Milking the cow dry in Burma

Awzar Thi, Member, Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong

If you are among those fretting about the global financial slump that has taken up so much news time lately, spare a thought for the people in Burma. On 15 August 2007 the military regime there, which holds a monopoly on the sale of vehicle and generator fuels, multiplied prices without prior announcement. The cost of diesel was doubled. Ordinary petroleum was raised by two-thirds. Compressed natural gas was increased five-fold.

A lot of buses just didn’t run that day. Where they did, fares were immediately increased in line with the new tariffs. Millions of folk who ordinarily venture out with just enough money to arrive at work or school and perhaps get back again were left with a stark alternative: go home or walk. Two young men who took photographs of crowds waiting on the curbs in Rangoon were reportedly detained until that night. In a country without unions, employees in an industrial area demanded more wages.

Four days afterward, around 500 people walked together across Rangoon to urge that the price rise be revoked. One woman tearfully told an outside radio station that she was with them because she was sick and tired, but also determined. Security police took photographs. Onlookers applauded.

On August 21, hundreds again marched, and were this time met by Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 12.03.12 PMgovernment-organized gangs armed with sticks and slingshots. That night, at least a dozen were arrested at their houses. But that did not deter others: the next day hundreds more, mostly women, took to the streets. Thugs acting for police and soldiers came out and blocked them too.

The price increases come on top of an annual inflation rate of about 40 percent, and at a time that people in many parts of the country have been struggling with floods. Small civic groups have been set up in urban centers to alleviate the needs of the hungry.

This article consists of the edited text from a series of weekly commentaries, entitled Rule of Lords, written under a pen name for UPI Asia Online. All of the original columns, and others, can be read on the UPI website,, or on the author’s blog:

In rural areas things are far worse; according to one news report, a man in Sagaing Division died in police custody at the start of the month after stealing some instant noodles and a soft drink. Sporadic protests against runaway commodity prices earlier in the year had already been met with arrests and inquiries.

When asked about the unexpected hike, economists were at a loss. Some put it down to sheer incompetence. Most pointed out that it will obviously affect other basic commodities; and jumps in rice, oil and salt prices have already been confirmed. An analyst in Bangkok said the move was in the opposite direction to the rest of the world, and didn’t make sense given that Burma exports natural gas.

Economists cannot and will not be able to explain adequately what has happened because their science is rational. It attributes a type of reasoning to the making of choices that is largely absent from policymaking in Burma.

In fact, this absence has characterized the behaviour of the state there throughout its modern history. It was epitomized by former dictator General Ne Win, who had banknotes reprinted in divisors of nine for numerological reasons, and whose misrule culminated in the demonetizing of three widely-held notes in 1987, leading to the nationwide anti-government protests of the following year that brought down his socialist party, but not the army.

The banknotes are themselves symbolic of the government’s relationship with its people. A banknote anywhere is a slip of paper. Unlike a coin, it has no intrinsic worth. It obtains value from the promise of an issuing agency to pay the amount shown on its face, which is made legally binding by a signature, seal or other acknowledgement of an authorized representative. Money in Burma has none of these features. It consists of no more than a number and design, not even the state seal. The central bank offers no guarantee to the user of any sort. Its notes are literally just slips of paper.

The regime prints currency that has no legal underpinning because it has no sense of liability toward anyone other than is necessary to protect the personal affairs of its senior members. The notion of a social contract—be it in the European tradition of Rousseau or in the much older Buddhist notion of the original ruler, the Maha Sammata—is what above all is missing from its outlook.

Unlike other Asian ruling groups, the army in Burma has refused to accommodate the interests of those from outside its own circle. Successive ruling cliques have, in the words of historian Mary Callahan “been made up of war fighters who never mastered the art of politics”. In contrast to the generals in Thailand and Indonesia, who have sought to recast themselves as soldiers-cum-politicians, they have for the most part had neither the talent nor propensity to be anything other than soldiers. And soldiers find it easier to make enemies than citizens.

As fuel in Burma is rationed, motorists often rely upon supplies from the black market to reach their destinations. Many store unused amounts for the future; others sell it. A spare hose is indispensable. In side streets and backyards around the country, drivers siphon the contents of their tanks into plastic bottles and drums: a practice known in some parts as “milking the cow”.

Unless the government reverses the price increase—which would be an unprecedented back down—in the coming months, the cow could be milked dry. Whether or not that will precipitate open conflict between the army and just about everyone else is anyone’s guess.

Popular uprisings usually start with little warning, and pundits and participants alike talk about them with confidence only in hindsight: neither the scale of revolt against the monarchy in Nepal nor the recent outpouring of support for the chief justice of Pakistan were foreseen, or expected to succeed within the relatively short time that they did.

Today Burma is alive with discontent. Its public is perhaps closer to open resistance to the government—as distinct from the quiet subverting of officialdom that is a part of everyday survival there—than at any other time in recent years. But the junta is still in charge, and psychologically very much at war. It has not hesitated in the past to demonstrate that the use of force is its only true recourse, and it can be relied upon to demonstrate the same again. This much, at least, it guarantees.

Politics and the price of eggs

The price of eggs is a sensitive topic in Burma. Anger at the cost of an omelette, one Rangoon resident recently discovered, can land you in jail. But it could also land the government in hot water.

