Some 50 Muslim lawyers from across Burma have banded together to form the Myanmar National Muslim Lawyers Association, which they say will help promote equality, freedom and fairness.
Founded on 4 June, the group’s secretary, Khin Maung Cho, said that their aim is to assist and represent anyone – regardless of their religion – in connection with incidents or alleged crimes which may have been motivated by religious discrimination. He said they would also fight for citizenship rights.
“Many lawyers specialise in human rights, but we never see them assisting those people facing persecution on grounds of citizenship,” he told DVB. “This means there is no one to help Burma’s Muslims. That’s why we thought it would be a good idea to work together as a group.”
Without specifying any community in particular, he added: “There are people whose livelihoods are threatened on a daily basis. Under the 2008 Constitution, every citizen of Burma is entitled to rights. But these rights are not applied equally to everyone, so those facing persecution are in need of legal protection.”
Burma’s 1982 Citizenship Law does not isolate Muslims in any way. However, the million-strong Muslim Rohingya community who live in western Arakan State is not listed as an indigenous group of the country and therefore does not qualify for citizenship unless they can prove that both their parents were Burmese citizens.
A great number of Burmese nationalist groups regard the Rohingyas as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and are vehemently opposed to their gaining citizenship.
“Regarding the persecution of Muslim people, several religious organisations have done what they can, but their capacity is limited; there are certain lines they cannot cross,” said Khin Maung Cho. “Human rights activists are also unable to effectively assist in these case. That’s why we decided to form this organisation.”
The move to form an association comprising only Muslim lawyers was met with criticism from several peers. Prominent Burmese human rights lawyer Robert Sann Aung told DVB he believed the group may prove to be counter-productive.
“Suppose the people of ‘Religion A’ form their own lawyers’ organisation; then the people of ‘Religion B’ might follow by doing the same,” he explained. “Then religions ‘C’, ‘D’ and ‘E’ get involved. It may harm the unity of the legal community.”
Similarly, Kyi Myint of the Myanmar Lawyers Network expressed concerns that the formation of the Myanmar National Muslim Lawyers Association may cause divisions among Burmese lawyers.
However, Khin Maung Cho said the only intention in forming the group is to promote equality, freedom and fairness.
He said the group is now working to register with the government and will then operate nationwide.