Rule of Law or Rule by Law? Myanmar’s Transition to Disciplined Democracy – Panel event at SOAS

fullsizeoutput_bfeOn Friday, 28 April, I was part of a panel at SOAS Law School with journalist Francis Wade and academic Patrick Meehan, to discuss the human rights situation in Myanmar.

Based on my previous work experience with the International Commission of Jurists in the country for a few years, I highlighted the progress made and obstacles that exist with regards to the following issues: independence of judges and lawyers, unregulated investments  impacting human rights and the environment, discriminatory laws targeting women and minorities, and the use of blasphemy and criminal defamation laws to violate the freedom of expression.

Francis Wade provided an overview of the situation in Rakhine State, particularly since the October 2016 attacks/crackdown; UN claims of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, and call for a Commission of Inquiry; and discussed whether claims of ethnic cleansing/crimes against humanity have merit. He also elaborated on why the government rejects the charge and won’t allow a probe (bringing in its relations with the military). Francis is the author of an upcoming book “Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence And The Making Of A Muslim Other”.


Patrick Meehan focused on the renewed violence since 2010 in Shan and Kachin State that has been on-going alongside the formal peace process and the nationwide ceasefire agreement. He contextualised the violence through focusing on the longer term trajectory of processes of state consolidation in border areas. This covered the role of a xenophobic and militant nationalism at the heart of the Burmese state driven by a fear of internal division. Patrick also discussed the dynamics of the ceasefire period from the late 1980s to show the foundations upon which the current transition is built upon and to emphasize the continued control of the military in the country’s conflict-affected border areas.
The event was hosted by the Centre for Human Rights at SOAS and chaired by international human rights law Professor Lutz Oette.

My article on Myanmar in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs.

“Myanmar has a duty to protect the country’s Rohingya minorities and their rights. Moreover, it must be willing to act based on principles of non-discrimination and non-segregation. Despite promises to do just this, Myanmar has failed to consider acceding to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Myanmar has, however, signed the International Covenant on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, meaning it must now recognize its obligations under international human rights law to uphold its commitment not to discriminate based on race, religion, or national origin. A failure to live up to these standards could result in a Commission of Inquiry by the UN and a referral to the International Criminal Court for those responsible for grave human rights violations. If Myanmar chooses to continue denying human rights and undermining the rule of law, then the international community has a responsibility to act decisively and hold those guilty of committing crimes against humanity legally accountable for their actions.”

For my full article in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, please see here:

Speaking in a panel on Burma: SOAS Centre for Human Rights Law, 28 April, Friday 5-7pm

Rule of Law or Rule by Law? Myanmar’s Transition to ‘Disciplined’ Democracy

Friday 28 April 2017
5pm-7pm in Room S 209
Senate House, North Block, SOAS University of London – All Welcome

A panel discussion with:

Dr Patrick Meehan

Global Challenges Research Fund Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Development Studies, SOAS

Ms Vani Sathisan

Former International Legal Adviser (Burma) for the International Commission of Jurists

Mr Francis Wade

Journalist and researcher specialising in Myanmar

Chair: Dr. Lutz Oette

Burma Poster v2

Interview in Tamil re. Rule of Law issues in Burma and Sri Lanka

IBC Tamil, a London-based Tamil news channel, reached out to me for an interview about the human rights situation in Burma. In particular, we discussed the UN Human Rights Council’s decision in March to urgently dispatch a fact-finding mission to Rakhine State, the laws and policies entrenching discriminatory treatment and persecution of the Rohingya, as well as freedom of expression issues in both Burma and Sri Lanka. For those of you who can understand the Tamil language, you can find the video here:

Doughty St Women – What more can the law do for women? A festival celebrating International Women’s Day. 

It was an honour and pleasure to be invited by Doughty Street Chambers, a British set of leading specialist barristers who are involved in national and international tribunals on issues ranging from International criminal law to international human rights law, to celebrate their 2nd annual festival commemorating International Women’s Day. The festival was an all-day seminar involving panelists of lawyers, judges, NGOs and civil society activists who shared their experiences, expertise and knowledge and discussed how the law could be used to support women, address gender imbalance, and provide redress for grievances faced by women.

