Rangoon Lawyers Take to the Streets—Again

By Dennins Aung Aung 17 October 2012

Some 200 lawyers held a demonstration along Maha Bandula Road in Rangoon on Wednesday morning to protest the lack of government response to their previous calls to resist the sale of the city’s 101-year-old High Court and the Police Commissioner Office to a consortium of local and Chinese businessmen.

According to one high-profile protester, High Court attorney Ko Ni, the colonial courthouses, which he says are part of Rangoon’s heritage, are to be turned into hotels.

He said the protest was permitted to accommodate 150 lawyers, but at least 200 arrived to participate in the public action.

Ko Ni said that they had already submitted a petition on three occasions to President Thein Sein and to Parliament urging the governing authorities to prevent the sale of the downtown buildings. He said the lawyers’ congress was yet to receive a response.

“The red-brick building … has been the High Court since colonial times and has continually been used only for legislative purposes,” Ko Ni said to assembled reporters. “Why should it suddenly be privatized as soon as democracy comes along?”

In 1998, soon after the military government had enacted laws on protecting cultural sites and national heritage buildings, both the central court and Rangoon district court buildings were listed as heritage sites. They were nonetheless employed as legal institutes until April this year when they were handed over to the Investment Commission with no explanation.

“The investors who won the tender said that they didn’t know anything about this national heritage status,” said Ko Ni. “They said they just bid for it and won. They said they only found out about the sensitive nature of the architecture afterward.”

High court attorney Aung Thein said, “The military junta imposed these laws on heritage and then allowed an auction for the same buildings. I’d like to say that the junta showed that the laws they enacted were not for them to abide by, but for only the public to follow.”

Another High Court attorney, Maung Maung Soe, said that part of the reason for the sale of the buildings was due to a significant raise in taxes on the offices. However, he said, “The two Houses of Parliament should have discussed the issue thoroughly before the sale was permitted to go ahead.”

Dressed in the black tunics that are familiar legal attire in Burma, the lawyers carried banners in Burmese and English with slogans such as “Don’t Desecrate Our Courthouses” and “Preserve Our National Heritage Sites.” They began the demonstration at 10 am and ended it quietly one hour later. There were no reports of disturbances or police presence.

A spokesman for the lawyers’ congress said the group intended to form a “free league” of lawyers in the near future, and would work on human rights issues.