Lawyers defend child rights in Myanmar during COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has left its mark on most countries in the world and Myanmar is no exception to this. Despite the fact that the Southeast Asian country only announced its first confirmed COVID-19 case in late March 2020 when other countries were already under partial lockdown, worries and rumours grew quickly among the population of 54 million, most of whom are avid users of social media.
The uncertainty was also felt among people involved in legal court cases. “After it was announced that there are confirmed cases in Myanmar, everyone in the country was nervous. Initially, the courts wanted to shut down completely which would have left thousands of people stranded in detention,” says Yu Yu Aung, a defense lawyer for the International Legal Foundation in Myanmar. The 33-year-old female lawyer from Magway is part of the EU-funded UNICEF multi-country programme ‘Protecting children affected by migration in Southeast, South and Central Asia’ that among others supports the International Legal Foundation (ILF) and the Legal Clinic Myanmar (LCM) on promoting access to justice for children in five states and regions of Myanmar.
Since the ratification of the Convention of the Rights of the Child in 1991, the Government of Myanmar has shown commitment to advancing and protecting the rights of children in conflict with the law. This was demonstrated most recently by the adoption of the new Child Rights Law in July 2019. However, the criminal justice system In Myanmar is underfunded, lacks essential resources and is based on a more traditional, punitive model - an approach to justice that is particularly unsuitable for children.
During 2019, juvenile courts in Myanmar processed more than 7,885 juvenile cases across the country. But the justice system was not always successful in effectively using diversion and other alternatives to incarceration, subjecting hundreds of children to deprivation of liberty for minor or non-criminal offenses.
The UNICEF-supported lawyers were worried that the COVID-19 outbreak could aggravate the situation of children in conflict with the law even further. “We advocated against the complete halt of the court procedures together with other legal organizations,” Yu Yu Aung continues. “Most of the courts are still open at least for critical hearings, but in some areas, the legal departments are still trying to figure out how to organize their procedures during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many trials are being delayed and we are also struggling to speak with our clients in detention, because all visits have been suspended and access to technology, even phones, is not allowed or not available. We are worried about coronavirus infections reaching our clients in detention. Our main goal right now is to get people home safely.”
The current limitations due to COVID-19 make the work of the defense lawyers working with UNICEF support even more difficult. And the pandemic also has obviously negative effects on the many children the lawyers are protecting. “I recently represented 13 children in two different juvenile cases. The children were from northern Rakhine State. They fled their homes because of the conflict and poverty. They were told there was work for them in Malaysia, so they tried to make it to Malaysia with help from a smuggler. They got as far as Yangon and were picked up by the police. Since they had no valid identification, they were charged under the 1949 Resident Registration Act of the Union of Myanmar and kept in detention. I defended these children in court and the magistrate found all of the children to be innocent,” Yu Yu Aung explains.
“It is absolutely critical for me to meet with my clients, but it has become very challenging during the pandemic. When the children were brought to court, they smiled at me and greeted me. I defended them to the best of my ability and the judge acquitted them and said they should be released. However, immediately after this, they were taken from the courtroom and brought back to the training school where they were detained to await transportation back to Rakhine. I was not allowed to speak with them.”
For Yu Yu Aung however, her work does not stop with the court ruling. “I managed to speak with their families to make sure the children made it home ok. They told me that the children were held in quarantine centres near their families due to COVID-19 risks. The parents were so happy to have them home, and that made me very happy as well. Some of the children even called me from the quarantine centre. They thanked me and told me that they arrived in their hometown safe and sound.”
33-year-old Mra Thuzar is another dedicated young lawyer working closely with UNICEF on children’s access to justice. The mother of a 3-year-old daughter holds a law degree from Sittwe University and runs the local office of the Legal Clinic Myanmar (LCM) in the capital of Rakhine State. She has been with LCM for seven years and has represented hundreds of children.
Mra Thuzar agrees that COVID-19 has further complicated her work. “Everybody feels worried and stressed during the pandemic. We have information that the number of cases of domestic violence has increased in comparison with the time before COVID-19. The whole stay-at-home situation has negative effects on both adults and children. For children who become victims of domestic abuse, legal counselling and legal aid service are vitally important.”