Violence Against Women and Girls

Chair: Keina Yoshida (Doughty Street Chambers)

Dr Helen Durham AO (Director of International Law and Policy at the International Committee of the Red Cross)

Pragna Patel (Southall Black Sisters)

Lisa Gormley (London School of Economics)

“2017 marks the 25th anniversary of UN CEDAW’s General Recommendation 19 on violence against women.  Since that time, international standards on violence against women and girls have markedly improved. Despite this, violence against women and girls, in its many manifestations, remains prevalent both domestically and internationally. The UK has more to do in this area, particularly by ratifying and implementing the Istanbul Convention.  This expert panel considers some of the means through which we combat VAWG and highlights the on-going challenges faced by lawyers, advocates and those on the ground to protect, prevent, respect and fulfil women’s rights to live without violence.”

I was particularly moved by Pragna Patel’s speech on the lack of proper accountability when it comes to women’s rights violations and how women are deterred from speaking up because, even in the UK, they have been arrested and charged in some instances where they had reported violence against women and girls.

Pragna highlighted how activism works because what happens inside the courtroom can only reflect what we the people want outside the court. Citing the domestic violence cases of Seetha Kaur and Kiranjit Ahluwalia, Pragna said that perpetrators forum shop to commit crimes where they believe they can get away easily. She said that we must stop providing lethal patriarchal spaces and States must stop making excuses.

She stated how deeply worrying it is that Prime Minister Theresa May wants out from the ECHR, as that will lead to a vacuum in legislation protecting GBV. We must not retreat from international human rights norms and have parallel legal systems. She concluded by saying that the struggle to keep law and religion separate is probably the biggest struggle feminists face today.

Helen Durham from the ICRC talked about how reintegrating girl child soldiers is very difficult but during armed conflict, women show incredible tenacity and resilience. They change the ways they traditional engage with their communities, become breadwinners, etc. They are not just victims but play incredible roles. She talked about prosecution, prevention and practical issues.

Having the weight of jurisprudential issues now is demonstration that we’re progressing in having the issue on the table. There has been extraordinary progress in Akayesu case, where the ICTR ruled that sexual violence could amount to genocide and CaH. Similarly, “comfort women” she had worked with knew that they won’t ever get justice but felt great that what happened to them is now recognised as a crime that one can be prosecuted for. The symbolic value of jurisprudence that identifies it is unacceptable to treat women this way is huge.

She talked about how armed conflict exacerbates preexisting inequalities in society and it’s incredibly important to speak with women and tap into their knowledge and expertise. In South Sudan, the ICRC understood the practical implications of lighting in refugee camps and in the DRC, the ICRC set up listening houses where women could talk about their experiences and psychological stigmatisation.

Lisa Gormley, who was part of the drafting of the Istanbul Convention, discussed the document and how it is extremely important in addressing the implementation gap when it comes to the physical, psychological, sexual, and economic violence that women endure. Citing cases such as Bulgaria v MC, and analysing articles 8, 9 and 11, amongst others, Lisa emphasised that gender based forms of persecution must be recognised and that we must have a more complete response to women survivors of sexual violence.

Pragna answered some questions stating with the new immigration rules change, you see everyday border agents. The police is obliged more to confirm the immigration status of the complainant and the affected woman is returned to her country of origin without any recognition of her roots here in the UK or the persecution she will face back home. It is important to highlight these stories and make it central in the Violence against Women and Girls campaign, strategies and policies. It is critical to campaign in inter-sectional ways and also tackle the implications of the UK’s immigration policies. We need to be visible and multi-dimensional. When you pack out galleries, raise awareness and protest, judges can see that there is public scrutiny.

Women and Prisons

Chair: Aswini Weereratne QC (Doughty Street Chambers)

Jane Ryan (Solicitor, Bhatt Murphy)

Frances Crook (Howard League for Penal Reform)

Ulele Burnham (Doughty Street Chambers)

“In March 2007 Baroness Corston’s review of vulnerable women in the criminal justice system was published, calling for a radically different, woman-centred approach, and scrapping large prisons which act as social dustbins for vulnerable women. A decade on, little has changed.  Indeed, many aspects of the system have worsened – the closure of HMP Holloway will result in London women being placed further away from their children and support networks.  Transgender women are placed in male prisons, and there have been three apparently self-inflicted deaths of trans prisoners in the past year.  This expert panel will consider the urgent need for change and what can and should be done.”

Women’s Rights in the US: A view from across the water in the age of Trump

“Linda Moreno, renowned American criminal and human rights attorney, and an Associate Tenant at Doughty Street Chambers, will give her perspective on how women’s rights are being impacted by a new Presidential administration. She will also discuss how federal and state prison systems treat women, with reference to current cases.”

