Myanmar: IBA condemns elimination of citizens’ rights and calls for release of detained lawyers

Wednesday 24 March 2021

The International Bar Association (IBA) strongly condemns the systematic destruction by the junta in Myanmar of people’s legal protections, including the right to life, freedom of expression, assembly, association, privacy, legal representation of one’s choice and a fair trial. The IBA calls for the restoration of citizens’ rights, and for the release of detained protestors and defence lawyers.

The arrests of legal professionals attempting to represent arbitrarily detained protestors, who were peacefully demonstrating against the 1 February 2021 military coup d’état, contravenes international law and norms, including the United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers. The actions are of deep concern to the IBA, as is the appropriating of law to fit the junta’s agenda.

IBA President Sternford Moyo commented: ‘The IBA supports and applauds the lawyers in Myanmar trying to uphold the rule of law while it is disregarded by the junta at every turn. On the streets, citizens are being murdered by security forces with impunity. Mobile phone footage shows first responders taken from ambulances and beaten with the butts of guns by men wearing uniforms that should represent protection for citizens. Civil liberties are being cast aside with irreverence and brutality is meted out with alarming consistency. Yet, armed only with professionalism and moral courage, lawyers are turning up at police stations to defend the detained. Despite sometimes jeopardising their own liberty and safety, lawyers are holding to the professional oaths they took (in relation to lawyers). The IBA admires them and calls on lawyers everywhere to show support for peers in Myanmar.’

The de facto leader of Myanmar’s National League for Democracy party (NLD), State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, along with the NLD’s President Win Myint, have been detained by the military junta since the beginning of the coup when its leader General Min Aung Hlaing declared, without evidence, that the result of the 2020 elections, won by the NLD, to be fraudulent. Criminal proceedings brought against Ms Suu Kyi include the alleged illegal possession of imported walkie-talkies.

Also arrested is U Nyan Win, Ms Suu Kyi’s personal lawyer and head of the Union Legal Aid Board – an organisation created to provide Myanmar’s indigent citizens access to legal services. In the wake of the arrest, Ms Suu Kyi has not been permitted to seek or contact alternative counsel. Through military tribunals and detentions, the junta in Myanmar is restricting political opponents and public dissenters. Neither group is receiving adequate legal aid in their criminal trials.

In addition, via amendments to section 124A of Myanmar’s Penal Code 1860, the junta is criminalising participation in anti-coup protests with a possible sanction of 20 years imprisonment if the arrested, being tried in military tribunals without a jury, are found guilty.

IBA Executive Director Mark Ellis commented: ‘The reports of some lawyers, law students and journalists being arrested or forced into hiding because they have become targets of the junta in Myanmar speaks plainly to a regime without merit. When the most basic rights of citizens are curtailed, that regime knows it is without legitimate standing. Today, with the military junta in Myanmar, we have such a situation.  To provide itself and its actions with a veneer of legitimacy it is now tampering with the country’s laws; ironically, an act which itself is illegal as the coup is illegitimate. The amending of Myanmar’s penal code to make criminals out of protestors who are demonstrating against the military takeover deserves all the international derision that it is attracting. The repressive legislation is an affront to the rule of law and designed to destroy Myanmar’s nascent democracy.’

Under Myanmar’s law, persons accused of committing a crime, especially those that carry criminal punishment, must be provided adequate legal representation and a fair trial before an unbiased judiciary. The targeting of lawyers representing those who view the junta as invalid is unacceptable in a society that values the rule of law.

Together with the IBA’s Human Rights Institute – which had an international legal specialist in Yangon for three years (2014–2016) to facilitate the development of a representative bar association – Myanmar’s legal profession established an independent national bar association with local consensus, to promote and protect the interests of the legal profession in Myanmar, to promote reform of the rules regulating the legal profession in Myanmar and to strengthen the capacity of the bar to function independently and democratically as a representative professional body mandated to promote and protect the rule of law in Myanmar.

Dr Ellis added: ‘Our support for our colleagues in Myanmar is unflinching and we remind the junta of Principle 16 of the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers which states that environments must be conducive to lawyers being able to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference, and shall not suffer, or be threatened with, prosecution or administrative, economic or other sanctions for any action taken in accordance with recognised professional duties, standards and ethics.’

Mr Moyo concluded: ‘Nothing can excuse the blatant murder of a nations’ civilian population by its own security forces. The head of the military gave election fraud as the reason for the takeover in Myanmar. Perversely, the brutality of the troops under his command who have rounded on peaceful protestors with live ammunition, killing or arbitrarily detaining them and the lawyers who bravely seek to defend the confined, would appear justifiable in his world view. The IBA applauds the European Union and United States levying sanctions against the individuals and groups linked to the coup, and the statement of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar.’

On 11 March 2021, Thomas H Andrews, the UN-appointed Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, said in a statement to the UN Human Rights Council: ‘Its [the Myanmar military] current leadership perpetrated the atrocity crimes that are the focus of the charge of genocide before the International Court of Justice… It should come as little surprise that there is growing evidence that this same Myanmar military, led by the same senior leadership, is now likely engaging in crimes against humanity, including the acts of murder, enforced disappearance, persecution, torture, and imprisonment in violation of fundamental rules of international law.’

Mr Andrews added: ‘Of course, a full investigation and a trial before a court of law are required to formally find crimes against humanity. And I know that the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar is collecting evidence on this point right now, but I implore all of you to look at the facts currently available, in light of international legal precedent finding crimes against humanity.’

As of 23 March 2021, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, 261 people have been killed since the start of the junta’s violent crackdown, 2,682 arrests have been made and 15 trials have been held behind closed doors, all of which have all led to terms of imprisonment ranging from two years to three months. 


Notes to the Editor

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  2. The International Bar Association (IBA), the global voice of the legal profession, is the foremost organisation for international legal practitioners, bar associations and law societies. Established in 1947, shortly after the creation of the United Nations, it was born out of the conviction that an organisation made up of the world's bar associations could contribute to global stability and peace through the administration of justice.

    The IBA acts as a connector, enabler, and influencer, for the administration of justice, fair practice, and accountability worldwide. The IBA has collaborated on a broad range of ground-breaking, international projects with the United Nations, the European Parliament, the Council of Europe, The Commonwealth, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, among others.

    In the ensuing 70 years since its creation, the organisation has evolved from an association comprised exclusively of bar associations and law societies to one that incorporates individual international lawyers and entire law firms. The present membership is comprised of more than 80,000 individual international lawyers from most of the world’s leading law firms and some 190 bar associations and law societies spanning more than 170 countries.

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