When U Thein Zan in February 2007 learned from his daughter that eggs were selling at four for 300 Kyat, around 25 US cents, he took some government propaganda articles from publications lying around the house and scrawled ironic comments across the top. Then the retired seaman impulsively stuck them to his suburban fence. Within a short time a crowd gathered. Then the officials arrived. They photographed Thein Zan’s handiwork, pulled it down, and took him for questioning. Nearly two weeks later he was charged with causing a public disturbance.

Thein Zan’s spontaneous protest came at the same time that a small group went into the street near a central market, calling for a halt to rising commodity prices, and for improved electricity and water supply: most of the city is dark at night, and residents of the suburbs and peripheries still depend heavily upon wells for their water. The persons involved were detained and interrogated, but apparently none have been charged.

The military government in Burma is acutely aware of the danger caused by inflation and deteriorating public services. The massive demonstrations that brought down the Ne Win regime in 1988 were precipitated largely by economic hardship. The cry for democracy on the lips of teachers, factory workers and farmers across the country was a cry for an alternative to ineptitude and poverty. That time, the army hung on by the skin of its teeth, through uncompromising violence. In subsequent years it has deployed stop-gap measures to prevent further upheaval, at times dramatically increasing civil servants’ salaries, and setting up tax-free markets for traders of meat and vegetables. This may explain why Thein Zan’s case attracted so much attention, and what happened thereafter.

The courtroom was crowded for the first hearing in March, and people around the country listened to the details through Burmese-language radio broadcasts beamed in from abroad. The accused was refused bail and transferred to the central prison.

Then something odd happened. After a few days, two strangers in a Land Rover appeared at Thein Zan’s house and told his family that they would act as guarantors for his release. Despite the court’s earlier order, they easily posted bail, not even producing documents to support their application. At the start of April, they went with him to the court, where the judge promptly declared the case closed. Thein Zan was free: but how, and thanks to whom? When asked which group they were with, the two bailors replied “the people”. A more honest reply would probably have been “the state”, although in truth this too raises more questions than it answers.

Judging from Thein Zan’s case and a number of others like it, there is conflict among the authorities in Burma about how to deal with public expressions of deepening resentment at the gulf between ordinary folk and the country’s small but increasingly rich elite. While the generals parade around the state media exhorting everyone to work “ceaselessly by day and tirelessly by night” for national development, citizens run risk of arrest for possessing VCD copies of video footage shot at the extravagant wedding of the supreme commander’s daughter. Meanwhile, more and more farmers are complaining of land being confiscated for thinly-disguised business ventures in the hands of senior commanders’ children, and villagers are speaking out in growing numbers against local bureaucrats’ corrupt dealings.

In Burma, a conventional political activist gets harassed and, if necessary, locked up either until they’ve learnt their lesson or they die. But what’s to be done about an old man who just wanted eggs for dinner? What’s to be done about a farmer who complains that his land has been stolen by village councilors? This is the persistent conundrum for the generals and their subordinates, and why Thein Zan and others like him are a greater threat to their authority than is democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

After his release, Thein Zan iterated that he wasn’t interested in politics; he just couldn’t accept how expensive ordinary commodities had become. “Try telling an old timer born in 1942 that eggs are 300 for four,” he told one interviewer by phone. “I got angry… it’s enough for me if prices go down and my family can survive.” But as he proved, in Burma the price of eggs is political, and the prospect of a wave of similar protests makes the authorities justifiably nervous. There is only one Suu Kyi, and she remains under house arrest. But how many more Thein Zans are there?

If you can’t beat them, beat them up

On 15 June 2007 a man in upper Burma emerged from a crowd to smash another in the face with knuckledusters. Then he ran off and hid in the office of an organization under the patronage of the country’s senior army commander.

The identity of the assailant remains unknown. Police officers called to the scene were denied entry to the office, even though they have the right to search any premises in pursuit of an alleged criminal.

The victim was 70-year-old U Than Lwin, a parliamentarian from the 1990 annulled general election. He had just led a small group of local residents in prayer, as part of a peaceable nationwide campaign for the release of political prisoners.

Than Lwin and his colleagues had informed the trustees of pagodas in Mettaya that they would come that morning, and they had not been refused access. So they were apparently taken by surprise at the crowds of thugs hanging around the entrances to each compound. Hoping to avoid a disturbance, they instead went to a nearby monastery. Only after praying did they see that the gangs had come to wait there too, where Than Lwin had his nose and cheek busted.

The assault on Than Lwin speaks to how the military government is itself systematically undermining the law and order that it claims ad nauseam to uphold, and upon which it has based its mandate since assuming power almost two decades ago.

That the mobs were not there by coincidence is obvious. The regime has used them in the past: notably for the murderous attack on a convoy carrying the Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters at Depayin in 2003. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that these groups are being incorporated into the routine surveillance and day-to-day intimidating of people throughout the country.

In a statement issued in July, the Asian Human Rights Commission said that it has documentary evidence of how the gangs, referred to as “swan-ar-shin” are being mobilized through township councils and government-backed groups. Members are being recruited in local markets, where store holders are obliged to stay on good terms with the councils that issue them trading Mobs are being incorporated into the routine surveillance and day-to-day intimidating of people throughout Burmapermits. Their collective name speaks explicitly to their purpose: “swan-ar” is physical strength or force; “-shin” indicates someone who has mastered a quality or thing.

