Commit thyself to the Truth

What do you do if your judicial system is notoriously corrupt and lacks any semblance of independence? One option would be to engage in a massive overhaul of the judicial system, but this entails risks and, as Indonesia has demonstrated, can prove difficult. Another option is to blame the judges.
For several years now, Burmese political leaders have lectured judges on the need to rule in accordance to the law and avoid corruption. The implication in several of these speeches has been that many judges have lapsed and they need to reform their ways. Now, the new Chief Justice, U Tun Tun Oo, seems to be carrying forth the same message – if a bit less harshly. Here is an excerpt from a recent article in The New Light of Myanmar:

“All citizens will be under the protection of law to enjoy equal rights and the judicial pillar will be strengthened,” vowed Union Chief Justice U Tun Tun Oo at a meeting with judges, law officers and court staff at Yangon Region High Court here this morning.

The Union Chief Justice noted that judicial system stands to settle rows and conflicts among citizens, bringing about stability of the nation.

Righteousness, fairness, calmness and sobriety are strength of judiciary. Judges should be committed to truth and thus are to do away with corruption and bribery, pointed out the chief justice, urging them to safeguard the judicial system.

There are a few things to note. First, the chief justice did not say that all citizens will be under “the equal protection of the law,” although admittedly this could simply be a matter of translation. More significantly is his portrayal of the judiciary as settling conflicts among citizens. Nowhere does he mentioned conflicts between the state and the citizen. As I mention in my recent article about Myanmar’s new constitution, citizens do not have standing to bring suits directly before the Constitutional Tribunal. Thus, most claims between the citizens and state will have to be handled in the regular judiciary.

Finally, and perhaps most worryingly, Chief Justice U Tun Tun Oo made no mention of judicial independence. In the past, Burmese political leaders have claimed some role for judicial independence, but also stated that judges must cooperate “in harmony” with other branches. The constitution also takes that approach, saying the judiciary is independent so far as possible (a qualifier, but judicial independence is always a relative rather than absolute concept). Whether or not this omission is significant is hard to tell at this point. What I can say is that the chief justice’s speech does not represent a sharp break from the past.

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