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Thein Than Oo is a lawyer and former political prisoner whose license was revoked for over 11 years after he took on numerous politically sensitive cases.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

Photogallery US to Send 3,000 Troops to Liberia in Expanded Ebola Effort

At US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Obama is to announce troop deployment, other details of US plans to fight Ebola outbreak More

China Muslims Work to Change Perceptions After Knife Attacks

Muslims in Kunming say that they condemn the violence, it is not a reflection of the true beliefs of their faith More

Humanitarian Aid, Equipment Blocked in Cameroon

Move is seen as a developing supply crisis in West Africa More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Enviropreneur Seeks to Save the Environment, Empower the Communityi
X
September 16, 2014 2:06 PM
Lorna Rutto, a former banker, is now an ‘enviropreneur’ - turning plastic waste into furniture and fences discusses the challenges she faces in Africa with raw materials and the environment.
Video

Video Enviropreneur Seeks to Save the Environment, Empower the Community

Lorna Rutto, a former banker, is now an ‘enviropreneur’ - turning plastic waste into furniture and fences discusses the challenges she faces in Africa with raw materials and the environment.
Video

Video West Trades Accusations Over Ransoms

As world leaders try to forge a common response to the threat posed by Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, there is simmering tension over differing policies on paying ransoms. In the past month, the jihadist group has beheaded two Americans and one Briton. Both countries refuse to pay ransom money. As Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London, there is uncertainty in the approach of some other European nations.
Video

Video Scotland Independence Bid Stokes Global Interest

The people of Scotland are preparing to vote on whether to become independent and break away from the rest of Britain, in a referendum being watched carefully in many other countries. Some see it as a risky experiment; while others hope a successful vote for independence might energize their own separatist demands. Foreign immigrants to Scotland have a front row seat for the vote. VOA’s Henry Ridgwell spoke to some of them in Edinburgh.
Video

Video Washington DC Mural Artists Help Beautify City

Like many cities, Washington has a graffiti problem. Buildings and homes, especially in low-income neighborhoods, are often targets of illegal artwork. But as we hear from VOA’s Julie Taboh, officials in the nation's capital have come up with an innovative program that uses the talents of local artists to beautify the city.
Video

Video US Muslim Leaders Condemn Islamic State

Leaders of America's Muslim community are condemning the violent extremism of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. Muslim leaders say militants are exploiting their faith in a failed effort to justify violent extremism. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports.
Video

Video Americans' Reaction Mixed on Obama Strategy for Islamic State Militants

President Barack Obama’s televised speech on how the United States plans to “degrade and destroy” the group known as the Islamic State reached a prime-time audience of millions. And it came as Americans appear more willing to embrace a bolder, tougher approach to foreign policy. VOA producer Katherine Gypson and reporter Jeff Seldin have this report from Washington.
Video

Video Authorities Allege LA Fashion Industry-Cartel Ties

U.S. officials say they have broken up crime rings that funneled tens of millions of dollars from Mexican drug cartels through fashion businesses in Los Angeles. Mike O'Sullivan reports that authorities announced nine arrests, as 1,000 law enforcement agents fanned out through the city on Wednesday.
Video

Video Bedouin Woman Runs Successful Business in Palestinian City

A Bedouin woman is breaking social taboos by running a successful vacation resort in the Palestinian town of Jericho. Bedouins are a sub-group of Arabs known for their semi-nomadic lifestyle. Zlatica Hoke says the resort in the West Bank's Jordan Valley is a model of success for women in the region.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid