is very good and very famous Dr. Tun Shin, but as attorney general he is also the puppet of the government," he said.

Others point out that structural injustices present in the legal system have put minority groups at a great disadvantage. For example, in the aftermath of communal violence, Muslims are often sentenced more severely for minor crimes than their Buddhist neighbors.

Many in Burma lobbying for legal reforms argue that the country needs a system based on “rule of law.” But many factions interpret the meaning of that term differently, creating confusion about what reforms they actually support.

Matt Walton, the Aung San Suu Kyi Senior Research fellow in modern Burmese studies at Oxford University says the “rule of law” term has become so overused, that it has become meaningless. Walton says the term is already used to defend unjust legal decisions.

"Rule of law is presumed to be this neutral vehicle but it doesn’t take into account what are more positive mechanisms of justice which recognizes structural and historical injustice as well,” he said.

In the aftermath of communal violence, for example, Muslims have often been punished more harshly than Buddhists for crimes related to sparking riots. Vague laws are often interpreted to the disadvantage of Muslims, in particular the section which criminalizes insult to religion.

Sam Zarifi says improving the legal system will require amending the constitution in 2014, but that is just one of several high profile amendments under consideration.

The government has stressed amendments to create a clear investment law that benefits the economy. The opposition has focused on a constitutional amendment that would change the clause that currently prohibits Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi from running for president.

Any such changes require a 75 percent majority of the parliament's approval. And under Burma's 2008 constitution, 25 percent of the parliamentary seats remain reserved for the military.

Military members of parliament intend to submit their suggestions for amending the constitution by December 15.

You May Like

At International AIDS Conference One Goal, Many Paths

The 12,000 delegates attending 20th International AIDS Conference in Melbourne have vastly different visions about how to eradicate disease More

Disasters May Doom Malaysia’s Flag Carrier

Even before loss of two jets loaded with passengers on international flights, company had been operating in red for three years, accumulating deficit of $1.3 billion More

Afghan Presidential Vote Audit Continues Despite Glitches

Process has been marred by walkouts by representatives of two competing candidates, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Nature of Space Exploration Enters New Agei
X
Elizabeth Lee
July 20, 2014 2:36 AM
Forty-five years ago this month, the first humans walked on the moon. It was during an era of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. World politics have changed since then and -- as Elizabeth Lee reports -- so has the nature of space exploration.
Video

Video Nature of Space Exploration Enters New Age

Forty-five years ago this month, the first humans walked on the moon. It was during an era of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. World politics have changed since then and -- as Elizabeth Lee reports -- so has the nature of space exploration.
Video

Video Chicago’s Argonne Lab Developing Battery of the Future

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science awarded a $120 million grant to a new technology center focused on battery development - headquartered at Argonne National Laboratory in suburban Chicago, Illinois. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there scientists are making the next technological breakthroughs in energy storage.
Video

Video In NW Pakistan, Army Offensive Causes Massive Number of Displaced

Pakistan’s army offensive in North Waziristan has resulted in the large-scale displacement of the local population. VOA's Ayaz Gul reports from northwest Pakistan where authorities say around 80 percent of the estimated 1 million internally displaced persons [IDPs] have settled in Bannu district, while much of the remaining 20 percent are scattered in nearby cities.
Video

Video Kurdish Peshmerga Force Secures Kirkuk, Its Oil

The Kurdistan regional government has sent its Peshmerga troops into the adjacent province of Kirkuk to drive out insurgents, and to secure the area's rich oil fields. By doing this, the regional government has added a fourth province to the three it officially controls. The oil also provides revenue that could make an independent Kurdistan economically strong. VOA’s Jeffrey Young went out with the Peshmerga and filed this report.
Video

Video Malaysia Reeling: Second Air Disaster in Four Months

Malaysia is reeling from the second air disaster in four months involving the country’s flag carrier. Flight 340 vanished in March and despite an extensive search, no debris has been found. And on Thursday, Flight 17, likely hit by a surface-to-air missile, came apart over eastern Ukraine. The two incidents together have left more than 500 people dead. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Kuala Lumpur.
Video

Video Diplomatic Crisis Grows Over MH17 Plane Crash

The Malaysia Airlines crash in eastern Ukraine is drawing reaction from leaders around the world. With suspicions growing that a surface-to-air missile shot down the aircraft, there are increasing tensions in the international community over who is to blame. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Undocumented Immigrants Face Perilous Journey to US, No Guarantees

Every day, hundreds of undocumented immigrants from Central America attempt the arduous journey through Mexico and turn themselves over to U.S. border patrol -- with the hope that they will not be turned away. But the dangers they face along the way are many, and as Ramon Taylor reports from the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, their fate rests on more than just the reception they get at the US border.
Video

Video Scientists Create Blackest Material Ever

Of all the black things in the universe only the infamous "black holes" are so black that not even a tiny amount of light can bounce back. But scientists have managed to create material almost as black, and it has enormous potential use. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Fog Collector Transforming Maasai Water Harvesting in Kenya

The Maasai people of Kenya are known for their cattle-herding, nomadic lifestyle. But it's an existence that depends on access to adequate water for their herds and flocks. Lenny Ruvaga reports for VOA, on a "fog collector."

AppleAndroid