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. Some have children as young as 8 months, who are cared for by their families while they work, while one lawyer in the group works even though she is breastfeeding.
The majority of people killed while protesting the coup have been men. But the death of young women, such as 19-year-old Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing, the first fatal victim in the uprising, or Taekwondo champion Angel, highlights the role Burmese women have played in the anti-coup protests. Female protesters have ranged from garment factory workers to those criticizing the coup leaders on social media. Many talk of the need to fight against a military that signifies the return to a heavily male-dominated world.
According to Myanmar's last population census in 2014, more women than men now go to university, although the labor force remains predominantly male. The justice system reflects this. Although there are an increasing number of female lawyers, they are often underpaid and few are in high positions. Zar Li has worked over the years to change this. Another female lawyer working with Zar Li, who only wanted to be identified as L.T., was already defending vulnerable minorities like the Rohingya Muslims before the coup.
They are now determined not to see their efforts die in vain. "I feel insulted as a professional at the idea that the military acted according to the law. They created chaos, took lives, arrested people without assistance of their lawyers or without telling family members where the detainees are kept. These actions make me angry," Zar Li said.
Myanmar underwent some cosmetic legal reforms in recent years, but the justice system is mostly still seen as a tool of repression, not as a means of exercising rights. A newly released prisoner told Nikkei Asia how his rights were ignored when he was ordered to confess his involvement in the protests by a policeman pointing a gun at him.
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.
"I wouldn't have been able to escape if I ran, because I have two damaged vertebrae. And I was a bit embarrassed to run from security forces in my lawyer's suit." But the police pointed their guns at her. "For the grace of God," said a voice from behind her that begged the police not to shoot, "they are lawyers, not protesters." It was the officer guarding the prisoners, who insisted, "Shaenay (lawyer) please go." But Zar Li said she could not leave, her work was not done yet. So she was asked to stay in the prison for three hours.
The courage of the country emotionally affects the team, with some crying with the clients and acting as counselors.
"Sometimes we pretend, and tell them everything will be OK," said Zar Li. But some loved ones in prison do not survive. Zar Li was told that a young man hit by a rubber bullet died in detention because he had not received any medical treatment. She did not know how to tell his sister, but the sister called the lawyer the next morning and said she saw her brother's body. "And she thanked me for all the help just the same. I was very moved, but it's very emotional. It hits me even physically."
Zar Li sleeps only a few hours, wakes up at 4:30 in the morning, skips lunch and often goes all day without drinking water as "there are no toilets for us," she said ruefully. "I eat dinner standing, because if I sit comfortably I feel guilty for my clients in prison."
Although the lawyers work for free, sometimes spending their own money for supplies and other support, being alive already seems to be its own reward. They share food and expenses as well as getting support from the community, which offers services from printing to taxis, in recognition of what these women are doing for their people.
"I am not a brave person, but I know what is right or wrong," Zar Li said.