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Thein Than Oo is a lawyer and former political prisoner whose license was revoked for over 11 years after he took on numerous politically sensitive cases.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

Video Analysts: Beijing Parade a 'Bazaar' of Stolen Technology

Show commemorating victory over Japan in World War II involved long, medium and short range missiles, a range of tanks and 200 fighter aircraft More

Bernie Sanders Surge Reflects US Shift on Socialism

Although most analysts say it is unlikely he will get the Democratic nomination, Sanders' campaign opens up questions and issues that are otherwise marginalized More

Video On IS Frontline, Kurdish Fighters Ready for Offensive

Peshmerga soldiers say although they need more heavy artillery, they are poised to take the fight to the Islamic State extremists on their turf More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Drowned Migrant Toddler Photo Triggers European Outragei
X
Henry Ridgwell
September 04, 2015 11:36 AM
The harrowing picture of a drowned three-year-old Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach appears to have galvanized Europe’s leaders into doing more to address the refugee crisis. France, Germany and Italy issued a joint call Thursday for compulsory quotas of refugees for all EU states. But there were chaotic scenes in Hungary as police tried to force migrants off a train heading for Austria. Henry Ridgwell has more. And a caution, some of the images in this report may be disturbing.
Video

Video Drowned Migrant Toddler Photo Triggers European Outrage

The harrowing picture of a drowned three-year-old Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach appears to have galvanized Europe’s leaders into doing more to address the refugee crisis. France, Germany and Italy issued a joint call Thursday for compulsory quotas of refugees for all EU states. But there were chaotic scenes in Hungary as police tried to force migrants off a train heading for Austria. Henry Ridgwell has more. And a caution, some of the images in this report may be disturbing.
Video

Video Russians Observe 11th Anniversary of Beslan School Attack

This week, Russians have been observing the 11th anniversary of the attack by Islamic militants on a school in Russia's North Caucasus region that killed more than 330 hostages, including 186 children. The three-day siege and massacre that started on September 1, 2004 took place in Beslan, a town in the republic of North Ossetia, and is one of the bloodiest terrorist acts ever in Russia. VOA's Mike Richman reports.
Video

Video Native Americans Debate: Father Serra, Saint or Sinner?

Pope Francis will canonize an 18th century missionary to Spanish California during a papal visit to the United States this month.  But some Native Americans have criticized the elevation to sainthood of the missionary priest, Junipero Serra. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan has more from Los Angeles.
Video

Video Calais School Offers Another Face of Europe’s Migrant Crisis

Europe is facing mounting criticism over how it’s handling its biggest migration crisis since World War II. But not all Europeans believe building walls or passing repressive policies are the answer. A school for migrants in the French port city of Calais, is opening doors and building bonds across nationalities. VOA's Lisa Bryant reports.
Video

Video Kurdish Fighters on IS Frontline Ready for Offensive

Finger on the trigger, the Kurdish Peshmerga soldier stared across the dust at a village taken over by Islamic State extremists. The Kurdistan’s Khazir frontline, just 45 minutes from the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul. And at this point, the militants were less than two kilometers away. VOA's Sharon Behn reports.
Video

Video China Announces Troop Cuts at WWII Parade

Chinese President Xi Jinping Thursday announced plans to cut the world’s largest military force by 300,000 troops. The announcement was made during a massive military parade to commemorate victory over Japan in World War II. The event was shunned by most Western leaders and for some is raising fresh concerns about China’s military ambitions. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video Russia-Japan Relations Cool as Putin Visits China for WWII Anniversary

Russian President Vladimir Putin is in Beijing for commemorations of the 70th anniversary of China's WWII victory over Japan. Putin is expected to visit Japan later this year, but tensions between Tokyo and Moscow over islands disputed since the war, and sanctions over Ukraine, could pour cold water on the plan. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Yemen ‘on Brink of Disaster’ as Medical Shortages Soar

Aid agencies warn Yemen is on the brink of humanitarian disaster – with up to half a million children facing severe malnutrition, and hospitals running out of basic medicines. There are fears Yemen's civil war could escalate as the coalition led by Saudi Arabia tries to drive back Houthi rebels, who seized control of much of the country earlier this year. Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Apps Helping Kenyan Businesses Stay Ahead of Counterfeiters

Counterfeit goods in Kenya cost the government as much as $1 billion each year in lost tax revenues. The fake goods also hurt entrepreneurs who find it hard to carve out a niche in the market and retain customers. But as Lenny Ruvaga reports from Nairobi, information technology is being used to try to beat the problem.
Video

Video Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOA

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Iraq's southern wetlands are in crisis. These areas are the spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, and source of livelihood for fishermen and herders. Faith Lapidus has more.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Rebuilding New Orleans' Music Scene

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, threatening to wash away its vibrant musical heritage along with its neighborhoods, the beat goes on. As Bronwyn Benito and Faith Lapidus report, a Musicians' Village is preserving the city's unique sound.
Video

Video In Russia, Auto Industry in Tailspin

Industry insiders say country relies too heavily on imports as inflation cuts too many consumers out of the market. Daniel Schearf has more from Moscow.
Video

Video Scientist Calls Use of Fetal Tissue in Medical Research Essential

An anti-abortion group responsible for secret recordings of workers at a women's health care organization claims the workers shown are offering baby parts for sale, a charge the organization strongly denies. While the selling of fetal tissue is against the law in the United States, abortion and the use of donated fetal tissue for medical research are both legal. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.

VOA Blogs