Former Norton Rose lawyer Doreen Chen had her work cut out for her when she took a job with the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal in Myanmar in 2017. The human rights lawyer had just wrapped-up a major posting defending a leader of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime, and was expecting her first child. Chen, who has family roots in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), understood this new job would challenge her in many ways. In the end, she knew the leap would be worth it.
In August 2017, I had just concluded a gruelling three-year stint on the trial of a lifetime, helping to defend a senior-surviving Cambodian Khmer Rouge leader, Nuon Chea, on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.
I was exhausted, and pregnant with my first child.
To plan my next move, I undertook an intensive leadership course called the altMBA. Through it, I decided to pivot towards something lighter, outside law or human rights. By doing so, I reasoned, I’d be able to live more joyfully and pass this on to my son.
Mere days later, however, I was invited to serve as the Lead Prosecutor for the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal in Myanmar.
Peoples’ tribunals are socio-legal processes. Independent of the United Nations or International Criminal Court, they are procedurally looser, victim-led with a more narrative testimonial approach, and extremely short (ours was a five-day process).
Three Burmese minority groups opted in to the tribunal: the Rohingya, the Kachin, and other Myanmar Muslim groups. They alleged violations including genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and serious violations of human rights.
Myanmar itself was identified as an alleged perpetrator. So too were its most senior military and civilian leaders, including commander-in-chief of the armed forces Min Aung Hlaing, and de facto Head of State Aung San Suu Kyi. Non-state actors such as the radical Buddhist monk Wirathu were also implicated.
By sheer coincidence, all of this unfolded at a watershed moment. The tribunal took place just weeks after the August 2017 violent Burmese military crackdown that forced 700,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh. The exodus continued even during the tribunal’s hearings.
In this context, all plans for my carefree future went out the window. I accepted the role.
I knew going in that the exposure would compromise my ability to safely visit Burma, where my father was born and raised and where I had hoped to work and develop my family’s archive. Nevertheless, I have no regrets. In the prosecution’s opening and closing statements, I argued that the Rohingya were victims of genocide, a position the judges ultimately adopted. Today, such an assessment is increasingly common, but back then it was radical, and I like to think that the tribunal’s work helped shift the needle a little in this direction.
We were also able to examine conditions other minority groups faced. This revealed a commonality of experience that unites disparate groups. Cultural differences aside, all Burmese minorities are uniformly struggling today under a modern-day form of apartheid.
Personally, the most transformative aspect was seeing how much difference it made to participants – in particular, women and children survivors of sexual violence – that I specifically was involved with. Not merely due to technical skill, but also as someone with organic roots, who was young, an Asian woman of colour, and a visibly expectant mother. Someone in whom they could recognise themselves, and whom I hope enriched their experience with accountability processes.
Through this case, personal attributes that several people had previously suggested as my weaknesses revealed themselves as my strengths. Indeed, why be a faceless technical expert on the sidelines when we can enrich the discussion with all that we bring to the podium?
Of course, the importance of self-care can never be overstated. It is often ignored in our profession, and in my experience, most often by those in public interest law, where we revel in hardship and are judgmental of rest.
But although I’ve ultimately pivoted back to my work in the darkest corners of humanity – recognising that this is an area in which I can make the greatest impact – I do so differently. I approach things my way, and I am pickier with my commitments.
So far, this seems to be a winning formula for finding the light and joy I was looking for, and for inspiring the daily squeals of joy I hear from my son.
Photography by Rudi Towiro