Helping Myanmar to play by the rules

Irish lawyers are in the country to help develop the laws it needs to move out of poverty


These are heady days in Myanmar as the country emerges from decades of isolation under military rule and the southeast Asian nation gets ready to resume its place in the international community. A handful of Irish lawyers are playing their part in educating Myanmar’s nascent legal community to establish a legal framework.

This emerging country of 53 million people has only 49,000 or so lawyers, and only a few of these have any commercial experience. Many are in their 70s, having studied law before the start of military rule, in 1962.

Myanmar’s legal system, which is descended from English common law, saw little development between independence, in the late 1940s, and 2011, when the reform process under the military leader Thein Sein, who is now the country’s president, started to open up Myanmar (which used to be known as Burma).

Since then the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has taken her seat in parliament after a landslide election win in November for her National League for Democracy party, and she is negotiating a way around tricky constitutional barriers that forbid her from becoming president.

Normalising Myanmar’s relations with the rest of the world requires a legal framework that guarantees the rights of its citizens and offers a basis in law for international trade – essential if the country is to move out of poverty.


This is where Freda Grealy comes in. The head of the diploma centre at the Law Society of Ireland spent six weeks in Vietnam in 2011, working with an Asian nonprofit called Bridges Across Borders Southeast Asia Community Legal Education Initiative, or Babseacle.

Babseacle, which was founded in 2003 by a lawyer from New York named Bruce Lasky, trains young lawyers across the Asia-Pacific region to defend the poor and disenfranchised, and works with lawyers, students and justice groups to develop programmes.

“I was really impressed with their energy, enthusiasm and ethos,” Grealy says. “On my return from Vietnam I thought about how I might encourage or provide an opportunity for other Irish lawyers and trainees to do similar volunteer or pro-bono work in Asia in legal education.”

She approached Irish Rule of Law International, a joint initiative of the Law Society and the Bar Council to promote and strengthen the rule of law in developing countries.

Its co-ordinator, Emma Dwyer, saw the programme as a great opportunity for Irish lawyers to share experiences with colleagues overseas and support each other in strengthening the rule of law.

“The group of eight that travelled to Myanmar included both trainee and qualified solicitors, and it proved to be a learning experience as much for the Irish delegation as for the students and lawyers with whom they worked in Myanmar,” Dwyer says.

As well as Babseacle, Irish Rule of Law International has partnered with Avocats Sans Frontières, the United Nations Development Programme and DLA Piper, a global law firm. Among the areas covered were professional ethics, the concept of “client-centred lawyering”, dealing with clients in trauma, and guiding lawyers in developing trust and respect with clients.

The lawyers donned traditional longyis, braved the searing heat and went to workshops and study halls to help the distance-learning staff understand the system, and to learn how to teach other students.

Most of the lawyers, including Grealy, paid for their own trips. For Grealy, living in Myanmar has been an eye-opener. “I think we in Ireland identify with what Myanmar went through,” she says. Awareness of Ireland is not high, but during her work there she has heard mention of Michael Collins and quotations from Irish revolutionaries. The postcolonial experience is something shared.

“From a profession point of view it creates a positive sense of professional identity which may be lacking. You want them to be proud of the profession, and of the work they do, and it’s tough,” Grealy says.

Many aspects of the legal system are being started from the ground up, according to Clara Wallace of the McCann Fitzgerald law firm, who joined the programme after visiting Myanmar last year.

“I hope that our work has helped to build the capacity and values of the country’s leaders of the future and to develop an interactive teaching methodology in universities,” she says.

Pat McGonagle, a solicitor, has been struck by how much the staff are able to do with limited resources. “Stuff we would take for granted, like freely available legal texts, are just not there in the building,” he says. “In Myanmar the teacher has a book, and lawyers learn laws, such as laws of contract, by rote, reciting them in a class. There isn’t the tradition of give and take that we would have. Resources are extremely limited, but the staff are fantastic.

“The shared legal culture was a good springboard, because it meant the students were aware of the concepts we were talking about. Jury trial, fair trial, open court: these are things people were aware of.”

Being aware of something is different from having concepts you are entitled to expect in your everyday career. “Much of Babseacle’s work really is to raise their consciousness as to what fair play is and for them to expect that as practitioners in the future, to work in a legal environment with international standards of transparency,” McGonagle says.

For Bruce Lasky the key concept is to train the trainers. “Myanmar had a strong jurisprudence that dated back more than a century. They were teaching using the English language, which made it easier to provide resources and communicate with partners in the region,” he says.

“That which we teach should be applied all the way up to million-dollar transactions, but what we’re doing is also teaching ethics, so when people engage in business transactions they are doing it in an ethically conscious way.”

He says that things are still at an early stage but that the Irish lawyers’ input will be crucial. “There are 18 law departments, and we’ve been working with 17 of them. They are now just beginning to develop strategic plans to help teach these programmes and how to administratively run them.

“It could take a generation, but we are really pushing in the next two or three years that these programmes will be sustainable locally. And that they will be integrated into the system.”

Babseacle organised the first legal training at Yangon University in decades; to get approval it went up to cabinet level.

“We were told by many it would be impossible, or that we would never have access to students, or would have to do it off campus. We brought in our partners from surrounding countries, like Vietnam and Laos, to show they were accepted in other countries,” Lasky says.


There is a good deal of optimism that things will get better, according to McGonagle. “I don’t think anyone expects them to get better overnight, but there is a strong sense that the world they will be practising in will be a lot better than the one their predecessors had to deal with.”

The highlight of the Irish lawyers’ visit was a mock trial, which Naw Hsar Moo Paw, a legal trainer working with Babseacle, describes as a great way to encourage teachers to co-operate. “The main things we learned is that they give all of the things they know to the workshop and try to be flexible. There were lots of experiences, not just what we learned but also how to give training to other people,” she says. “That’s very important.”

For Wallace the mock trial was a great way to see how the students’ confidence grew in such a short time. “I realised the meaning of the ‘proud teacher moment’ when I saw the ethical values and legal skills we had taught in the workshop being grasped and brought together so joyfully by the students in the final.”

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