In the past year I have met him a few times, both in Yangon, Myanmar, as well as in Hong Kong. In these meetings and in my long discussions with him, I found him a very jovial man. He is bursting with life. You cannot guess that he has substantial prison terms twice: once for seven years in his student days, and later for 14 years as an adult.

This man is Thien Than Oo, an activist lawyer, whose efforts will be critical if Myanmar is to one day become a land where the rule of law can prevail.

During his 14-year prison term, he spent 10 years in solitary confinement. And, if you were to try to express your sympathy for such a long solitary confinement, he will just dismiss it saying, “Oh, mine was only for 10 years. That was a very short time compared to my other colleagues who spent much longer times—sometimes 15 years or more. So I was not the one worst off.” Having said so, he will likely laugh, with his entire body reverberating in the mirth of the moment.

A protest by the Myanmar Lawyers’ Network in Yangon.

I asked him once: “How did you manage during your solitary confinement?”

He answered, “Well, once I wake up in the morning, just inside my room, I would run around, at least three miles every day. Then I would take my wash [and] eat my breakfast. Throughout the day I would keep contact with fellow prisoners, using all kinds of methods. Sometimes, one would start a part of a song that would then be continued by neighbours in other cells and passed on to other prisoners in other cells even a long distance apart.”

Photo of three senior Burmese lawyers; Thien Than Oo is the one of the extreme left.

Thien Than Oo talked about prison life as if it is something quite normal and usual. I have talked to many other former political prisoners of Myanmar, and they share this perspective. They talk about prison life quite casually and always try to demonstrate that this was not something that happened to a few individuals but to hundreds of thousands of them.

General U Ne Win took power in Burma by way of a military coup in 1962, and ruled the country till 1988. Thereafter, there were some transformations in the style of military rule, but all this time unto now, it is the military that controls everything including whether you will be imprisoned or not.

When Thien Than Oo finally emerged from prison, having served his term, his lawyer’s license was cancelled on the basis of his having been a political prisoner. “I was called to court and then I was told: You have been a political prisoner, and therefore you cannot practice as a lawyer… This happened to so many others,” recounted Thien Than Oo, again in the same casual manner, which indicates to you that there is nothing exceptional in all this.

As he could not practice law, he maintained his Lawyers’ Chambers and became a legal advisor to younger lawyers. It was only recently, since limited democratisation has arrived Myanmar, that his license to practice has been restored.

A group photo of Burmese lawyers. Thien Than Oo is the bald man in a maroon sarong.

Today, Thien Than Oo attends court; he mostly appears in what are considered “political cases”, which many other lawyers do not want to get involved in. He fights on the basis of principles, although for the most part, principles, or even law, are a matter of little concern to the courts in Myanmar. There is a fighter in him, and you can see that he enjoys swimming against the current.

Talking about changes, he said, “yes there are some changes” and “there is more freedom now, to move about and to talk, and you are not put in jail anymore for talking quite freely and even criticising the government”. But, he added, “the freedom is very limited; everything is remote controlled by the military and many of the more valuable things in Myanmar also belong to the military”.

In the Myanmar Parliament, 75% seats are for elected civilians, while 25% are reserved for persons from the military. This equation he does not see changing in the near future.

However, like him, there are many in Myanmar, both among the educated and the many others that are not as educated, who want freedom and democracy. If things are really free and fair, almost everyone will vote for a democratic government. Thien Than Oo says almost every one you talk to in Myanmar says the same thing.

Thien Than Oo is a senior lawyer today. He is, along with many other seniors, trying to form an independent Bar Association in Myanmar. Since 1998, the authorities control the Bar Council and its sole function appears to be the dismissal of lawyers. Bar Associations are illegal. The idea of a lawyers’ association that could protect the rights of lawyers is what independent lawyers such as Thien Than Oo want, and they are seeking the support of everyone, including lawyers from other Bar Associations throughout the world to achieve their goal.

Thien Than Oo speaks at an International Bar Association in Myanmar.

As for the courts, four out of the seven Supreme Court judges are from the military and almost everyone owes their loyalty to the military. Many of the other judges are also from the military. It is a given that on all matters of political importance, the courts have to deliver orders in terms of the wishes of the administration. Despite this reality, and the dangers it poses on a daily basis, many people want to put up a fight to assert their innocence and their independence, and there are lawyers such as Thien Than Oo who are willing to support such citizens in Myanmar.

Such lawyers are working with resolve, irrespective of the results, so as to demonstrate the absurdity of the system that is not at all based on the principles of the rule of law. In fact, one of Thien Than Oo’s colleagues at the Australian National University, Dr. Nick Cheesman, has written a book titled “Opposing the Rule of Law—How Myanmar’s Courts make Law & Order,” which details the nature of Myanmar’s system.

How does a lawyer fight for the principles of the rule of law from within a system, when the system doesn’t merely ignore the rule of law, but exists completely opposed to the rule of law? An outsider may feel that it is a futile exercise altogether. However, Thien Than Oo and other independent lawyers in Myanmar believe otherwise. They believe that the system has to be reshaped by constantly exposing its weaknesses and constantly advocating reforms. In fact, the hope they live by is the hope of reforms. It is not a superficial hope, but the goal for which they have spent their entire lives.

Thien Than Oo explained to me wherefrom he derives his inspiration: “I vowed to my mother that I will fight to the very last. And I have kept my promise.” His only regret he said was that just a few years before he emerged from prison, his mother passed away and he could not attend her funeral.

Basil Fernando

Basil Fernando is a Sri Lanka born jurist, author, poet, & a leading human rights activist in Asia. He currently works as Director of Policy and Programmes at the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission. He has played a pivotal role in linking ordinary citizens striving for human rights principles at the grassroots to institutions working for structural reform at the policy level. Basil Fernando is a Laureate of the Right Livelihood Award, also known as “The Alternative Nobel Prize”. He received the Award in 2014 “for his tireless and outstanding work to support and document the implementation of human rights in Asia.”