Zar Li is not the same lawyer she was in January. In the “old Myanmar” she used to like hanging out in her Yangon apartment, performing a Whitney Houston song or cooking her favorite dishes. Now, under constant threat to her life, she works relentlessly under searing sun outside Yangon prisons to defend protesters against the Myanmar military regime that seized power on Feb. 1.
After joining street protests in the aftermath of the coup, Zar Li put her legal skills to use when a group of fellow ethnic Chin citizens were arrested during the demonstrations. When she went to the front gates of the infamous Insein Prison, she discovered there were dozens of families who had no idea where their sons and daughters were being held, nor knowledge of their legal rights. Zar Li quickly took action, becoming leader of a defense team for protesters.
A group of legal colleagues, mostly young women, saw her sitting outside the prison gates and asked if they could join her. “At the beginning we were three defending 200, now we are 20 lawyers defending thousands,” Zar Li told Nikkei Asia. Most of her women lawyer colleagues work for free.
Working as a defense lawyer is a risk that many do not want to take. The 2017 killing of U Ko Ni, a lawyer who was working on changes to the 2008 military-drafted constitution, served as a chilling warning of the limits placed on civilian power even before the coup.
But for Zar Li and her colleagues, the stakes are too high to ignore. “As a lawyer, it’s an ethical requirement to stand up for justice and the rule of law. I didn’t even have to decide,” L.T. said.
It is not unusual for their group to be verbally harassed by men in uniform. L.T. talks about a recent encounter when she and her colleagues walked by a group of soldiers in Yangon.
“I saw more than 50 soldiers with their guns, relaxing, buying or robbing cigarettes and juice from a small shop. When we passed by, they started making loud comments about our bodies, like ‘Ha, good shape.’ When we tried to ignore them, we heard them say ‘uh brave.’ We were just four female lawyers with pens and paper. They were physically grown men with guns. Yes, we were very brave,” L.T. said.
Threats are very real. If roads are blocked and Zar Li is delayed in meeting her clients, they start calling her to check if she is safe. She has received death threats and was almost shot by security forces dispersing a crowd in front of a court tribunal. The sudden appearance of the soldiers posed a dilemma.