There is a big difference between the use of persons in uniform and those in plain clothes to assault and detain citizens. In the former case, there is at least acknowledgement of the state’s role, and some necessity to justify it; in the latter there is only its denial. In the former, the state is asserting its prerogative, rightly or wrongly, as the sole proprietor of legitimate violence; in the latter it is inviting unidentified others to share in it. In the former there is a minimum degree of certainty about accepted and proscribed actions and their consequences; in the latter there is only inconstancy.

The organizing of thugs to do the work of police and soldiers thus poses a grave threat to a society, and not least of all one that is already tightly restricted, where targets of attacks have little if any means of defense or subsequent recourse. It opens the door to the worst types of atrocities, and presages further wearing away of the rudiments of criminal procedure.

The generals have enough soldiers, police, firemen, municipal officers, militias and other assorted security forces together with a miscellany of laws and regulations to manifest their continued control; they need the gangs to confuse and exhaust people, to provoke anxiety and doubt, and to co-opt more ordinary citizens into their own debasement.

But no matter what the army does, it will always encounter resistance. Even in the darkest hours under the most oppressive dictatorships some persons fight to preserve their own dignity, and with it, give cause for hope to others. After almost twenty years Than Lwin and his friends have not given up their struggle. Behind them, this regime must know, are thousands more who could be motivated to defy its will if the chances of success appear to outweigh the risks.

The unidentified assailant in Mettaya was not just a tough with a steel fist; he was the specter of arbitrary violence conjured up behind some 50 million people, to keep them in their places. Whereas the regime’s central concern could at one time have been properly described as adherence to order, with or without law, this no longer holds true. Through knuckledusters it is indicating its preparedness to depart from even this limited notion of legality where it serves its topmost objective: the retaining of power in one form or another, no matter the consequences.

Burma’s long and steady downward slide

The International Committee of the Red Cross at the end of June 2007 issued a remarkable press release on Burma. Remarkable, because in contrast to the committee’s usually circumspect approach in discussing problems of government in countries where it operates, it now damns the regime there for its continued gross violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.

The committee’s president, Jakob Kellenberger, is quoted in the release as describing Burma’s authorities as being directly responsible for “immense suffering for thousands of people in conflict-affected areas”. The committee lambastes the army for “the large-scale destruction of food supplies and of means of production” and restrictions that make it “impossible for many villagers to work in their fields”.

The statement, which comes at a time that the committee is dramatically scaling down its operations in Burma after repeated failed attempts at getting the freedom it needs to work according to its mandate, coincided with the leaking of an internal report by the UN Humanitarian Coordinator to Burma, Charles Petrie, which characterizes the poverty weighing down millions throughout the country as a consequence of “ill-informed and outdated socio-economic policies”. It refers to the UN strategy for intervention in the country as premised on “the belief that the downward slide could still be checked”. But today even many optimists would question that assessment, and it is doubtful that the coordinator believes it himself.

Burma’s downward slide has been long and steady. Since two decades back, when its superficially socialist economy collapsed, precipitating a nationwide uprising in 1988, living standards of most people have gone from bad to worse. A period of business optimism ended with the 1997 fall in Asian markets. Recent years had seen some opening of space for international organizations and even a few semi-independent local partners, but this too is now being lost.

The downward slide also has been no secret. By 1997, when concerned eminent persons from neighboring countries set up a special people’s tribunal to probe the links between food scarcity and military rule in Burma, the general features and scope of human rights abuse there were already on record. Thus, the tribunal did not seek simply to document, decry and condemn, but also to investigate and to explain how a country that should be able to feed its people seemed unable to do so. Its members were shocked by what they heard; this from a young landless farmer living in the lowlands:

Taxes and oppression are starving the village. There’s no time to work, only to pay taxes and do forced labor; many villagers have little food. Some must eat porridge; some only water skimmed off boiled rice, and others only sweet potatoes. To feed the children some adults go without food for one or two days at a time. Even so, children increasingly suffer diarrhea, sore stomachs and death.

In 1999, the tribunal concluded that hunger in Burma was the result of a common cause, which by all accounts “is social rather than natural, rooted in the structure and actions of the state rather than vagaries of land and climate”. Thus,The ICRC has described Burma’s authorities as being directly responsible for ‘immense suffering in conflict- affected areas’

“Militarization does not simply implicate the Burma army (its part in creating food scarcity is obvious), but more importantly, suggests that authoritarianism, oppression and violence have become ingrained in routine government business.”

The tribunal did not give any cause for encouragement. It did not see any reason to believe that military rule and concomitant hunger in Burma would end any time soon; on the contrary, its findings suggested the opposite. Regrettably, they proved correct. The farmer describing conditions in his village ten years ago could just as easily have been speaking yesterday.

Having reached the end of its tether, the International Committee of the Red Cross has come out to state the obvious: that Burma’s government is the preeminent cause of the country’s degradation. But in this also there is little room for reassurance. Indeed, it brings the committee no further forward than the tribunal was years ago, in part because of the unavoidable contradiction facing all those doing humanitarian work under authoritarian states: the cause of the problems is in the government; but the solution to the problems must also be through the government. The question then arises, where in the cause of the problems can ways be found toward solutions? Eight years after the people’s tribunal presented its findings, the answer remains elusive. Perhaps we need some new questions.

A wedding video and an injustice system

The wedding video of a Burmese general’s daughter has proved a surprise hit throughout the country. Footage of Thandar Shwe’s glittering marriage ceremony has since July 2006 been watched around the country on black market CDs, and globally on You Tube and news broadcasts. It has shocked viewers unaccustomed to seeing firsthand the sheer extravagance enjoyed by an otherwise inaccessible elite. In some versions, it has been cut to incorporate scenes of abject poverty in and around Rangoon’s streets, in contrast to those of diamonds and champagne behind its walls.

One person who had copies was Ko Than Htun. Acting on a tip- off, in March 2007 a team of police raided his house and charged him with possessing videos that had not been approved by the board of censors. He was initially released on bail but later rearrested. Shortly thereafter police claiming to have information from Than Htun arrived at the house of Ko Tin Htay, who lives in the same township. Entering without a search warrant, they found nothing. They called him to the station on a pretext and arrested him there. The following day the local ruling council met and decided that both men should be charged with intent to cause public alarm.

In court, the police produced a statement taken from Ko Tin Htay and used it against him as evidence, which is illegal. Absurdly, they also produced a photograph of Aung San, Burma’s independence hero and father of democracy party leader Aung San Suu Kyi, to demonstrate that Tin Htay is politically active: a point anyhow irrelevant to the charges against the accused. Nonetheless, both Than Htun and Tin Htay were found guilty and sentenced respectively to over four years and two years in prison with hard labor. They have since been transferred away from their hometown and reportedly denied access to their families.

Two features of the case point to how years of dictatorship have thoroughly corrupted criminal law and procedure in Burma.

First, whereas rights groups and political activists describe the military government in terms of its tailor-made security laws and other specialized tools for oppression, ordinary criminal law already contains everything the authorities need to arrest and prosecute almost anyone for anything. The country’s penal code is virtually the same as it was at independence in 1947. It consists of provisions devised by the British colonial regime to suppress dissent. These—including section 505 on “statements conducing to public mischief”, under which Than Htun and Tin Htay were prosecuted—continue to be used today.

For instance, U Tin Nyein in 2006 complained about damage to his crops caused by government officers; he was convicted under this same section, as well as for breach of the peace (s. 504). Similarly, when Daw Khin Win complained about corruption she was imprisoned for making a false charge (s. 211). U Tin Kyi was jailed for criminal intimidation after he allegedly swore and exposed his anus at persons clearing land for a government-backed agricultural project next to his property (s. 506). Three men who helped lodge a complaint over the death of someone on a road construction site were accused of giving “false information with intent to cause a public servant to use his lawful power to the injury of another person” (s. 182). The list goes on. For all practical purposes, Burma’s penal code has itself been reduced to a state security law.

Secondly, Burma’s police, prosecutors and judges are unable or unwilling to follow even the most basic requirements of criminal procedure. Over the decades, functions have merged: an army officer heads the police force; other agencies assigned security duties are also under military control. Prosecutors and judges are mere extensions of the executive: the attorney general and Supreme Court bench are appointees of the ruling council. The very notion of checks and balances has been obliterated. Criminal procedure and law at all levels and in all parts of the judicial system are ignored and undermined: whether at time of search and arrest, decision to prosecute, and presentation of evidence, or on matters of trial procedure, competency of courts, and passing of judgments.

The implication of Tin Htay’s case and thousands of others like it is not merely that Burma’s criminal justice system is rotten. Rather, it is that Burma has no justice system at all. The existence of a justice system, in the true sense, cannot be inferred from the existence of a person wearing a uniform withBurma’s police, prosecutors and judges are unable or unwilling to follow even the most basic requirements of criminal procedure the powers of arrest or a building called a court. A justice system derives from the extent to which that person in uniform acts with integrity and in accordance with a higher set of standards, and the building stands with authority, independently from others. It derives from the confidence invested in the system by the public, and confidence of the judiciary in itself.

There are important lessons in this for persons working to effect change in Burma. One is that simple descriptive reports have little merit. Nobody of any credibility seriously denies that there is widespread and flagrant abuse of human rights there. But the mountains of reports about that abuse have contributed little to our understanding of the country’s real problems. International experts, including the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, have a special obligation to develop cogent arguments on the links between institutional defects and rights violations, and what must be done to address these.

Critiques of the country’s legal system that privilege political detainees and emphasize draconian security laws also miss the point. The answers to questions about Burma’s human rights problems are not to be found with them. Rather, they are to be found in the stories of ordinary victims of dysfunctional criminal process and the commonplace operation of a penal code that already grants extensive powers to abusive government officials. They are to be found in the stories of illicit wedding videos and complaining farmers; in the systemic injustice described felt daily by millions.

“To use the trappings of judicial form where the essential conditions for a judicial decision are absent,” Friedrich Hayek has written, “Can have no effect but to destroy the respect for them…” Well may we say how true this is of Burma today; it remains for us to understand what it really means, and what must be done about it.

A duck, six prisoners and human rights in Burma

Six men in Burma have been jailed on account of a duck. Anyone wanting to appreciate the real nature of human rights abuses there, and also why years of international efforts have so far failed to effect any significant change, should take interest in how and why.

In April 2007, a crowd suddenly attacked four persons traveling through a village in the delta on motorcycles, injuring two, one seriously. The latter, Ko Myint Naing, made a complaint to the local court that village council members, police and quasi- government officials had coordinated the assault. The reason? He and his friends had been talking about human rights.

It is important to realize that even under Burma’s authoritarian regime it is not illegal to promote human rights. On the contrary, officials have in the past themselves been schooled on them by Australians. They sometimes even get a mention in official propaganda. The country also has been a party to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from the beginning and in recent years has joined two important agreements on women and children. Myint Naing and the others were merely distributing copies of these and related domestic laws and informing villagers of their contents.

The assault attracted some passing concern. A spokesperson for a big human rights group said that the government “should order its thugs to stop harassing people for promoting human rights”. Two United Nations experts called for the authorities “to take all the necessary steps to protect human rights defenders” and “conduct an independent and thorough investigation into this event”.

Unsurprisingly, none of these things happened. Instead, gang attacks continued and Myint Naing and five local farmers with whom he had cooperated were themselves accused of upsetting public tranquility, thanks in part to the duck, which in January a teenager and his friends were accused of stealing from the local council chairman. When they failed to pay the full recompense demanded, council members allegedly assaulted him and took him to the police. Myint Naing, who knew the boy, tried to help him out. Another time, he came to assist someone accused of causing a bicycle accident with a schoolteacher.

While a stolen duck and bicycle collision are unlikely to threaten the state—even one as paranoid and introverted as that in Burma—they were sufficient cause for Myint Naing to be rebuked in the press and jailed for eight years under a regulation once written by the British to suppress anti-colonial dissent; the farmers received four years each. Their families are struggling to survive without them.

Again the sentence attracted fleeting media interest and ritual censure from abroad. But the six are still in jail and no one has gone beyond shallow reporting and criticism to glean the full facts and what they signify about human rights abuse in Burma.

This is one reason that outside approaches to human rights problems there have been wanting. Take the UN experts’ response to this case. On the one hand, it elevated the attack victims to a category worthy of comment, as human rights defenders. Had they been assailed over a personal dispute, they would not have obtained outside interest. Had they been one of any number of persons whom police and local officials in Burma routinely assault and kill for trivial reasons they also would not have received so much notice. The young man who was beaten up because of the duck—and against whom charges are pending—remains of no particular interest.

On the other hand, having accorded the victims a special status, the United Nations did nothing useful for them. The two experts called for the relevant authorities to conduct an independent and thorough investigation into the attack. Which relevant authorities? If pressed, would the experts be able toTwo UN experts called for relevant authorities to conduct an independent investigation—which relevant authorities? identify any? And if not, what is the point of demanding action by imaginary persons and agencies? What benefit is there in pretending that something exists where there is in fact nothing?

Thus, not only do concerned outside groups and individuals fail to intervene effectively on behalf of individual victims, they also fail to enrich the impoverished dialogue on human rights in Burma through some thoughtful analysis or new insight, or even by telling the truth: that there is no one in Burma who can make an independent inquiry about anything.

Here is the challenge for work on human rights not only in Burma but also throughout Asia. Well-meaning international monitors approach and critique specific incidents in terms of global norms—as they must—but fail to bridge the gap between those norms and local realities through detailed studies of how and why something has actually occurred. The gap is easily identified, but little attempt is made to understand what it really means and what can be done about it. What follows instead is the pretence that there exist relevant authorities who must somehow bridge it themselves, when neither they, nor the will, exist to make it so.

Both the abuse and defense of human rights can be understood only through frank and detailed assessments of what is actually going on, rather than what is supposed to be so. To comprehend violence against human rights defenders in Burma today, it is necessary to start with the blows upon a teenager accused of stealing a village chairman’s duck, rather than abstract notions of relevant authorities found only in the offices of Geneva.

The rights of the six jailed men are only as good as his, and their fates are inextricably tied. If the boy can’t be helped, then what hope do they have? If his problems can’t be gauged and addressed, then how can theirs?

Why can’t the UN crime office find crime?

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is having trouble finding violent crime in Burma. This is strange, given its mandate; stranger still given that police and local officials assault and kill people there with impunity, and often over the most trivial things.

In March 2007 local council officials beat a man in suburban Rangoon to death for having a row with his wife. Naing Oo was picked up after an in-laws complaint, brutally assaulted and dumped in the council office for the night. The next morning when his brother saw the mauled body and asked what had happened, he was told that the young man had “caught a cold”. The authorities worked fast to cover up his death.

Similar reports of senseless killings by security officers are commonplace. In January, a man in the delta region was taken from his house after eloping with his new wife. The police, apparently again acting as a favor to the woman’s family, took him on the pretext that he hadn’t registered on the overnight visitor list. When relatives found his bloodied corpse in a local hospital the next day they were told that the cause of death was malaria; they have since been intimidated and silenced.

Last year municipal officers in a city marketplace killed a young man after a dispute over where he had urinated. When his mother persisted in making complaints, some trishaw drivers were charged instead of the real perpetrators. Elsewhere, a young lady died in police custody after being casually stopped on her way home from shopping. Police also beat a washerwoman to within an inch of her life after a client accused her of petty theft.

This is a handful of the total number of incidents. What they reveal is not a society where the “stability of the state” prevails, as trumpeted by its military government, but where random violence and criminality are the norm, and where institutions hang on the verge of barbarism.

Why doesn’t the UNODC seem to know anything about this? The profile on its Web site describes Burma as a country where “there is very little violent crime: not even anecdotal reports of murders, rapes or kidnappings”. Crime, it concludes, just “does not appear to be a major concern among the population”. How did the profile’s authors reach this remarkable conclusion? They don’t say. Nor do they seem to consider it a matter of any importance. After all, they are not in Burma for crime; they’re there for the drugs.

Does it make any difference to the UNODC that police and local council officials are beating people to death in Burma? The short answer is that it does, because its credibility depends upon realistic and candid assessments of what’s going on beyond the doors of its office. The fact that it is in denial about crime, or that it does not seem to rate it as worthy of serious attention, suggests a much deeper denial that undermines everything it does and represents.

The agency talks in its documents about the need for improved “law enforcement”. To achieve this it cooperates with police and army personnel, and civil servants. This cooperation presumes the existence of “law enforcement” officers. But what if the presumption is wrong? What if such persons don’t exist?

Around the world, law is often conflated, deliberately or otherwise, with order. Yet the two are completely different. Substitute “law enforcement” for “order enforcement” and this becomes obvious. Law enforcement requires proper criminal investigations; order enforcement requires none. Law enforcement requires training; order enforcement is easier without it. Law enforcement depends upon rational behaviour through written rules and communications along a hierarchy; order enforcement can be arbitrary and undocumented. Law enforcers are themselves answerable to the law; order enforcers are not. Ultimately, order can be enforced with or without law.

What exists in Burma is a system of order enforcement, not a system of law enforcement. Where order alone is enforced, it is both normal and necessary for people to be routinely tortured and killed by state officers. Where law is enforced, such incidents will be relatively few and contrary to the interests of the system itself.

The challenge for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime is not just admitting that violent crime is prevalent in Burma, but that its root cause is the system of order enforcement. The challenge is to acknowledge that there are no law enforcers with whom to cooperate. This is not to say that cooperation is out of the question, but it cannot begin from the same presumptions that may apply elsewhere.

The United Nations’ capacity to work effectively and speak with authority depends upon clarity of thought, word and deed, not denial, obfuscation and disarray. If it is unable to see and speak clearly about the obstacles to the rule of law and human rights in a country then it should get out. At the very least it should not publish and distribute documents that completely misrepresent reality and insult the intelligence of every man, woman and child there who knows better.

Burma is not North Korea

Burma and North Korea together caused a flurry of excitement when at the end of April 2007 they renewed diplomatic relations after a quarter-century hiatus. Government officials, newspaper editorialists and human rights advocates around the world rushed to iterate prosaic remarks and bang drums about the two “outposts of tyranny”.

Why? Comparing Burma with North Korea just because the two are run by military regimes has little merit. It does nothing to explain the real problems in either country. If anything, it is inimical to the prospects for meaningful change in both.

Seen with reference to human rights and the rule of law across Asia, Burma is not exceptional. On the contrary, it in many ways resembles its close neighbors, including Thailand. The differences that exist in Burma are mostly ones of degree, not kind.

What do Burma and Thailand have in common? In both countries, people are routinely tortured and killed in police custody. In both, the highest frequency of abuse occurs during ordinary criminal inquiries. In both, procedures are ignored or subverted and records falsified. Both states admit the possibility of complaints against officials, and advertise to the public to whom and where they can complain.

But in both, the chances of success are extremely slim. In neither has the government complied with international obligations to introduce effective laws and institutions to protect victims. In both, complainants are themselves threatened and coerced. In both, they face unsympathetic courts and may find themselves accused of criminal defamation or some other offence, instead of the perpetrators. In short, in both Thailand and Burma the police and other state officials can get away with murder.

Here are some recent examples: The mother of Ko Aung Myint Oo withdrew a complaint against police officers in Burma who assaulted her son over an outstanding gambling warrant in 2006 after she was forced to strike a deal with one of the perpetrators. Not long after, Ekkawat Srimanta withdrew a case against police who tortured him some two years before in Ayutthaya, north of Bangkok, on a criminal accusation. A police officer from the same station has sued the mother of another victim over a news article reporting her son’s alleged torture. She now faces a possible two- year jail term; the tortured young man remains in jail, the officer is still on duty.

Similarly, Daw Khin Win was sued by local authorities in Burma for complaining about their criminal activities, and imprisoned late last year for her trouble. In the north of the country, special drug squad police also in 2006 illegally arrested and savagely assaulted Maung Ne Zaw, who died in custody; they harassed his mother until she left the country, her attempts to lodge a complaint unsuccessful. Likewise, police in Kalasin Province, northeastern Thailand, earlier tortured and murdered 17-year-old Kietisak Thitboonkrong, whom they accused of stealing motorcycles; his mother has fought the perpetrators for almost three years, against intense fear and official indifference. Not one has been brought before a court; they all continue at their posts and the prime suspect has been promoted.

These are not random stories. They are indicative of the heavy institutional obstacles to due process and active participation in social life that exist equally in Thailand and Burma. The same types of obstacles can be found in the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Pakistan. People in these countries, among others, daily suffer systemic brutality and neglect; they are not averse to making complaints and demanding justice, but the message that they uniformly receive is that there is no point in complaining, unless they wish to suffer the consequences. It is this that distinguishes societies where human dignity is safeguarded and those where it is denied.

There is no advantage to be had in trite contrasts between “authoritarian” and “democratic” countries. Many Asian governments with democratic characteristics have strongly authoritarian tendencies. Shifts from naked authoritarianism to formal democracy have not been matched by substantially improved protection of human rights. Excessive attention to the ballot box has been followed by insufficient observance of the need for functioning institutions.

At the same time, authoritarian governments deliberately misuse democratic rhetoric: the current prime ministers of both Thailand and Burma exhort government officials and the general public alike to uphold the rule of law, although there are no grounds upon which either of them can lay claim to the notion. Changes in government do not necessarily bring about corresponding changes to protect human rights. This is manifest throughout Asia. Anyone concerned to see Burma freed from army control would do better to study its institutions and their mechanics in detail rather than drawing superfluous comparisons to the governments of countries with which it has little in common.

The world is today littered with the casualties of generic prescriptions for the presumed ailments of complicated societies. Burma should not be made another victim. Those who invoke democracy and human rights for its liberation should first study what is really going on there before figuring out what needs to be done about it. After that, if they put Burma in any basket it will be the one with Thailand, not North Korea.

Two constitutions, no solutions

Burma’s military government has reopened its constitutional convention for the fifth and final time, whereby a new charter will be finalized and go to a referendum; thereafter the country will supposedly return to some kind of civilian administration.

Whether or not any of this actually happens remains to be seen. The country has been without a constitution since 1988 and the current draft has been on the drawing board since around 1992. Media reports indicate that matters still up for final review include the holding of elections, political party affairs, states of emergency, measures to further amend the constitution, the national flag and seal, the transitional period and “miscellaneous” provisions—which seems rather a lot for one session.

Still, the hint of new surface movement has created a little ripple abroad too. United Nations representatives, US and Chinese officials, assorted experts and others have been trying to reopen dialogue with the regime. While high-level discussions are underway and ideas are being put on tables, key actors are interfacing. So is there anything new in this, or is it just more of the same?

Perhaps to shift the blame for years of failed negotiations, various parties outside of Burma have in recent times complained that both the military regime and its political opponents, specifically Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, are being unreasonably obstinate. If only each side would give in a bit, couldn’t things be worked out?

The short answer is no. This is because the military, which already holds power and only stands to lose it, does not want to work things out. The generals have long applied what a bureaucrat on the BBC comedy series “Yes Minister” once described as “the law of inverse relevance”—the less you intend to do about something, the more you have to keep talking about it. Activity is bluff, dialogue is delay. Whereas the political opposition may not budge from its principles, the army just doesn’t budge.

Therefore, when UN representatives and experts talk about reopening talks, it must be understood that a radical difference exists between their view of what they are doing and that of their interlocutors. While for one side dialogue is intended to achieve progress, for the other it is intended to achieve naught. This is best illustrated in the drafting of the constitution that has taken 15 years to reach some kind of predictable end. There is no sign how much longer it will take to get through the remaining tasks, undertaken in phases, in accordance with national objectives, with an incoherent roadmap and of course, the people’s desires— before the whole thing is over and done with.

Meanwhile, another entirely different group has been busy with its own draft constitution. In 1997, political exiles published an alternate charter, envisioning a federal state rather than a unitary one. With the advice and assistance of international donors and interested professionals, a further version under a new coordinating committee was released in 2006. Apparently, its work too is ongoing.

The obvious question is, why bother with yet another draft constitution? When the army has endlessly reviewed and revised its charter to stall political change, what reasons would prompt persons outside Burma to spend years rewriting, coordinating, brainstorming, debating and consulting on a document that will never actually take effect?

While it may bring some intellectual satisfaction and emotional succor to those involved, it is unlikely to enthrall millions in the country, already bored sick by the minutiae of various constitutional committees, subcommittees, delegates, and officials that saturate nightly television broadcasts. Those who watch such telecasts long enough are at least rewarded with the latest episode of a hot Korean drama or a live English Football Association Cup broadcast; the regime’s opponents don’t even have this much on offer.

The two constitution-drafting processes are equally pointless, although for completely different reasons. One group has the power to implement its charter, but has no genuine commitment while the other has commitment but no power. Whereas for the first, constitution writing is a strategic exercise, for the second it is largely academic. Moreover, for people throughout Burma, there is no advantage in either. No unique expertise or remarkable analytical skills are needed to grasp that it is the army’s sole aim to keep itself as the arbiter of the country’s future, and to see that the writing of imaginary alternatives will do little to solve its seemingly intractable problems.

Almost two decades of diplomatic niceties, advice from overpaid specialists, training by well-meaning constitutional experts and toying with substitute charters have failed to bring any meaningful change in Burma. By now, scholars and funding agencies alike should have learned to stay away from constitutional pipe dreams and stick to reality instead. They should contribute by learning about what is actually going on in the country and get involved in relevant work and discussions on the lives of the majority of people there, rather than theorizing.

United Nations experts and diplomats should have learned that if they intend to go head-to-head with the regime, then they must first understand the intricacies of structural obstacles to meaningful reforms in Burma, rather than engaging in simplistic political debates and making piecemeal humanitarian gestures. Otherwise, another decade will pass and the country will still be in much the same spot as it is now. The military will thus have achieved its objective while everyone else will have wasted their time.

Pointless predictions about a haphazard state

The latest one-year extension to the house arrest of Burma’s democracy icon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in May 2007 brought with it the usual speculation about the country’s future and the thinking of its military rulers. What will be their next steps? Are they going to abandon any pretence at reform? Will there be a renewed clampdown on opponents? What’s happening to the constitution drafting convention?

Conjecture on these and other questions, such as those about Burma’s strategic position and its presumed nuclear aspirations, serves little purpose because no one actually has any answers. For years, presumed experts, diplomats and exiled political leaders have excelled at making wrong forecasts about Burma.

As far back as the mid-1980s one prominent scholar anticipated that the socialist state would remain durable for years to come; it collapsed shortly thereafter. He has since repeatedly got it wrong—for instance, in 2005 insisting that there would be a new constitution within a year—yet his pronouncements continue to be treated with respect rather than ridicule. A fellow expert declared that a parliament would be set up in the same period. Both are supposed to have good contacts inside the government; neither gave any sign that they knew of the plan to pack up the country’s entire bureaucracy and move it to mosquito-infested farmlands hundreds of miles inland.

