Myanmar lawyers began a “yellow ribbon” campaign on Friday in Yangon to protest against the recent appointment of 20 former military officers to judicial positions on the country’s Supreme Court in a bid to end the appointment of military judges to the country’s judiciary branch.
A lawyer association in Naypyidaw began the campaign on Wednesday at Dekkhina District Court where supporters wore yellow ribbons and passed out fliers to oppose the “militarization of the judiciary” through the appointment of former military officers to judicial positions for which they are often unqualified.
Lawyers in Yangon and Mandalay began their own yellow ribbon protests on Friday to voice their disagreement with the appointment of the former military officers during the last week of August to serve on the Supreme Court.
“It’s OK to appoint them in military courts, but real judges should serve in civilian courts,” said Aung Soe, an attorney in Yangon.
Although Myanmar’s judiciary is supposed to be independent, critics contend that it renders decisions according to the will of the quasi-military, ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) on Thursday issued a statement, calling for an end to the practice of appointing military officers as judges by changing the country’s constitution to state that only those with legal qualifications and professional experience can become judges of the Supreme Court and other courts.
Four of the country’s seven Supreme Court judges are former military officers. The current chief justice, Htun Htun Oo, is a former lieutenant colonel in the armed forces, and was appointed by President Thein Sein. The three other judges — Myint Han, Thar Htay and Aung Zaw Thein — also are former military officers of the same rank.
“Myanmar militarization started in 1962, and it’s continued ever since,” the AHRC’s statement said, referring to the year of a coup that ushered in five decades of military dictatorship in the former British colony that used to be called Burma.
“Now the people are demanding the end of militarization of their institutions," the statement said. "This is particularly important for the judiciary which is to function as a separate branch within a democracy. The court so far functions as an arm of the administration and not as an independent branch.”
The AHRC also urged international human rights organizations to take an active part in supporting the yellow ribbon movement.
“These organizations have free and fair judicial power with skilled professional academics, [so] they can point out and force Myanmar authorities to follow international standard if the government wants to work on the qualified rule of law system in the country,” Min Lwin Oo, a Myanmar lawyer who works at the AHRC, told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “We believe it needs to be done.’
Yellow and black join forces
Lawyers involved in the yellow ribbon campaign are joining forces with medical professionals from the black ribbon campaign to combat the problem of military appointments in civilian government agencies and offices, Min Lwin Oo said.
Health officials had organized the black ribbon campaign last month to oppose the appointment of several former military officers — some of whom lacked medical experience — to senior positions in the Ministry of Health.
Ministry officials responded by saying they would end such appointments and ditched plans to fill 300 vacant ministry positions with military personnel, according to local media reports.
Min Lwin Oo pointed out that when the current quasi-military government led by Thein Sein, himself a former military officer, assumed power in 2010, many military officials were appointed to important positions in division and state police departments.
“They have made many mistakes during these [last] five years because they don’t know police procedures,” he said. “If these military officials are still appointed to these important ministries, such as the health ministry and the judiciary, there will be no free and independent decisions because officials have to work according to military orders. That’s why we asked that people face and solve this problem together.”
Myanmar lawyers plan to expand the yellow ribbon campaign to other parts of the country, especially township courts in Pyinmana, Lewe, Tatkone, Zabuthiri, Ottarathiri, Pobbathiri and Zeyarthiri and some municipal courts in the Naypyidaw territorial council, the Myanmar Times reported.
Reported by Bhone Myat and Khet Mar for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.