Suu Kyi 'rule of law' mantra distant hope in Myanmar

It is Aung San Suu Kyi's mantra for embedding democratic reform, but for many who endured Myanmar's authoritarian and deeply corrupt former junta the "rule of law" remains a distant hope.

Flashpoint issues such as land grabbing have intensified fears that the country's anaemic legal structures are failing to protect the poor and vulnerable despite sweeping reforms.

Rights groups also say impunity for recent outbreaks of communal unrest -- and alleged army abuses in ethnic conflicts -- have shown the law is struggling to keep pace with tumultuous political, social and economic change.

"We are still fighting for a fair system that applies to everybody... the law must be king," said Khin Maung Win, a former political prisoner who was jailed for three years in 2002 for distributing anti-state leaflets while he was a law student.

Now secretary of advocacy group the Myanmar Legal Aid Network, he told AFP that his country's legal system remains arbitrary, unprofessional and corrupt.

"We have had a bad history," he said. "In order to move on, ordinary people now must be entitled to legal rights and be involved in the process of change."

During the ulcerous junta era, experts say secret and summary jail terms were commonplace, deaths and disappearances blamed on the state went unpunished and courts were in cahoots with vested interests, including the brutal army rulers who milked the country's wealth.

Judges could be easily bought or cowed by powerful businessmen and politicians, while prosecutors and police wielded unconstrained power.

A fledgling parliament now debates legislation under changes imposed by a quasi-civilian government which took power in 2011, but the operation of the courts remains opaque and analysts say legal institutions are too weak to underpin reforms.

The law must quickly win legitimacy in the eyes of the public, said veteran lawyer Aung Thein, who is representing villagers who say they were forced off land near a controversial Chinese-backed copper mine in central Myanmar.

That issue, which saw Suu Kyi face accusations that she had sided with the mine owners in a report on the project, fired concerns that laws will be strengthened to reassure investors, rather than protect the rights of Myanmar's people.

"The administration still pressures the judiciary to act on its behalf," Aung Thein told AFP, warning that the country "will not advance" if political interference continues.

President Thein Sein has stressed his commitment to fixing the legal system and echoes Suu Kyi's clarion call for the rule of law to be binding.

Some repressive laws have been repealed or their enforcement eased. The press has been freed from the harshest rigours of the censor's pen and protest is now allowed -- albeit with police consent.

Efforts are also under way to retrain some district judges and local police officers, to educate them about their duties and the limits of their powers.

Even the powerful military has pledged accountability before the law -- although ongoing allegations of rights abuses during ethnic conflict in northern Kachin State and Buddhist-Muslim violence in western Rakhine state cast doubt over its sincerity.

Authorities have also released hundreds of political prisoners in amnesties -- a key demand of the West as it boosts engagement with the former pariah.

Dozens of jailed dissidents were pardoned last week, but rights groups say scores remain behind bars, accusing the government of using headline-grabbing prisoner releases for political gain and failing to address the question of accountability for their imprisonment.

The legal system must be re-wired, starting with amendments to the nation's army-drafted constitution of 2008, says Aung Thein, who was jailed by the former junta over his representation of dissidents.

Under that document the military maintains wide emergency powers, legal immunities and the right to appoint 25 percent of lawmakers.

And while it enshrines some basic rights, it does so for "citizens" only, excluding some minority groups -- such as the Muslim Rohingya.

Other major hurdles remain, including streamlining the tangle of laws established from British colonial rule through to the junta era.

But former jailed dissident Khin Maung Win said there are glimmers of a shift in attitude, if not the capabilities, of those who once exercised repression by reflex.

He has held talks with judges, prosecutors and senior police officers in Yangon and believes they are ready to address their shortcomings.

"I think they really want to change -- I never believed they would, the police most of all, but they really do," he explained.

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