The International Commission of Jurists has released a new report about the state of the legal profession in Myanmar. The Irrawaddy provides a nice summary of the report and its key findings. I won’t bother resummarizing the report here, but I do think it worth commenting on a few aspects.
Most of the challenges mentioned in the report are quite similar to those faced by lawyers under military rule (as discussed in Nic Cheesman’s dissertation). In other words, recent political reforms have not necessarily changed the type of problems lawyers face, but has affected the degree to which those problems hinder the work of lawyers. For example, while ICJ still reports instances of government agents harassing human rights lawyers, lawyers do seem to agree that the room for them to operate has expanded considerably.
It is also interesting that reform of the Bar Council has emerged as a key demand. During the era of military rule, the Bar Council seemed to play a relatively minor role and evinced few complaints. Of course, this partly reflects the fact that lawyers can now openly advocate for institutional reform. However, even in private interviews, lawyers often expressed disappointment with the Bar Council or dismissed it as a tool of the government, but seldom pointed to it as one of the most important barriers the legal profession faced.
In a sense, I suspect the focus on the Bar Council reflects the legal profession’s increased interest in mobilizing on behalf of causes. Aside from lawyers associated with the National League for Democracy and other political parties, the legal profession remained relatively unpoliticized before 2011. Few lawyers mobilized on behalf of cause lawyering. Since 2011, more lawyers have participated in legal aid clinics and have protested government legal aid policies. It seems lawyers view Bar Council reform as the next logical step in ensuring that they can mobilize without undue government influence.