RANGOON – Burma’s need for “rule of law” is a long-standing mantra of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi—a slogan the former political prisoner has held up as a contrast to the opaque and arbitrary nature of military rule.
With a civilian-led but army-backed government in power since early 2011, a wide array of social and economic reforms have been passed or are in train, though many of these, such as rules requiring police permits for public protests, have been criticized as restrictive. Still other laws, such as new draft bill on forming NGOs, have been praised, though the latter has yet to be signed into law.
“In our country law and order and better rule of law are needed,” said Nyan Win, a confidante of Suu Kyi and a 1968 law graduate from the University of Yangon.
Another small but significant step towards rule of law in Burma could come on Dec. 2, when the university will accept 50 new students as the country’s first undergraduate law intake since 1996.
“It is a significant development for the legal profession in Myanmar,” said the university’s rector, Dr. Tin Tun. “It will be a very good opportunity for our students to study law as Myanmar opens up.”
Since Burma’s abortive student-led uprising against military rule in 1988, which was led by students, many of them based at the University of Yangon, the country’s education system has been gutted. The university was shuttered from 1988 to 1993, and after more protests in 1996, undergraduate courses were put on ice by the ruling junta.
But now there’s a renewed thirst for learning, it seems, at the institution where many of Burma’s independence fighters studied prior to WWII and a short-lived dalliance with the invading Japanese. Prominent on the University of Yangon website is a banner proclaiming a “mission to renovate and upgrade”—a much-needed undertaking after decades of military-imposed sclerosis.
It might be some time, however, before Burma’s oldest and best-known university can come close to world-class levels of education, with the university’s website outlining a goal “to transform the University of Yangon as the one of the excellent academic institution, where people can learn world class education.”
The clumsy English is matched by the iffy state of the legal profession in Burma, said Nyan Win, who told The Irrawaddy that “the standard of lawyers is not high in this country, and the same for a lot of other professions.”
“This is not just recently, but goes back decades, when lawyers and others were trained under the socialist government,” he added, referring to the 1962-1988 socialist dictatorship under General Ne Win.
But Nyan Win, who recently spoke out against UN calls for Burma to recognize the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Arakan State, is not entirely averse to Ne Win’s legal legacy. “The Rohingya do not exist under Myanmar’s law,” he said, referring to the country’s controversial 1982 Citizenship Law.
Robert San Aung, a lawyer known for defending high-profile clients such as Naw Ohn La, a recently amnestied political prisoner, said that the dearth of lawyers in Burma raises the bar for people with cases to plead.
“The clients are facing difficulties to have an excellent lawyer and we, the experienced lawyers, have very few qualified junior lawyers who can help us,” San Aung told The Irrawaddy.
Money, ever a concern in Burma, which remains one of Asia’s poorest countries, is another curtailing factor.
“The junior lawyers can’t give the time to study because they get very low fees for a case. Some get $100 for a case and some get $150,” San Aung explained.
The University of Yangon’s intellectual decay was matched by its physical dilapidation, though changes are underway as the campus partners with the likes of Johns Hopkins University, Australian National University and Dulles University to update curricula and with countries such as Australia and Japan pledging to fund a revamp.
“We are happy to have foreign professors and foreign donors,” said Dr Khin Mar Yee, the head of the University of Yangon’s Law Department, herself a 1986 law graduate who later earned a doctorate from the university in 2003.
And though the university’s case was pushed by Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma’s Parliament, leading to the establishment of the Committee on Renovation and Upgrading the University of Yangon in December 2012, shortly after US President Barack Obama spoke at the campus, foreign backing is needed.
Although education spending has increased since the transition to civilian government, agencies such as UNICEF have called on the Burmese government to put more money into schooling at all levels.
Naypyidaw has acknowledged that it has a problem, noting in its Framework for Economic and Social Reforms policy document, published in early 2013, that “the average length of schooling is low compared to those of Cambodia, Lao PDR and Vietnam; the quality of education at all levels of the system is generally poor, and the ratio of government expenditure on education to overall GDP is amongst the lowest in the world.”