Reproductive Rights

Chair: Angela Jackman (Partner, Simpson Millar)

Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC (Doughty Street Chambers)

Merry Varney (Partner, Leigh Day)

Dilys Cossey OBE (Abortion rights and reproductive health campaigner)

“Our expert panel will consider questions of autonomy and reproductive rights.  2017 is the 50th anniversary of the ground-breaking Abortion Act 1967, and we will discuss its importance, the campaign to decriminalise abortion, and the need for change in Northern Ireland.  We will also consider important developments in fertility and reproductive rights, including three parent birth certificates, access to IVF services and surrogacy.”

Fair Play: Gender, Sport and the Law

Chair: Heather Williams QC (Doughty Street Chambers)

Eniola Aluko (Chelsea FC and England footballer)

Kendrah Potts (Director, Mishcon de Reya)

Sophie Cook (TV presenter, sports photographer and campaigner)

“Recent years have seen huge strides in the way that women’s sport is perceived, funded and represented.  From the Lionesses’ record 3rd place finish in the 2015 World Cup to the incredible medal haul from the Rio Olympics, women’s sport is flourishing.  So too is the visibility of women in other areas of sporting life: from pundits to referees to lawyers, the sight of a woman in what was always a ‘man’s world’ is becoming less and less remarkable.  Yet, compared with their male counterparts, women continue to be underfunded, underexposed, and, still, under far more scrutiny.  We’re delighted to have such an illustrious panel of speakers to discuss what more the law can do to help women secure a level playing field.”

Women’s Voices: Getting Heard 

Baroness Helena Kennedy QC (Doughty Street Chambers)

Fatima Manji (News correspondent, Channel 4 News)

Sara Ryan (#JusticeforLB campaign)

Gill Phillips (Director of Editorial Legal Services, The Guardian)

Cris McCurley (Partner, Ben Hoare Bell LLP)

“In 2016, attempts to silence women moved from Twitter to the floor of the House of Representatives.  As women take to the streets in their masses to loudly call out misogyny, it’s time to change the conversation.  We bring together some brilliant, vocal women – heroes of campaigns, the legal world and broadcasting – to speak about their experiences and to start a conversation about how best to ensure women are heard with authority.”


“Baroness Helena Kennedy QC will round up some of the themes which arise during the conference, and will invite delegates to make their pledges as to how they plan to use the law to better support the women whose interests they represent.”

Quoted in The Myanmar Times re. U Ko Ni.

“Days after a prominent public figure was the subject of a daylight “political assassination”, shot dead in the middle of a crowded, public space, presumptions of security that were previously taken for granted – at least in an urban, Yangon experience – have been rendered obsolete. In its place has emerged a new, pervasive fear. How could such a violent, public act occur within a democracy, one that restricts personal gun ownership?

The murder of lawyer U Ko Ni, termed a “terrorist act” by the ruling party, has revealed sensitive faultlines and tests the waters of the new government’s grasp over the rule of law. It also has obvious repercussions for the security of politicians, public figures and the public.”

“Although U Ko Ni was the one who physically died, the reality is that this murder represents the death of the rule of law,” said U Robert Sann Aung. “Since it happened at the international airport, used by the international community, this was a very daring act. It could not have been carried out alone. There must have been a circle of people behind this. It is the responsibility of the police to investigate all the possible connections.”

“It is extremely distressing that a man who fought to uphold the rule of law in Myanmar, and who genuinely championed for interreligious harmony, human rights, and independence of lawyers, has been taken away in such a senseless attack,” said independent legal expert Vani Sathisan who lived in Myanmar for three years and worked on international human rights law. She worked with U Ko Ni while setting up a human rights committee within the Independent Lawyers Association of Myanmar.

For the full article, see here:


Quoted in The Asian Correspondent on Freedom of Expression in Myanmar

There continues to be a lot of debate in Myanmar regarding the use of criminal defamation laws to stifle free expression. Despite a parliamentary commission in November 2016 recommending the removal of Article 66D of the Telecommunications Law, the law remains and is being debated at the Parliament. The high prosecution rates chill the freedom of expression and opinion, whereas those who propagate hate speech are not held accountable.

My quote on the issue is copied below:

“The penchant to turn to criminal defamation laws to punish free expression, by both by the military government and the current administration, chills the exercise of free expression of opinion and stifles the exchange of information,” Vani Sathisan, an independent legal expert who spent three years working in Myanmar, said.

“This right to freedom of expression protects every form of expression, including electronic and internet-based,” she said.

For the full article on The Asian Correspondent, see here: