Arbitrary and unconventional detention in Burma

Burma Issues & Altsean-Burma

Across Burma [Myanmar] people are arbitrarily detained on suspicion of supporting illegal associations. In Burma’s conflict zones these arbitrary detentions are inextricably linked to accusations of support to ethnic nationality opposition groups. Those accused are detained, tortured and sometimes killed with no warrant, charge or legal process.

There are various international laws and covenants that cover the treatment of detainees and prisoners. These regulations can be seen as broad and lacking specific definition. They are nevertheless indicators of how authorities should treat persons detained or imprisoned, and should be backed up by more specific national laws.

In Burma the implementation of such national law lacks adherence and current relevance, particularly to areas of ongoing civil war and related conflict. The Jail Manual consists of codes of treatment and management within Burma’s prisons system. Its implementation, though, is far from satisfactory or adequate. Detention or imprisonment in unconventional detention centres such as military bases and villagers’ homes, lacks acknowledgement of both Burmese and international law.

The length and place of detention are not defined in international regulations relating to arbitrary detention such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. However, according to the UN Working Body on Arbitrary Detention, the deprivation of liberty is arbitrary when a case falls into three categories: when there is no legal basis to justify the deprivation of liberty, when the deprivation of liberty violates certain articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and when international norms relating to the right to fair trial are ignored or only partially observed.

Military bases

Military bases in Burma operate in a closed environment. The torture in them goes unseen and the personnel are unaccountable for their actions, not only within the confines of their bases but also in the general community. They are free to punish at will and extract information by whatever means they desire. For example, four men from Myitta Relocation Camp in Myitta township, Tenasserim Division were accused of supporting the Karen National Union (KNU) in December 1999. They were detained by Major Theung Kyi from Military Intelligence and had plastic bags placed over their heads to suffocate them. The soldiers then rolled bamboo along their shins and afterwards kicked them in the shins. They were tortured like this for two days.

The International Committee for the Red Cross has gained access to detainees in conventional centres under Burma’s Ministry of Home Affairs, such as prisons and some labour camps and police stations. It has been given some freedom to monitor the treatment of detainees in such centres, although it still encounters some problems and limited access. Unfortunately, even this limited mandate does not extend to those detained in the military bases of Burma’s border areas.

An added problem is the structure of the Burmese military and the rotating battalions that come and go from these military bases. A battalion responsible for detention, torture and killing during one month may not be at the same base by the next month. Light Infantry Battalions come to an area for a short period of time: a week, a month, and then move on to other areas. When villagers complain of actions by the military they are confronted with denials that the accused battalion was even in the area at the time.

Villages and other locations

If persons detained are not taken away to military bases then they are usually detained in villages. Places of detention include houses, temples, chicken coops, holes in the ground, and public spaces such as the village football ground. Persons detained by the military in villages are usually kept and tortured there as an example to others. In these cases, torture and detention are intentionally performed in front of other villagers. These acts are intended to reinforce the power and authority of the military over villagers. The key is for these acts to be witnessed by others. Usually, they are distinguished by their sheer brutality. Reported acts of torture have included binding a man naked and then tying his penis to his neck in front of other villagers, and putting a man in a hole in the ground with coconut shavings to attract red ants. In another case involving Major Theung Kyi, a victim was reportedly ordered

To be strung to two trees like a hammock, face down, with his legs tied to one tree and his arms to the other. He was left strung like this for two days during which time Major Theung Kyi forced soldiers and villagers to sit on him like a hammock. After two days of this he died and then they threw his body into a rock hole near the relocation camp.

At the same time the man¡¦s two-year-old daughter was tied up by her legs and hung upside down. They then lit a fire under her. She was eventually cut after suffering burns.


In some cases formal charges are laid upon persons accused of supporting ethnic nationality opposition groups, but in most cases the military makes verbal accusations and no charges are actually laid down on paper. The lack of evidence to back up the charges is a major factor. There is also often a language barrier: many villagers in remote areas do not understand Burmese, and the military make no attempt to translate an accusation or charge. Many villagers are also barely literate, so written charges will not be understood.

Where charges are laid alleging that the detained person has supported an illegal organization, they are usually under Section 17/1 of the Unlawful Associations Act, which reads:

Who ever is a member of an unlawful association, or takes part in meetings of any such association, or contributes or receives or solicits any contribution for the purpose of any such association, or in any way assists the operations of any such association, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term [which shall not be less than two years and more than three years and shall also be liable to fine].

Although the scope of the Act can encompass virtually any act of opposition to the government, the military tends to limit charges under this Act to those with substantiated evidence of guilt. These are usually people in areas of the country where there are also basic functioning judicial procedures, and those areas where there is a relatively greater level of monitoring of detainees. Under any circumstances, anyone charged under this Act will be detained indefinitely while awaiting sentencing, and will be sentenced without access to representation or fair trial.

In some cases, detention before trial is extended to allow friends and relatives of the detained time to raise money to pay for their release. For example, starting in October 2001 four village headmen were detained in Thantlang police station, Chin State, for four months without trial. Villagers were told to pay 700,000 Kyat (US0) for their release, but even after the payment was made the headmen were not released. The major in charge asked for more money before he would agree to their release.

In other cases, villagers and village headman have tried to approach local military authorities through formal complaint procedures in attempts to hold the military accountable for their actions. This has received mixed responses. In many cases the military will simply ignore the request for action and in some cases added harassment and abuse will occur against the person who has dared to question military authority. In a few cases those detained have eventually been released after complaints by village headmen or proof that the person they have detained is not guilty of the accusation. Still, there continues to be a complete lack of punishment or accountability of perpetrators of arbitrary detention, torture and extrajudicial killings.


In remote areas of Burma, places of detention are unconventional and access to detainees for information and monitoring of their treatment is very limited. Unlike the central regions, prisoners are usually not subject to any type of legal process and are not charged under any type of law. Often detention is not prolonged, making it difficult for the international community to take a course of action such as campaigning for the release of the prisoner.

The government of Burma rules through a severely compromised legal system that defies international law and standards on civil freedoms and human rights. Yet people in Burma’s conflict areas are not even given the option of this deficient and archaic legal system. Here, the military rules entirely without accountability, adequate policing and trial procedures. In every respect, treatment during arrest and while under detention violates both domestic and international regulations.


This article was compiled using material from a report issued by Burma Issues and Altsean-Burma, Uncounted: Political prisoner’s in Burma’s ethnic areas, this August 2003.

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