This morning, BD and I met with U Thein Than Oo, one of the founding members of the Myanmar Lawyers’ Network (MLN).
The MLN is an organization that began in 2011 in an effort to challenge the military government’s unfair disbarment of lawyers it deemed to be a political threat. Since then, it has greatly expanded both its membership and objectives. Today, the MLN abides by its motto “to defend and fight” by promoting rule of law, defending and protecting the rights of lawyers, evaluating existing and newly drafted law, assisting government stakeholders, and providing advocacy and training. In short, the MLN is actively fighting for the rights of the people, while attempting to hold the government accountable for any of its unlawful actions.
I will be writing an in-depth report for CEELI on all of the incredible initiatives that the MLN is pursuing, including their more prominent cases, so stay tuned for that. In the mean time, I’m using this opportunity to write specifically about what I learned about U Thein Than Oo during our meeting because he is an incredible person. I should begin by explaining that “U” is a term of respect that essentially means “mister” in Burmese. The female equivalent is Daw. Just so you know, I will be using both terms throughout my blog. Now back to the topic at hand...
At first glance, U Thein Than Oo’s round face, bright eyes, and friendly and engaging nature make him the epitome of a sweet, doting grandfather. This initial impression was only solidified when he referred to me as his “new granddaughter.” His position as a staunch political activist and prominent lawyer, in contrast, seemed inconceivable—Until he told me his story.
At 63 years of age, U Thein Than Oo is the youngest executive committee member of the MLN. He currently acts as the Assistant Secretary for the MLN executive committee, but he is also the de facto anchor holding down the MLN’s activities in Upper Myanmar. At the moment, U Thein Than Oo estimates that he is juggling around 500 cases, with the help of a handful of assistants.
U Thein Than Oo has a long history of activism and he has endured three lengthy spells behind bars to prove it. His unfortunate career as a political prisoner began when he was a student activist accused of communism under Ne Win in 1976. He was released seven years later, but was imprisoned again during the Great People’s Uprising in 1988, and again in 1990. U Thein Than Oo was finally released in 2001, at which point he had spent no less than 21 cumulative years in prison. While he was in custody, U Thein Than Oo was subjected to 10 consecutive years of solitary confinement, and for six months, he was chained and shackled. When he was finally released, U Thein Than Oo was dismissed from the bar. The disbarment of activist lawyers was not an uncommon tactic for the military junta. In fact, it is estimated that some 1000 lawyers were disbarred in Burma over the last 25 years. U Thein Than Oo finally regained his lawyer’s license in July 2012 at the age of 60.
Today, the psychological effects of solitary confinement are well documented, and most medical professionals agree that such treatment of prisoners constitutes torture. It is not uncommon for people who are subjected to this form of torture to experience long-term anxiety, depression, paranoia, psychosis, and/or suicidal tendencies, to name but a few symptoms. With this in mind, I mentioned to U Thein Than Oo that he seemed remarkably high-functioning for a person who experienced prolonged solitary confinement. He smiled and casually informed me that he suffered “torture dreams” for over six straight years after his release. Then, with a great deal more emotion than I had seen him display thus far in the interview, U Thein Than Oo divulged that his father, mother, brother, and sister all died while he was imprisoned. He was not permitted to attend their funerals, nor was he informed of their deaths.
At the end of our two hour discussion, U Thein Than Oo provided an apt description of himself: “I am not a simple lawyer, I am a political prisoner lawyer.” At an age where many western attorneys would consider retirement, U Thein Than Oo’s passion and energy remain steadfast. He nothing short of inspirational, and I feel incredibly privileged to have met him... And to be his new granddaughter, of course.