Activist Interview: Robert San Aung, human rights lawyer in Myanmar

How would you rate the general status of freedom of expression in Myanmar?

I don’t accept that there is freedom of expression in Myanmar today.

I am working to defend human rights here, and I have helped and still help many people who are persecuted by the government under the Assembly Law. Now, I am working for three people who have been charged under the Electronic Transactions Law because they made jokes about the military online. So I would say these cases are the strongest evidence that freedom of expression is very restricted in Myanmar. Myanmar hasn’t signed the ICCPR yet and our freedom of assembly and association rights are not respected either.

The government detains human rights activists, such as student-protesters and political activists, in order to censor their voices, though they use their voice in country’s best interest.

Meanwhile, the government doesn’t take any action to tackle hate speech based on race and religion.

As someone working on protest, how have these challenges impacted on your life and work?

I face daily risks from different sides as a human rights defender working for freedom of expression. I was detained in prison for three years, when I was a student, and again for another three years after my studies because I appreciated and supported human rights. I was disbarred and lost my licence to practise law too. This had a negative impact on my working life. Besides that, also I had to live away from my family because of the risks and threats I faced.

Is there an example that is particularly troubling for you?

The specific problem for me as a human rights defender is the military. I have much greater difficulty when I plead in court on behalf of those people whose human rights were violated by the military. Such cases are more dangerous for me; for example, the case of the reporter Ko Par Gyi, who was killed by members of the military.

How are you tackling this challenge? What needs to change?

Threats and challenges come from many sides. The way how to tackle them is fearlessness.

I am not afraid of even death when I am working. This kind of mind means that dictators and human rights violators hesitate to hurt me.

Apart from such a mind, there is no better way to mitigate the risks in this country because we are facing with an authoritarian government. But I will never stop defending human rights.

What can other human rights defenders in Myanmar and worldwide do to support you?

For other human rights defenders, here, and worldwide, who want to support me, I believe medals are my best shield. I am not rich, so I go to the courts by train when I don’t have enough transportation fees. But I don’t want money.

The only shield is being well-known; honours or medals from international community can reduce my risk.