As junta squeezes courts, Myanmar’s lawyers are forced to face their worst fears

Mei Aye, a lawyer who visits Yangon’s Insein Prison at least twice a week for court appearances, has a ritual that she follows on the days that she has to pass through the gates of Myanmar’s most notorious detention centre.

The first thing she does is tell someone she trusts about her unfinished business. And then she makes a point of saying goodbye to all her loved ones, mindful of the fact that she might not see them again for a very long time.

She says she does this as a way of dealing with the crippling anxiety she often feels about the perils of her job defending political prisoners. This is because she knows all too well how easily she, too, could end up behind bars.

“I have to do these things in case I don’t get to come home from work one day. I never know when I will be taken away to an interrogation centre,” she explains.

As a defence attorney with 10 years of experience, Mei Aye is no stranger to prisons, which she says hold no real terror for her. But interrogation centres are another matter—she has seen too many of her clients after they have emerged from them not to live in fear of what happens behind their closed doors.

Many are badly bruised or scarred, she says, and some even have open wounds that testify to the brutality of the regime’s techniques for extracting information.

“I’m not a doctor, so I can’t really say how serious their injuries were. But I could see that they had been really severely beaten. And I am afraid of having to face the same fate,” she says.

Currently working on 28 political cases, Mei Aye deals with clients facing charges that range from incitement to terrorism and possession of explosive devices. In the eyes of Myanmar’s military, that makes her an object of suspicion, too.

She says her anxiety lifts only after the court hearings have begun. But as soon as they end and she starts preparing to leave the prison, the feeling of dread returns. And it stays with her for at least the next two days, filling her mind with vivid images of what might await her.

“I keep seeing the same scene over and over again: soldiers kicking the door open, rushing in, and torturing me in my own home. I sometimes find myself wondering how many blows I would be able to take,” she says of her state of mind during these periods.

But there is nothing irrational about these fears. While there is no official count, members of Myanmar’s legal community say that at least 20 lawyers have been detained since last year’s coup to face charges related to those of their clients.

‘Worse than ever’

Since seizing power in February 2021, the military regime headed by Min Aung Hlaing has taken over all three branches of government—executive, legislative, and judicial. Under its rule, the independence of judges has ceased to exist.

In February, a year after the military takeover, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) reported on the total collapse of Myanmar’s courts as instruments of justice. Among the issues it addressed were the treatment of lawyers—especially those representing political dissidents.

“Lawyers are often threatened in front of judges and are actually arrested in courtrooms for asking witnesses questions about torture and ill-treatment their clients have experienced or for requesting fair trials,” the report said.

According to a retired judge who served under Myanmar’s previous military regimes, the situation now is worse than it has ever been. While the courts have never been free or fair under military rule, it was never normal in the past for lawyers and judges to face such persecution, he said.

One major constraint facing lawyers involved in political cases is that the charges against their clients are usually laid by members of the police force. This puts lawyers at risk of provoking people who have the power to arrest them.

“Lawyers can’t avoid questioning the plaintiffs, who are usually police in these cases, if they are going to defend their clients’ rights. The police don’t like that, so they often pressure and threaten to arrest those lawyers,” said the former judge.

Some of the lawyers now behind bars represented high-profile figures from the ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) government, as well as prominent dissidents.

This includes Ywet Nu Aung, a Mandalay-based lawyer who was arrested in April following a hearing for Dr. Zaw Myint Maung, the deposed chief minister of Mandalay Region. Now being held at Obo Prison, where she was first taken into custody, she faces a life sentence on terrorism charges.

In June, three more lawyers were arrested in Monywa, including Moe Zaw Tun, the defence attorney for Myint Naing, a member of the NLD’s central executive committee who served as Sagaing Region’s chief minister until his arrest just days after the military takeover. Moe Zaw Tun also represented Wai Moe Naing, a Monywa-based protest leader detained since last April after being hit during a protest by a vehicle driven by regime forces.

Tin Win Aung, another lawyer who defended Wai Moe Naing, was arrested at Obo Prison on June 29 along with two other Mandalay-based lawyers. During his interrogation, he suffered multiple injuries, including a broken arm, according to sources close to the victim.

With so many reports of lawyers being locked up, it is little wonder that some avoid prison courts altogether, while others have gone into hiding. And this has had the desired effect of further isolating critics of the regime.

“They think they can hold onto authority if they can cut off all support for protesters who have become political prisoners,” said Mei Aye.

It is for this reason alone that Mei Aye refuses to stop her work, which she knows perfectly well is not likely to achieve any meaningful justice as long as the junta remains in power.

Since moving to Yangon in 2018, she has worked as a legal advisor for various organisations and offered her services free of charge to individuals arrested for political offences. Many of her clients have had no one else to turn to.

Mei Aye vividly recalls one case in particular. She said she received a call at around 11pm one night several months after the coup. At the other end was a panic-stricken woman whose first words were, “Please help my son. He’s been taken by the military.”

At the time, there was a 10pm curfew in place, and the woman knew that if she left her home to seek help, she would also be arrested. So she called Mei Aye, who had posted her telephone number on social media, and described what had happened just moments earlier.

“She didn’t know what else to do. She had just witnessed her son being beaten and dragged away. Lawyers don’t usually get emotional in front of clients, but I cried. I couldn’t stop my tears, because we both felt the same helplessness,” she said.

The next morning, the woman called again. She asked Mei Aye to come to the South Okkalapa police station, where her son was being held along with seven other youths.

When she reached the police station, Mei Aye saw a group of exhausted-looking mothers who had been forced to stand for hours as they repeatedly asked the officers on duty for permission to see their detained children.