Justice in Burma

In a recent case that encapsulates the corrupt state of play in Burma's courts today, Than Oo and four other farmers were returning home by motorbike late on the evening on March 21 when they were stopped at the entrance to their village in Magwe Region of central Burma by a mob of about 20 construction workers from the site of a chemical factory.

The farmers were beaten with iron bars, dragged to a building inside the site, locked inside and left overnight in a semi-conscious state. The following day, the boss of the construction site quickly filed a complaint with police, saying his employees had been subjected to verbal abuse, including “rude words,” that the farmers had thrown stones at the building site, and had punched a member of his staff. The local court threw in a charge of riding motorcycles without licenses and, after a series of hearings, the five farmers were each sentenced to terms of more than 10 years in prison.

This absurd perversion of justice would be considered ridiculous in most countries, but in Burma cases like this are part of everyday life, their existence born out of judicial corruption, nepotism, and a gangster mentality that ensures that the wealthy and powerful are immune from prosecution while the poor and the innocent are routinely flayed in public.

As in so many cases where justice has been flagrantly abused in Burma, a look behind the scenes at the background to the incident paints a clearer picture. The main player in the incident was ex-Major Win Myint, the manager at the chemical factory construction site, which is located in the suburbs of the village of Sitsayan in Kamma Township, a rice-farming community in central Burma's arid Magwe Region.

The site is jointly operated by Myanmar Economic Holdings Co. Ltd (MEHC), a military-owned corporation, and the ubiquitous Htoo Group of Companies (HGC), which is run by Tay Za, who recently claimed to be the first billionaire in Burma.

According to the farmers' lawyer, Aung Thein, some weeks prior to the brutal attack, Than Oo and three other farmers (though not the ones who were attacked and imprisoned) filed a lawsuit at the Kamma Township Court against Win Myint and two other officials of the MEHC for illegally confiscating some 4,000 acres of farmland for the purposes of building a factory, and of destroying their crops. Than Oo's wife claims that the subsequent attack on the farmers was directed at her husband, and was ordered by the retired army major.

To further emphasize his power, the following day Win Myint turned the tables on the farmers and pushed through his own lawsuit. However, Win Myint's malice went one step too far. Upon hearing about the outrageous conduct of the company's manager, the villagers of Sitsayan crowded the courthouse to support the farmers.

Fearing retaliation, Win Myint convinced the judge at the Kamma Township Court to transfer the case to Minhla Township Court.

Ruthless retribution was sought against the accused farmers and each was given sentences of more than 10 years. For his role in the fabricated litany of crimes, Than Oo was sentenced to 11 years and 6 months.

However, the Rangoon-based veteran lawyer Aung Thein was not prepared to surrender the case. His team is part of a legal network organized by the National League for Democracy. It appealed the sentence to the district court in Minbu.

To the astonishment of everyone, they won the legal battle, and succeeded in getting the farmers' sentences cut to just three months.

Than Oo and the four other farmers were released last week from Thatyet Prison, where they had been detained since March, and returned to their village as free men.

However, this encouraging success raises a number of questions on the impartiality of Burma's judicial system. First, how could a township court and a district court differ so dramatically on lengths of sentence imposed for such minor crimes?

“It really is a rare success,” said Aung Thein. “However, the district court [in Minbu District] maintained the decision of the lower court [in Minhla Township] that the farmers were guilty. Nonetheless, it amended the sentences.”

And what about just rewards for Win Myint and his thugs?

“Than Oo's wife filed a lawsuit against Win Myint, accusing him of organizing the attack,” said Aung Thein.

“But the court decided the accusation was unfounded, imposed small fines on two of the employees who were involved in the attack, and dropped the rest of the charges.”

He added: “As you all know, Burma's judges today stand alongside the person or company that wields the power, such as MEHC and HGC, two of the most influential firms in the country.”

President Thein Sein pledged in his first presidential speech that the new government must carry out “clean and good governance.” Asked whether a reform of the judiciary should be one of the first priorities of the new administration, Aung Thein said, “Handing out the maximum sentence is such an easy job. Even a court clerk can do that.”

Taken at face value, Aung Thein's comments and accusations highlight the immense necessity for reform in Burma's corrupt judicial system.

In addition, the new government must move to seriously review the cases of more than 2,000 political prisoners, some of whom have been given inhumane 60- to 100-year sentences.

Another important question is: how many prisoners cannot afford to hire a lawyer or have no awareness of court proceedings and appeals systems? How many farmers similar to Than Oo are serving time for minor crimes that do not warrant the lengthy sentences handed down?

“I'd say that there is no independent judicial system in Burma,” said Aung Thein.

(This first appeared in The Irrawaddy, with which Asia Sentinel has a content-sharing agreement)