Workshop Reflections: Public Interest Litigation & Cause Lawyering

Very pleased by the turnout of young Myanmar lawyers for the cause lawyering workshop last week. It was daunting for Myanmar lawyers to pursue any public interest litigation activities right up till 2011, as many risked being arrested and losing their licences to practice law. The workshop was conducted jointly with @ThanZawAung, one of Myanmar’s well-acclaimed and respected public interest litigators. Than recently represented two Reuters journalists facing criminal charges in the country.

We concurred that Myanmar and Singapore continue to be repressive regimes which makes it harder for anyone to pursue cause lawyering. Yet, I discovered that Myanmar is ahead of Singapore in some areas such as freedom of assembly – one just needs to notify the police prior to the demonstration without the need to apply for a permit. In Singapore, even a one-man protest can be classified as an illegal “assembly”.

Nevertheless, I recounted my experience in having had some success through cause lawyering when the laws on mandatory death sentence were amended. Another positive outcome was the Hougang by-elections constitutional law case when the Court of Appeal ruled that by elections are mandatory and not discretionary as asserted by the PM and the AG.

Compared to Myanmar lawyers who have allies and deeper support networks, mine was a rather lonely and arduous struggle. This was observed by Miss Jothi Rajah (in her article Of Absences, Masks and Exceptions: Cause Lawyering in Singapore). I ended my presentation by saying that despite the authoritarian rule of law in Singapore, the Court of Appeal Judges I appeared before were prepared to hand out judgements against the Executive.

I sense a genuine effort by the Myanmar government to improve the standard of fundamental liberties. I have been invited by a Member of Parliament to conduct training for the Myanmar parliament on rule of law issues and to assist the Parliamentary Committee on Rule of Law. So, see you again soon Myanmar.

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