Robert Sann Aung

Dancing with dictators

Unbowed by prison terms and vicious beatings, human rights lawyer Robert Sann Aung has been battling Myanmar’s much-derided judiciary for more than 30 years

Sebastian Strangio
September 10, 2015
Dancing with dictators
Public defender: Robert Sann Aung at his law office named “Hygienic Legal Clinic”. Photo: Sebastian Strangio

After decades fighting for justice in Myanmar’s corrupt courts – and suffering a deal of injustice himself – Robert Sann Aung remains unbowed. “I hate dictators,” the country’s foremost human rights lawyer said, his jaw working a hunk of betel quid, the gravel of long experience in his voice. For three decades, the 61-year-old has defended human rights activists and others consumed by Myanmar’s refractory legal system. In that time he has seen the surreal qualities of the country’s judiciary from both sides: from 1993 until 2012, Sann Aung was banned from practising law and repeatedly imprisoned in harsh conditions, physically attacked and trailed around town by “special branch” military intelligence goons. Recalling his six spells in jail – a fact stated proudly on his business card – Sann Aung reels off the dates with courtroom precision. His most recent: “2008, June 19, Thursday, to 2010, December 17, Friday.”

We meet on a Saturday morning in May, in a small apartment on Thein Phyu Road in central Yangon – the bedroom, kitchen, legal armoury and all-in-one headquarters of Sann Aung’s pro bono “Hygienic Legal Clinic”. The walls are lined with glass cabinets filled with legal volumes, laced with bestsellers by Thomas Friedman and Hillary Clinton. Papers are scattered everywhere.

It’s Sann Aung’s day off, and he looks like he’s just fallen out of bed. He wears a white shirt and bright blue longyi as he shuffles from desk to shelf, his mop of black hair askew, fetching documents and answering a novelty plastic phone which rings – frequently – to the tune of Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You”.

“Democracy and human rights are the most important things for the development of the country,”

Robert Sann Aung

Sann Aung maintains a tireless schedule: weekdays for legal work, weekends for meeting journalists and other visitors. Since the reinstatement of his legal licence in mid-2012, he has taken more than 70 cases, representing journalists, protesters opposing a copper mine, jailed child soldiers, victims of land confiscations. All of the cases are pro bono, and Sann Aung supports himself by taking on additional civil and criminal cases. “Democracy and human rights are the most important things for the development of the country,” he said. “I’m also a former political prisoner, so I’ve always been interested to be a pro bono lawyer for political activists.”

Sann Aung has gained a reputation for doggedly arguing the law in a court system where the law often has little bearing on the outcomes of cases. Last year, he defended four journalists and a manager from the Unity news journal who were convicted and sentenced to ten years’ hard labour after publishing an article alleging that chemical weapons were being produced at a military facility in the central city of Magwe.

Sann Aung says the charges were baseless – “It was an illegal proceeding, an illegal order, an illegal appeal decision.” – and to make his point, he pulls out a copy of the 1923 Official Secrets Act (Section 2), which the Unity five were accused of contravening. Leafing through the browned pages, with their old-fashioned colonial-circular type, Sann Aung runs his finger beneath the legal definitions of “prohibited areas”, which he says was misapplied: “It was not a free and fair trial.” Currently Sann Aung is seeking justice for the widow of the freelance journalist Aung Kyaw Naing, also known by his pen name Ko Par Gyi, who died while in military custody in Mon State in October 2014.

In recognition of his work, Sann Aung was nominated in April for the Martin Ennals Award for human rights defenders, a collaboration between ten of the world’s leading human rights groups – the two other nominees are Ahmed Mansoor from the United Arab Emirates and Guinea’s Asmaou Diallo; a winner will be announced on October 5. The nomination brief praised him for taking on sensitive political cases with “little hesitation”.

Born in 1954 in Yangon Division, Sann Aung says he was attracted to the law from an early age. It started with a family connection: “When I was a child, my uncle was a judge, a township judge in Meiktila. When he visited my house, I asked questions about the law terms that I read in the newspaper.”

Sann Aung had his first encounter with political activism in 1974, during his first year of university. That December, student protests erupted when General Ne Win, the dictator of the day, refused to accord a state funeral to U Thant, the recently deceased UN secretary general. After a week of tumult, during which students commandeered U Thant’s coffin, the military responded with lethal force, killing more than 100 students. Sann Aung was arrested, interrogated and held for two months – the first in a career cycle of arrests and jailings.

Sann Aung finally received his law degree in 1982. One of his first cases was the defence of soldiers accused of high treason. For this he was accused of being part of the rebel Karen National Union and threatened with disbarment. As Myanmar shook to the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the young lawyer spoke out strongly in favour of the rule of law, which earned him another short spell in prison.

Following the 1990 election, which was annulled by the ruling generals, Sann Aung took up the legal challenge of Peter Linn Bin, an independent candidate in Pyin U Lwin, a town outside of Mandalay, who challenged the result. In return, he received threats from the military and, in January 1993, the suspension of his legal licence, a moment he described as a “professional ex-party death sentence”. Subsequent spells of prison – from 1997-2003, and again from 2008-10 – only hardened Sann Aung against the “dictators” who he says still run his country.

It’s not surprising that the lawyer remains sceptical about the much-vaunted reforms that have taken place in Myanmar since President Thein Sein took office in 2011. Despite increased political freedoms, Sann Aung’s own domain – the judiciary – remains stubbornly dysfunctional. “The judicial system is under the administrative power,” he said, still chewing betel, “and 95% of the administrators come from the army. Township, district and regional administrators are not elected persons; they are nominated by the military chief of staff.” He says that even non-political cases resemble “an auction system” where the biggest bribe wins.

However, some things have changed. Political trials are now held in open court, rather than secretive, private proceedings. All the same, Sann Aung says special branch officers prowl around high-profile court hearings, and the media is often blocked from entering. “Within five years you can speak freely with journalists, but that’s it. The changes are very limited,” he said.

Given the state of the courts, Sann Aung’s role is as much political as it is legal. “I use the media,” he said. “After finishing a trial, when I go outside, most of the media are waiting for an interview. So I tell them, to the public. But in court there is no fair trial.” Sann Aung predicts that as Myanmar moves closer towards landmark elections scheduled for November 8, the quasi-civilian government will revert to proven tactics. “The situation near the election time will get worse. More political prisoners will be arrested,” he said.

Khin Zaw Win, the director of the Tampadipa Institute, a Yangon-based policy institute, who also spent time in prison on political charges, agreed that Myanmar’s judiciary was “the last holdout, the remaining bastion untouched by reform”. When it comes to political or human rights cases, he added, “very few lawyers will touch them, and the judges all follow orders from above. [Sann Aung] deserves all the prizes and honours that come to him. The best thing he could do for posterity is to set up an institute to nurture more lawyers like him.”

For his own part, Sann Aung is modest about his nomination for the Martin Ennals human rights prize. “If an international organisation gives me an award it can protect my career and my life,” he said. “I don’t need money. But I hope I will get it, for our country.”

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