“With the current travel and movement restrictions in place,” Mra Thuzar continues, “villagers cannot come to their court appointments in Sittwe and many cases between me and my clients can only be discussed by phone. But we are worried, because we feel that some things between a lawyer and a client, especially a child, should only be discussed in private and face-to-face.”
Yu Yu Aung, who is in her third year as a lawyer with the ILF office in Yangon and - like Mra Thuzar - is also a young mother, shares these sentiments: “Especially when I represent children, as I do under the UNICEF-supported programme, representation goes far beyond defending rights and liberties in court. I spend a lot of time with my clients and their families to explain what exactly is happening with the case and how they can get themselves better prepared. This is also essential in building trust with my clients and for me to understand if there are any special needs like medical conditions or other challenges inside the home.”
Both Yu Yu Aung and Mra Thuzar are also constantly involved in acquiring more skills for themselves and their teams, but also in teaching and sharing their knowledge with other professionals in the field: “Having a lawyer doesn’t help unless the lawyer is qualified. Together with my team we are always continuing our training to become better lawyers so we can protect our clients. We discuss our cases with the ILF International Fellows who mentor us. Together we review motions and discuss legal strategies. As a team, we share successes and difficulties that we face in our cases and continuously discuss how we can succeed in future cases. We ask ourselves at all times how we can put the words of the law into action. Additionally, we have frequent meetings with juvenile justice specialists where we discuss issues and challenges with our representation of children and best practices,” Yu Yu Aung concludes.
Myanmar has maintained a relatively low number of confirmed COVID-19 cases (262 as of 15 June 2020) compared to other countries in the region and partial lockdowns, curfews and travel restrictions throughout the country are cautiously being lifted.
For Yu Yu Aung and Mra Thuzar and their teams at ILF and LCM, this means that direct contact with the children they represent, and their families might become much easier again some time very soon.
Numbers and figures for the UNICEF partnership with ILF and LCM
In the first five months of 2020, a total of 126 children in conflict with the law (83 boys and 43 girls) in Myanmar have received legal services from the UNICEF implementing partners ILF and LCM under the EU-funded programme. Among them, 28 children were released from trial outcomes, while 19 were released at the pretrial stage. In addition, 44 children (24 boys and 20 girls) have received in-person legal consultations on various issues from the LCM team without a need for formal court representation and 39 phone calls were received through the LCM-operated legal aid hotline.
As part of the integrated overall capacity-building strategy to increase awareness on the rights of children in contact with the law, the LCM team has so far conducted 29 legal awareness training sessions across the country, reaching 879 participants (371 male and 498 female). The participants included representatives from government departments such as the Department of Social Welfare (DSW), Township Child Rights Committees, Camp Management Committees, village tract administrators as well as religious leaders, members of NGOs and community workforce members. More than half of the participants (51 per cent) were adolescents.
More about the programme ‘Protecting children affected by migration in Southeast, South and Central Asia’: https://www.unicef.org/myanmar/child-protection/children-move
About the International Legal Foundation (ILF)
The ILF is a non-profit organization founded to address this global crisis in access to justice. In Myanmar and around the world, the ILF provides quality criminal defence services and builds sustainable, effective legal aid institutions.
Working with UNICEF Myanmar, the ILF is training defence lawyers and other stakeholders in child-friendly justice. Funded by the European Union initiative to protect children affected by migration in Southeast, South, and Central Asia, the project also focuses on diverting children from the criminal justice system and promoting alternatives to detention under the new Child Rights Law.
About the Legal Clinic Myanmar (LCM)
LCM is a non-profit local organization registered with the Myanmar Union-level government. Comprised of over 50 lawyers, LCM has been committed to addressing access to justice and rule of law issues including human rights across the country. LCM’s key approaches include prevention and promotion of legal rights, legal remedy and legal and policy advocacy through different activities such as legal education and awareness, free legal aid services, forum and workshops with state actors.
In partnership with UNICEF, LCM is working on child rights and legal education in order to reduce and prevent child abuses and violence. With close cooperation with community paralegals, we also provide free legal aid services for children who are in need. We also conduct legal and child rights awareness targeting state-actors to strengthen law enforcement on child-related issues. LCM also engages in dialogues on policy and legal reform on promotion of child access to justice.