Building Bridges Through Justice: My Story of Providing Legal Aid in Myanmar

Words by Maer O’ Donoghue

In November 2017, I embarked on a trip to Yangon, Myanmar with a team of Australians from the University of Newcastle (UON) and Queensland University of Technology (QUT) who share a mutual love for all things relating to access to justice and the rule of law.

Here, we worked for a US not-for-profit non-government organisation called Bridges Across Borders South East Asia Clinical Legal Education (BABSEACLE). BABSEACLE foster this same love for access to justice through supporting clinical legal education in universities all over Asia and beyond. BABSEACLE are an amazing company who strengthen and support access to justice and the rule of law globally with a core focus on legal ethics, professional responsibility and pro bono. Before I left for Myanmar, I had a strong sense of social justice and ambition to venture into many years of being poor because of my passion for pro bono!

 

BABSEACLE built a bridge between East Yangon University (EYU) and UON by raising awareness about issues faced in communities and reaching out to those who may be able to help. As each teaching day came to an end, I thought about the confidence that students had developed over the two weeks and wished there was more time. The trip flew by and deep in my heart, I would have loved more time as it had become clear to me that the best way for the students to learn English and find their passion in law is by speaking with us. This lead to my concerns about sustainability, however I always remain hopeful that the ripple effect exists.

 

As the end of the teaching days drew near, I began to further explore my home away from home that felt so foreign to me each afternoon, Yangon. A bustling city where strange noises were merciless and would ring loudly at any time in the day or night. Whether it be howling dogs, dawn prayers from the monastery across the road, car horns politely warning others that were coming by or rickshaw riders selling their service. Towards the end of the week, I would leave the hotel and wander new streets, finding myself falling more in love with the people and the city. When I reflect on the different experiences I had over those three weeks, I realise that I have truly opened my mind to different experiences and because of this I have found inspiration in the everyday here. The generosity, hospitality and the honesty that has shone through in moments here has been truly inspiring. There is so much love and happiness here, both in the classrooms and in society. I knew that I was going to see wonderful things, but I didn’t think that I would feel so different about myself and my path in my career after only three weeks. What I don’t think I expected was that I would go home a different person. In each week, reflecting has brought different emotions, some of homesickness others of pure happiness and mostly a sense of achievement as I feel like I will leave as a better person than I was before because of the people I have met. Perhaps no one will notice and the changes are subtle but I believe that the experience has opened me to a world I was so unaware of.

 

Articulating such an extraordinary experience won’t do it justice, there are no words for the inspiration that has flowed from between the students from both cultures. The bridge that BABSEACLE built between EYU, UON and QUT has created a network of law students who will be legal professionals and community leaders one day. This bridge will facilitate links that address the root causes of access to justice issues that occur not only in Asia, but in our own country. The special moments between the students of both cultures form part of a bigger picture where inextricable links have been made that form lasting bonds. I’ve attached myself to moments rather than hoping for the contact to sustain. Whether we stay in contact or not, I think that we have been able to teach each other things that will carry us through life and I know I won’t forget about these lessons. On my second last day of class, I spoke to each of the students I had taught over the two weeks. It was a moving experience to hear how much they enjoyed the experience. I was so inspired by students I spoke to that leaving them made me feel like I was going to miss witnessing something amazing.

 

When I think about the students I taught, I feel more inspired then any law job has ever brought me. A small anecdote of a moment over the past two weeks that have inspired me to work harder than I have before will tell a story that I believe represents everything the students aspire to be. I asked a third-year student what she was doing over the weekend. She told me that she was attending her last English class before her university classes were to commence. She asked for a conversation to practice her English and we spoke about her dream to move to Australia one day and study a Masters in Law. She reads English and speaks to her friends who can speak English to practice regularly and sometimes other students laugh at them and think they are showing off. She told me that it is her dream because if her English is good, she will continue to broaden her knowledge and opportunities. There was a real hunger for knowledge that is inspirational. Students passion for learning English and being educated more broadly told me that the future of this young country is incredibly bright.

 

On this trip, two cultures merged and in uniting, a mutual challenge to dream big has become a goal for all. We have a universal goal of teaching the rule of law and providing access to justice that transcends differences that we face in our own countries. On the clinical legal externship, I learnt about the benefits of CLE community teaching and the value of legal externships. The EYU students were challenged to engage with these concepts in a second language. The ambition students had in learning English as a means of developing as lawyers and therefore being able to provide access to justice across their communities is an impressive one in a country as young as Myanmar. I believe that in us, the Myanmar students could see the importance of learning English and the real possibility that language will be an invaluable tool when working in the legal profession. In the Myanmar students, I have learnt of the real importance to access to justice and CLE community teaching. The role that Myanmar students will have in their communities is not an isolated one, and it has educated me on the possible directions that my law degree can take me. Working with EYU students has reminded me of the remarkable world we live in, despite all that Myanmar has been through, it is inspiring to see such a bridge future.

 

Finally, the bigger picture in my life has become clear. Before I travelled to Myanmar, I knew that I chose law because I wanted to help people with their problems, what I didn’t know is the duty that would come with studying law. I am inspired to use my fortunate position to work towards providing access to justice in both my own country and perhaps one day, across borders. There are challenges with profound experiences like travelling to a developing nation and seeing the way other people live. I am a soft person who is deeply affected by other people and their experiences. In leaving Myanmar, I feel so much excitement for the constant development that this country will go through during my lifetime. Sadness didn’t cross my mind as I believe that BABSCLE is doing the most wonderful things and I am just a small part of that picture.

 

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