While academics and policymakers abroad pass off their stabs in the dark as analysis, exiled political activists and their sympathizers bounce from one failed hopeful prediction to the next. In the late 1980s and early ‘90s they pooh-poohed the generals, cracking jokes about their lack of education and supposedly limited intellectual abilities, expecting the regime to collapse from sheer incompetence. Later, the demise of former dictator General Ne Win was supposed to provoke an equally fatal power struggle among the army elite, but his relatives and supporters were accused of conspiring against the state and bundled up before he died. Similarly, growing excitement about rivalry between a couple of senior officers dissipated when one was suddenly arrested for alleged corruption, and his network dismantled.

Anyone wanting to gain insight about Burma’s future might as well spin a bottle as ask an expert. But why is it so difficult to get right? The reason is not just that the regime and its institutions are relatively inaccessible to outsiders; it is that they are completely haphazard. What is true one day is not true the next. What goes on one occasion does not go on another. Although the current leadership does not openly change monetary policy or traffic rules on the whims of astrologers, as Ne Win did, the behavior of the government and its agencies owes much more to habits ingrained during his decades in power than to any policy or directive since. Arbitrariness is not just a feature of administration in Burma; it is its defining characteristic.

Persons imputing some form of rational behaviour to statecraft find this difficult to understand. Conventional political theories struggle where there is no discernible pattern to authoritarianism, apart from the imperative to remain in charge. It is relatively easy for people from established democracies to think of dictatorship as highly-organized; Orwellian, totalitarian. It is much harder to think of it as being as confused as it is controlled, as it is in Burma today.

There is no way of knowing what’s going to happen next in Burma, because there are no reasonable grounds upon which to sort facts from fiction and anticipate the future with any degree of certainty. Instead of engaging in pointless guesswork about what might be, persons concerned about the country would do much better to confine themselves to what is: the appalling conditions in which millions of ordinary people are forced to subsist from day to day; broken-down schools and hospitals; a system of policing and local administration that operates with complete impunity; courts that have long since ceased to function as anything other than an arm of the executive. Useful contributions about Burma should be distinguished and acknowledged for persistent detailed study of the obvious, rather than meaningless speculation about the unknowable.

The inanity of dictatorship

A group of schoolchildren in Burma were recently given a lesson on the inanity of their government and its officialdom. According to a report by the Thailand-based Yoma 3 news group, representatives of the Myanmar Maternal and Child Welfare Association came on 6 June 2007 to distribute free books to students at a middle school in Shwepyithar, an industrial area among Rangoon’s outskirts. They posed for photographs on the school grounds with the chairman of the local council, the books and the children. When done, they took the books back and left the children with nothing.

This little event speaks volumes about how dictatorship debilitates society. Whereas all ceremony is in part about something being seen to be done, it is in most places also about something actually being done: the awarding of a prize, the giving of a donation, the opening of an edifice. But in Burma, whether or not something is actually done has long since ceased to be of primary importance. What matters above all is the affirmation that it has been done, through endless public performances choreographed to demonstrate the benevolence of the state and wisdom of its agents, irrespective of reality.

Official observances are important to autocrats because they put everyone else in his or her correct place. In Burma, teachers, students, parents and members of the public are co-opted to witness and applaud the largesse of their self-appointed leaders. They are reduced to the role of silent passengers on endless bureaucratic voyages. Whether at a ceremony to hand out books that are never actually given, to open a hospital that has no doctors or drugs, or to discuss a chapter of a constitution that is never actually finished, the respective roles of all participants are predetermined and unchanging.

In a 1990 performance recorded on video that can be viewed via You Tube, Burma’s most famous comedian makes a mockery of these public rituals. Waves of laughter roll across the stage as Zarganar and his troupe hold their “Beggars’ Convention”. A man in rags formally announces the arrival of The Chairman to others squatting on the floor amid filth and bandages. Zarganar approaches regally and tugs at his national headgear, only to find a bit fall off. He opens his mouth to speak and even before the first sentence is finished the assembled delegates chorus agreement. This biting ridicule earned Zarganar four years in jail. Although continuing to joke, he has since been subjected to frequent bans and has been forced to be more circumspect in what and how he satirizes.

The tragedy of Burma is that it is a country full of brilliant and creative people, none of whom are welcome to contribute anything to the state. As in all dictatorships, it is the dull and mediocre who get ahead. Cardboard-cutout army officers parade nightly around the television news, followed by their untalented children performing bad MTV covers and selling toothpaste. Scholars and writers of dubious credentials are feted with literary awards while the greats of the 20th century fade one by one into the distance. Artists unwilling to compromise their integrity produce obscure works of hidden significance, beyond the comprehension of both the censors and the general public. And as for students, those who succeed are certainly not the ones waiting in vain for a free book: while in most countries money and privilege count in getting an education, in Burma these days they count far more than in most.

Dictatorship is bad not just because it permits abuses and perverts institutions, but because it willfully denies talent and saps enthusiasm. It obliges people to be champions of their own debasement. While a few openly resist, most unwillingly go along until it looks safe to do something else. Whatever else happens, the struggle for change in Burma will have to overcome the accumulated suspicions of these millions who have repeatedly had things put in front of them only to have them cruelly snatched away again.

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