Brendan Morrison (2009) Burma Lawyers' Council, Mae Sot, Thailand
It's been an honour to work for these men and women and an inspiration to see them persevere every day. I arrived here with an inexperienced interest in international criminal law. After working side-by-side with lawyers who had their practice shut down in Rangoon, elected parliamentarians who were thrown in jail without trial, and refugee law students who cannot leave their safe-house and await the day when they can help establish the rule of law in their country, my passions for this practice have been ignited.
Brendan Morrison writes a speech with the Chairman of the Burma Lawyers' Council, U Thein Oo, for a presentation at the Korean Lawyers Association in Seoul later that week. I am sitting at my outdoor desk in the back garden of the house that the men, women and children of Burma Lawyers' Council make their office, and many also make their home. Our chef Auntie Aye is cooking the usual lunch feast behind me, while my boss U Myo Win smokes cigars, rifles through the Burmese Penal Code, and sweetly sings that Beatles classic, "Hey Jude, dohn layt me dow."
The BLC was founded in 1994 by a group of Burmese lawyers in opposition to the military junta that has for too long controlled Burma. Forced into exile, they work tirelessly along the border to assist migrant workers and refugees, and advocate for the rule of law inside Burma. In addition to these activities, the BLC also operates a law school for a large class of Burmese refugee students, teaching them international law, the Burmese Penal Code, Burma's various constitutions, as well as legal theory, civil procedure, and the English language.
Since joining the BLC seven weeks ago, I have worked primarily with the Legal Analysis Department. Our main role is to report on the various legal issues inside Burma and document any violations of domestic or international law taking place. In this capacity, I have written reports on violations of the Bar Council Act, the Penal Code provisions against Slander and Defamation, and the applicability of Burma's former constitutions in current criminal trials. I am currently working on a paper for the BLC journal on whether the emergency labour scheme employed following Cyclone Nargis in May 2008 has exceeded any implied time limitation of what is permissible as an "emergency" under Article 2(d) of the ILO Forced Labour Convention, 1930. I have also written speeches for the Chairman of the BLC, U Thein Oo; communicated to foreign embassies on behalf of the Legal Aid Department regarding the validity of marriage certificates for refugee applications; and helped out on occasion teaching English and comparative constitutional law in the evenings at the law school outside of town.
Enjoying a meal with friends It's been a very interesting time to be focused on Burmese legal issues with the world's eyes momentarily focused on Burma and the criminal trial of its Opposition Leader and Nobel Peace Laureate, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. As the head of the opposition party in Burma, Daw Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for 14 of the past 20 years, a sentence that has itself been deemed illegal by the international legal community. Daw Suu Kyi is now facing a new prison sentence for violating the provisions of her house arrest following a thoroughly bizarre sequence of events which brought John Yettaw, a 40 year-old American Mormon, past her guards and into her home. The husky Yettaw allegedly swam across one of Rangoon's lakes, avoiding military patrolmen, and broke into her house one night motivated by "visions" of her distress. Daw Suu Kyi now faces a prison term of up to five years under the Law Safeguarding the State from the Dangers of Subversive Elements (a law whose very name typifies the lack of creativity so emblematic of oppressive regimes). A guilty verdict, which most in the legal and academic community regard as a certainty, would render her incapable of campaigning in the elections that are scheduled for next spring, the first elections in 20 years.
As a member of the Legal Analysis Department of the BLC, we have been releasing almost daily statements on the arguments being made by both sides in the trial and the constitutionality of the laws being employed. Ordinarily, monitoring trials is much more difficult in a country that doesn't publicize the few trials it bothers to carry-out. However the unusual international attention that this event has garnered has afforded greater ability to scrutinize the procedural and substantial violations of both domestic and international law that have been taking place. I have also been in contact with Jared Genser, a prominent human rights lawyer and Daw Suu Kyi's American counsel. Together we have tried to navigate the inevitable legal conundrums that arise in a country that currently has competing constitutions, and a trial that cites both as authority.
Spending the weekend with a Karen friend's family It has also been an interesting time to be at the BLC itself. This past spring, the BLC was proclaimed an "illegal operation" by the Burmese government, who issued arrest warrants for its Executive Board members. As a result, the General Secretary of the BLC, U Aung Htoo, and other top lawyers at the BLC have fled Mae Sot, and gone farther into exile, since it appears Thailand is no longer a safe-haven for them. Last spring, two members of the Karen National Union were assassinated in Mae Sot, and just last week, two members of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army suffered the same fate here in town. Despite these concerns, the lawyers at the BLC trudge onward. There simply is no other option for them, and even if there were, I am not certain that their passion for change would be subverted by safety concerns.
The town of Mae Sot is an eclectic mix of local Thai, Burmese refugees, and foreign aid workers. Many come with their hearts on their sleeves, chanting and sloganeering, and while a large number have become "long-termers" in the struggle for democracy and the rule of law, many more have withered from the frustrations of the seemingly helpless fight.
I live in a private home with a Karen and two Americans, each of whom is working in a different area of Burmese refugee aid-health, labour, and playground construction for elementary schools. Our three cats keep the house lively, and the plethora of cheap curries, sumptuous satays, and Leo lagers make life in town thoroughly enjoyable.
I have thus far had the opportunity to go hiking in the northern mountains of Thailand and to visit Kuala Lumpur on a visa run. I will finish working for the BLC at the end of July, at which point I will travel around Burma for three weeks before returning to Toronto.
Working for a small NGO in Southeast Asia is a slower pace of life than the one I have lived thus far, and the one I foresee for the future. Time is taken during the day for conversation over cigarettes, watching the rain, and helping to cook and clean. It's been an honour to work for these men and women and an inspiration to see them persevere every day. I arrived here with an inexperienced interest in international criminal law. After working side-by-side with lawyers who had their practice shut-down in Rangoon, elected parliamentarians who were thrown in jail without trial, and refugee law students who cannot leave their safe-house and await the day when they can help establish the rule of law in their country, my passions for this practice have been ignited.