The lawyer battling with the Burmese judiciary

The lawyer battling with the Burmese judiciary

Robert Sann Aung, a former political prisoner, is known in Burma as the lawyer who champions lost causes. Yangon, 13 November 2015.

(Guillaume Pajot / Pierre Fourdin)

Robert Sann Aung receives visits in the middle of drying laundry and heaps of files. Dishes are piled up in the kitchen sink. The lawyer, one of the most famous in Burma (officially known as Myanmar), uses this cluttered apartment as an office.

Since the very start of his career, Robert Sann Aung, aged 63, has been working to defend human rights. Everyone in Burma is familiar with his mop of dark hair and his piercing gaze.

The lawyer always presents visitors with his business card. It reads: “Six-time former political prisoner.” Robert Sann Aung has spent several years in the jails of the Burmese military junta, and from 1993 to 2012 he was disbarred.

His clients have often suffered the same prison conditions and deprivations of liberty as him. They include journalists, farmers whose land has been expropriated, students battling against the army and police. He defends them all pro bono. “I don’t ask them to pay. Most of the activists in Burma are poor,” he explains to Equal Times.

Robert Sann Aung has defended over a thousand cases, including 300 political. He earns a living from his criminal cases.

His vocation dates back to his childhood and was inspired by his uncle, a judge, who he greatly admired and would question at length.

His law studies led him towards trade unionism and activism in the universities in turmoil. In 1988, amidst the student protests lethally repressed by the Ne Win dictatorship, the young lawyer spoke out strongly in favour of the rule of law. And he intends to keep up the fight.

The sixty-something year old works tirelessly, assisted by a dozen or so apprentices. When files have to be examined until late into the night, they sleep at their mentor’s apartment. “I’m very happy to work with him,” says one of the young assistants. “It’s not always easy, but we learn a great deal.”


Perverted justice

Robert Sann Aung is a lawyer who champions lost causes. He pleads all cases unflaggingly, regardless of their chances of success. He recently defended journalists from the Unity weekly news journal who had been jailed over an article about an alleged chemical weapons factory, as well as the students arrested in 2015 for demonstrating against an education bill. He also defended Gambira, a former monk and leader of the 2007 “Saffron Revolution”, who has been arrested on several occasions in recent years.

The two men met in prison. “Robert Sann Aung’s help was invaluable,” says Marie Siochana, Gambira’s wife. “I’m sure he did the best he could in particularly difficult circumstances, but the judicial procedure was a total disgrace. ’Corrupt’ would probably be the most fitting term.”

Despite the coming to power, in 2016, of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of the historic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese judicial system remains unreformed and under the army’s control.

Decades of military dictatorship have perverted its workings. Incompetence, intimidation, bribery…the damage is immense. Any attempt to fix it, moreover, could be blocked by the army. The military still holds considerable power in Burma. It appoints the Ministers of Home Affairs, Border Affairs and Defence and retains 25 per cent of the seats in parliament, giving it a blocking minority.

Burma continues to jail citizens for dissent. A simple Facebook status can be enough to land its author in prison. This is what happened to poet Maung Saungkha. In October 2015, he posted a poem with a verse that reads: “On my manhood rests tattooed a portrait of Mr President.”

The young man, aged 23 at the time, was prosecuted for defamation. Robert Sann Aung continued to defend him until he was finally released from prison. The poet, nonetheless, is under no illusion about the state of the Burmese judiciary. “Robert Sann Aung may well be clever and intelligent, but there’s nothing he can do against a destitute and corrupt judiciary.” Maung Saungkha is in regular contact with his lawyer, who gives him legal advice.

“Deep down, I feel I am an activist and a lawyer at the same time. They are both ways of protecting people. Defending human rights is my way of being politically active,” says Robert Sann Aung, who faces constant intimidation in the form of threats made by telephone or through Facebook.

“Very few lawyers in Burma have the courage to take on sensitive political cases, given the threats, harassment and other types of reprisals. But that doesn’t frighten Robert,” Laura Haigh, Amnesty International’s Burma researcher, tells Equal Times.

“No case is too sensitive or too difficult for him.”

Human rights defenders are under constant threat in Burma. On 29 January 2017, Ko Ni, a Muslim lawyer known for his stance in favour of religious tolerance and a legal advisor to Aung San Suu Kyi, was assassinated on his way out of Rangoon (officially renamed Yangon) airport.

Despite the dangers, Robert Sann Aung sees no end to his fight: “I will not retire until there are no more human rights abuses here. You know, even in a very civilised country like the United States, there are still many human rights violations, so there’s not much risk of me stopping work. Perhaps I’ll go into retirement when I’m 90. But there’s no certainty even of that.”


This story has been translated from French.