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Thein Than Oo is a lawyer and former political prisoner whose license was revoked for over 11 years after he took on numerous politically sensitive cases.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

On Everest, Helicopters Rescue Stranded Climbers

Choppers transport some of more than 100 mountaineers trapped after deadly quake, avalanches More

Video Ten Years After Riots, France Searches for Answers to Neglected Suburbs

In 2005, a Paris suburb exploded into violence after two teenagers were electrocuted as they hid from police; since then, somethings have changed, others not More

US, Japan Announce Historic Revision of Defense Cooperation Guidelines

Nations say new guidelines will be 'cornerstone for peace and security' in Asia-Pacific region while also serving as 'platform for a more stable international security environment' More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
‘Angel of the Migrants’ Helps Desperate Syrians Arriving in Europei
X
Henry Ridgwell
April 26, 2015 10:36 PM
Waves of migrants are continuing to arrive on the shores of southern Italy from North Africa. After their dangerous journey across the Mediterranean, they face an unknown future in Europe. In the Sicilian city of Catania there is an activist dedicated to helping the refugees on their journey.
Video

Video ‘Angel of the Migrants’ Helps Desperate Syrians Arriving in Europe

Waves of migrants are continuing to arrive on the shores of southern Italy from North Africa. After their dangerous journey across the Mediterranean, they face an unknown future in Europe. In the Sicilian city of Catania there is an activist dedicated to helping the refugees on their journey.
Video

Video Ten Years After Riots, France Searches for Answers to Neglected Suburbs

January’s terrorist attacks and fears of more to come are casting a spotlight on France’s neglected suburbs. Home to many immigrants, and sometimes hubs of crime, they were rocked by rioting a decade ago. Lisa Bryant visited the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, where the 2005 violence first broke out, and has this report about what has changed and what has not.
Video

Video Gay Marriage Goes Before US Supreme Court

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether gay people have a constitutional right to marriage. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, the case could lead to the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage, or a continuation of the status quo in which individual states decide whether to recognize gay unions.
Video

Video Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populations

A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Data Servers Could Heat Private Homes

As every computer owner knows, when their machines run a complex program they get pretty hot. In fact, cooling the processors can be expensive, especially when you're dealing with huge banks of computer servers. But what if that energy could heat private homes? VOA’s George Putic reports that a Dutch energy firm aims to do just that.
Video

Video Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festival

Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video UN Confronts Threat of Young Radicals

The radicalization and recruitment of young people into Islamist extremist groups has become a growing challenge for governments worldwide. On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council heard from experts on the issue, which has become a potent threat to international peace and security. VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports.
Video

Video Growing Numbers of Turks Discover Armenian Ancestry

In a climate of improved tolerance, growing numbers of people in Turkey are discovering their grandmothers were Armenian. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians escaped the mass deportations and slaughter of the early 1900's by forced conversion to Islam. Or, Armenian children were taken in by Turkish families and assimilated. Now their stories are increasingly being heard. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul that the revelations are viewed as an important step.
Video

Video Migrants Trek Through Western Balkans to Reach EU

Migrants from Africa and other places are finding different routes into the European Union in search of a better life. The Associated Press followed one clandestine group to document their trek through the western Balkans to Hungary. Zlatica Hoke reports that the migrants started using that route about four years ago. Since then, it has become the second-most popular path into Western Europe, after the option of sailing from North Africa to Italy.
Video

Video US Businesses See Cuba as New Frontier

The Obama administration's opening toward Cuba is giving U.S. companies hope they'll be able to do business in Cuba despite the continuation of the U.S. economic embargo against the communist nation. Some American companies have been able to export some products to Cuba, but the recent lifting of Cuba's terrorism designation could relax other restrictions. As VOA's Daniela Schrier reports, corporate heavy hitters are lining up to head across the Florida Straits - though experts urge caution.
Video

Video Kenya Launches Police Recruitment Drive After Terror Attacks

Kenya launched a major police recruitment drive this week as part of a large-scale effort to boost security following a recent spate of terror attacks. VOA’s Gabe Joselow reports that allegations of corruption in the process are raising old concerns about the integrity of Kenya’s security forces.
Video

Video Japan, China in Race for Asia High-Speed Rail Projects

A lucrative competition is underway in Asia for billions of dollars in high-speed rail projects. Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia Thailand and Vietnam are among the countries planning to move onto the fast track. They are negotiating with Japan and the upstart Chinese who are locked in a duel to revolutionize transportation across Asia. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok has details.
Video

Video Scientists: Mosquitoes Attracted By Our Genes

Some people always seem to get bitten by mosquitoes more than others. Now, scientists have proved that is really the case - and they say it’s all because of genes. It’s hoped the research might lead to new preventative treatments for diseases like malaria, as Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Bible Museum Coming to Washington DC

Washington is the center of American political power and also home to some of the nation’s most visited museums. A new one that will showcase the Bible has skeptics questioning the motives of its conservative Christian funders. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Afghan First Lady Pledges No Roll Back on Women's Rights

Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani, named one of Time's 100 Most Influential, says women should take part in talks with Taliban. VOA's Rokhsar Azamee has more from Kabul.

VOA Blogs