By Libby Fischer, ILF International Fellow
With so many of the distractions and responsibilities of my daily life in New York City absent, I have time in Myanmar to focus on some of the basics, like living healthy. In Yangon, my alarm goes off early and I start the day with a run up the long avenue that connects the street with the ILF apartment to the glimmering Shwedagon pagoda. Getting used to running in Myanmar humidity was certainly an adjustment, but I like to think about what great shape I’ll be in when I get back to NYC. Along my route, many Yangonites stop and stare at me as I run by, but they almost always return my smile and my “mingalaba”.
A short taxi ride takes me to the office, and it’s always a fun adventure to try to use my small amount of Burmese to give the driver directions. If I’m lucky, the power won’t be out when I get there and I can take the elevator to the 6th floor and make my morning coffee. The Yangon ILF office in the morning is usually a busy place, with Yu Yu, Theingi and May all prepping for court appearances later in the day. I use the morning to conference the day’s plan and cases with the lawyers, to help them prepare for court and to respond to emails. The lawyers in Yangon are very used to working with fellows and are great about identifying issues they want to discuss.
The hardest choice of the day is deciding who to follow to court. In the Myanmar system, every case is essentially a trial right from the beginning, so the lawyers could all be cross examining witnesses in different courthouses at the same time. Even though court proceedings are in Burmese, I can actually tell a fair amount about what is happening by tone of voice, gestures and context. Thi Thi, the Yangon Office translator and paralegal, is also fantastic at giving me a written play by play as things happen and writing down the testimony word for word in English as it occurs. After court, we debrief back at the office on what happened that day and start to prepare for the next. Like at any public defender office there is always something else to do.
I think what has struck me the most so far is how similar it actually is to be a public defender in Yangon as it is in NYC – fighting for our clients’ freedom requires the same scrappy whatever-it-takes attitude. Recently I watched Yu Yu angrily jot down a handwritten motion for release on a piece of scrap paper in the hallway outside the courtroom after the judge arbitrarily refused to hear her request to release her 15-year-old client because the request hadn’t been made in writing. It reminded me of the times I had angrily handwritten a speedy trial motion in the hallway of New York City criminal court when a judge had refused to hear my argument. The laws and procedures may be different, but the spirit is the same.
Some things, however, are very different. Feral dogs roam freely inside the courthouses, clients plead guilty to avoid starving in pre-trial detention where food and clothes are not provided by the government, and judges sleep, talk on the phone, or even get up and leave while witnesses are testifying. If a lawyer has the audacity to object, the judge will often adjourn the case for two weeks to come back with a ruling on the objection. There’s a courthouse culture that frowns upon zealous advocacy and innovative legal arguments. This culture makes the ILF lawyers’ persistence and dedication to their clients even more impressive. Helping them battle it every day has been an adventure and an honor.