Burma

Myanmar Lawyers Elect New Bar Council for First Time Since Military Regime

By Zarni Mann 6 August 2020

MANDALAY—For the first time in over 30 years, the Bar Council of Myanmar announced newly-elected members on Tuesday who will replace the existing council. The move is an important step forward that may offer lawyers more chances to voice criticisms and help improve the country’s judiciary system.

Eleven members were elected to the Bar Council on Sunday, including human rights lawyer U Thein Than Oo, U Khin Maung Than, U Nay La—the lawyer following the case of the assassination of lawyer U Ko Ni—and U Mya Thein—the honorary chair of the Myanmar Lawyer Association and the Myanmar Lawyer Network for Media.

The Bar Council is elected by all licensed lawyers in the country.

Four members from the Union Legal Aid Board, which was formed in 2017 with the lawyers from the National League for Democracy (NLD) party, were also elected.

Many lawyers said the election of the Bar Council is a successful step towards reforming the council after decades of control by military regime.

Lawyers said that with protection from the Bar Council, the newly-elected members could make historical changes to the country’s judiciary.

“Lawyers have been threatened for many years, in terms of freedom of speech,” said lawyer U Robert San Aung. “The Bar Council Act was reformed in 1989 and it no longer protected us but was instead under the control of the military regime back then.”

The Bar Council Act was first passed in 1929 and specified that councilmembers were to elected democratically.

However, after the Bar Council led lawyers to participate in protests during the 1988 uprising against the military regime, the regime’s State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) amended the act. The SPDC amended two articles in 1989 to say that councilmembers would be chosen only by the Chief Justice of the Union.

Since the change under the SPDC regime, there had been no elections of Bar Council members.

Many lawyers say that after the Bar Council members became henchmen of the military government, the council failed to protect the judiciary and the interests of lawyers or ordinary people.

“We, the lawyers, could not keep ourselves away from the country’s politics and we have rights to inform the public about lawsuits that concern the national interest,” U Robert San Aung explained. “But the authorities used to complain to the Bar Council about lawyers who spoke to the media, saying that the Bar Council had to take legal action against these lawyers, such as by terminating their lawyers’ licenses.”

“But now, we believe the newly-elected Bar Council will change the whole thing. It will be able to protect the rights of the lawyers and will be able to take part in the restoration of the country’s weak judiciary,” he added.

In May 2018, lawyers’ organizations tried to amend the Bar Council Act again to restore the system for electing councilmembers. The Bar Council Act was finally amended in June 2019.

Some lawyers say the election of the Bar Council on Sunday is a historic milestone that will change the judiciary and open up chances to voice their criticisms and needs.

“We have high hopes to protect the public under the legal umbrella—also to guide and empower lawyers and to be a council that stands strong before the lawyers to protect their rights, which will benefit the public,” said lawyer U Thein Than Oo, one of the newly-elected members of the Bar Council.

He said the Bar Council will first push for to amend the Bar Council Act to update outdated rules and regulations.

“The other thing to do is to represent the voices of the public and play a part in judicial reform,” he said. “The Bar Council will take part in empowering lawyers, protecting them and guiding them to be ethically skillful, so that unethical, unprofessional and corrupt lawyers shall be eliminated for the benefit judicial reform.”

Within one week of the announcement of the newly-elected Bar Council members, any person who wants to voice a complaint or oppose the election of a member can do so. After one week, if there are no oppositions or complaints, the first meeting of the Bar Council will be held and the former councilmembers will hand over duties to the newly-elected members.

Chief Justice of the Union U Htun Htun is set to chair the new Bar Council. The vice-chairperson and the secretary will be elected by the 11 new members of the council during their first meeting.

“The Bar Council is now formed with independent lawyers being elected democratically and I believe it will benefit the country’s judiciary in the future,” U Thein Than Oo added. “The lawyers have successfully emerged out of the dark days, however, we still have a long way to go for judicial reform.”

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