Robert Pe with Suu Kyi
Robert Pe with Suu Kyi ()

Though he had been a partner at large international law firms for almost a decade, Robert Pé might as well have been a first-year associate, given how nervous he was that Sunday afternoon in Yangon in October 2012.

It was his first face-to-face meeting with Nobel Peace Prize winner and longtime democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi. Pé, whose father fled the country then known as Burma over 50 years ago, had long admired Suu Kyi’s work from afar and dreamed of helping her somehow. In the years in which Myanmar was isolated from the rest of the world under a military dictatorship and Suu Kyi herself was under house arrest, that was, of course, impossible.

But that changed in 2010, when the country’s rulers began taking steps to open up to the rest of the world, including releasing Suu Kyi, who became a member of Myanmar’s parliament and leader of the opposition to the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Pé, a litigator and international arbitration partner in the Hong Kong office of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, began spending much of his free time on Myanmar-related legal issues, speaking at conferences and writing articles.

His work eventually caught the eye of U Win Htein, a distant relative by marriage who was also a senior adviser to Suu Kyi. That led to the meeting in Yangon, which, despite Pé’s nervousness, went well. The next thing he knew, Suu Kyi was asking him to serve as her senior legal adviser, and Pé was asking Orrick’s senior management if he could work half-time in order to do it.

“I was elated,” he says. “I knew I had to take on the role.”

That role was as an adviser on constitutional and legal reform to Suu Kyi herself, not the party she heads, the National League for Democracy (NLD), nor any part of the government. But Pé says he did not see his role as a political one and that he worked with many figures in Myanmarese politics.

“I am trying to help rebuild rule of law,” he says. “I have worked not only with NLD MPs and leaders but also with senior civil servants and with figures in the governing USDP party.”

But he can see how others might see a political dimension to what he has been doing. “Of course my work may perhaps play some role in demonstrating [Suu Kyi]‘s ability to get things done,” he adds.

Though she enjoys a large reservoir of international goodwill from her days standing against Myanmar’s ruling junta, Suu Kyi has become a more polarizing figure domestically since actively entering politics, and the military’s still-firm grip on the USDP and the government certainly hinders her from getting things done. Even though she chairs the parliamentary committee on legal reform, nine of the committee’s 15 members are from the military. The military’s dominance is enshrined in the most recent constitution, passed in 2008, which requires that 25 percent of all parliamentary seats be held by military officers. Any amendments require a 75 percent majority.

There is little doubt in Pé’s mind that things could be done better. One of his first assignments with Suu Kyi was to accompany her to the capital of Naypyidaw to observe parliamentary discussion of a new foreign investment law. Myanmar is believed to have large oil and gas assets that multinationals are eager to start exploring and exploiting, making the foreign investment law especially critical. But Pé found Myanmar’s bill lacking.

“To be honest, the draft foreign investment law was not very good, as was the final law soon afterward, not particularly good,” he says. “So you didn’t have to be brilliant to spot areas of improvement.”

A major problem, he says, was the way much of the interpretation and implementation of the law was handed off to a newly created committee, the Myanmar Investment Commission.

“It’s not the way you want to go,” Pé says. “Because if the law’s not clear enough and detailed enough, then the people on the commission have loads of discretion and the people seeking to get [business] licenses, the investors, don’t have enough clarity about the law.”

It’s a thought that echoes Suu Kyi’s thinking on the subject. One of the articles Pé wrote about Myanmar that caught her attention was an October 2012 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal in which he stressed the importance of rule of law in attracting foreign investment. He actually quoted Suu Kyi, who said in a 2012 speech: “Would-be investors, please be warned: Even the best investment law would be of no use if there were no courts independent and clean enough to administer those laws justly.”

Pé is unstinting in his praise for Suu Kyi. “She is a strong, determined and effective leader who listens carefully to advice but who also has her own clear vision as to the best way forward for the country,” he says.

His strong commitment to her vision was evident to the Orrick partners who agreed to let him take time off from his practice.

“The primary reason the firm agreed to Robert’s request was the personal interest and passion that Robert had in doing this work,” says William Molinski, the Los Angeles–based head of Orrick’s commercial litigation group.* “I don’t think anyone could dispute that Daw Suu has and will continue to play a major role in the history of Myanmar. I could hear in Robert’s voice the excitement in being a part of that history, even if a small part, particularly given Robert’s family history with Myanmar.”

Pé’s family history on his father’s side (his mother is British) is somewhat intertwined with Suu Kyi’s. His paternal grandfather was a judge on the appellate court that rejected an appeal by politician U Saw, who had been convicted of masterminding the 1947 assassination of Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, the revolutionary leader credited with securing Burma’s independence from British rule.

The country’s colonial masters bequeathed Myanmar with a common law legal system, but the military dictatorship that came to power in 1962 had little use for it. Few cases have been decided over the past decades, and key laws are unchanged from when they were introduced under British rule: The companies law dates from 1914 and the arbitration law from 1944. Needless to say, law was not seen as a promising career under the junta, and all of the professions suffered after the government began sporadically shutting down universities in 1988 to stifle student dissent.

“The whole legal profession has been so eroded,” Pé says. “You have so much to rebuild, and this is a start.” As part of that rebuilding, he is helping Myanmar’s lawyers to set up their first national bar. He also connected with Larry Taman, a consultant with the United Nations Development Program advising on judicial reform in the country.

“He and I talked about the country’s training needs, and out of that he developed a concept paper,” says Taman. “He really led the process through to completion, and now we have an agreement that there should be rule of law centers.”

The planned centers will offer lawyers three months of practical training in areas such as professional ethics, legal drafting and advocacy skills. They will also educate citizens about their legal rights.

Pé and Suu Kyi also partnered with the London-based Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law to train Myanmarese lawyers on possible reforms to the constitution. Those lawyers then went on bus tours around the country to raise awareness of constitutional reform among the population at large.

Sir Jeffrey Jowell QC says Pé’s understanding of the local dynamics in Myanmar distinguished him from outside governments and lawyers who have offered to help rewrite the country’s constitution.

“There are a lot of people who’d love to be heroes,” says Jowell, “but Pé’s very keen to identify people with the right approach and who don’t have an imperialist attitude toward Burma. Ultimately the solution has to come from the Burmese people.”

According to Pé, both lawyers and average citizens in Myanmar overwhelmingly expressed a desire to alter the constitution so that the military’s role in parliament and its de facto veto over legislation would be eliminated. They also wanted an independent judiciary, more restrictions on the president’s emergency powers and a loosening of restrictions on who is allowed to run for president—one section currently prohibits citizens from the office if they have spouses or children who are foreign nationals. The provision is widely seen as having been written specifically to exclude Suu Kyi, whose two sons are British nationals, as was her late husband.

Pé is confident that many of the reforms will ultimately be enacted, especially if Western governments exert pressure, including the possible reintroduction of sanctions. “If they don’t agree to the changes, they’ll really be looking bad,” he says.

Pé continues to work half-time at Orrick while he advises Suu Kyi.* Beyond his personal involvement with the reforms taking place in Myanmar, he says the contacts he’s made could come in handy as Orrick pursues business opportunities in the country.

“I’m not doing it for that reason,” he says, “but I believe it is going to be beneficial.”

*Correction, 4/22/14: A previous version of this story incorrectly described William Molinski as a San Francisco-based partner at Orrick. In fact, he is based in Los Angeles. Also, the story had said that Pé had returned to full-time work at Orrick last November, however he continues to work half-time while advising Suu Kyi. We regret the errors.