Burma’s cheap muscle

Burma Desk, Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong

Police stations around Burma have a sign at their gates saying, “May I help you”, but for most citizens the hope is not so much for the police to help them as to do them no harm. That the police force in Burma today is both abusive and corrupt is unsurprising given its history and role as an auxiliary agency serving the interests of a parade of military leaders. Nor is it remarkable among countries in Asia, where police in many parts are both feared and despised, or among former British colonies in Africa, like Nigeria and Ghana. But what stands out is the extent to which abusive and corrupt policing has been openly and officially discussed for so long with so little discernible improvement.

Not only have courts at all levels under successive governments heard stories of abuse; it has been a subject for official debate in one form or another since even before the police force was formally established in Burma. The governor of Bengal as early as 1834 acknowledged that torture was a standard method of criminal inquiry there, adding that, “The whole of the police is abhorred and detested by the people, who never apply for its aid, and think those most fortunate who [by] circumstances are placed from its influence.” Similar laments were subsequently heard among administrators in Burma, with the commissioner in Sandoway, W B Tydd recalling in his 1912 report that even before a uniform force was established “it required constant attention to keep the police from petty acts of annoyance and oppression” and that “the Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal noted that the police of Arakan were even more than usually inefficient”. Almost identical words were used in the report of the Indian Police Commission of 1902– 03, which said of the force that it “is far from efficient; it is defective in training and organization; it is inadquately supervised; it is generally regarded as corrupt and oppressive; and it has utterly failed to secure the confidence and cordial cooperation of the people”. Yet reports continued to be filled with complaints about inferior quality personnel who resorted to perjury, concealment, and the faking of evidence in their attempts to convict suspects. The problem pursued the British colonial regime to the end of its days in Burma, the Riot Inquiry Committee in 1938 damningly concluding that

If there is anything more than another which is responsible for the stubborn resistance of crime to all attempts to decrease its volume in Burma, it is, we think, the universal distrust of the police… We have met throughout with… abhorrence of the police and an almost universal prejudice even among respectable people against them.

After the Second World War, yet another committee concurred that, “There is unquestionably a feeling among the general public that the police are oppressive and corrupt”, advising against the granting to police of any further authority than they already had. In a letter written before being appointed governor, Hubert Rance expressed dismay at the decrepit shape of the force, recommending that priority be given to pay increases and other police affairs, remarking that he was “amused but somewhat horrified by an article which appeared in the local press referring to the corruption of the Burma Police by a statement that ‘when a woman is down and out she becomes a prostitute, but that when a man becomes a down and out he becomes a policeman’”.

Why, if the talk about the need for police reform was constant, was the problem not adequately addressed? One reason was the expectancy that the police were bad and nothing much could really be done other than to put up with them. This attitude among administrators had a self-fulfilling effect. As police were already ‘usually inefficient’ only ‘unusually inefficient’ units and personnel attracted special interest and some limited effort to have them change their ways. Another closely related reason was that there was no advantage for the colonial regime in expending a great deal of time, money or personnel to reform the

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police. As the model of crime and the policing response to it did not for the most part oblige respectful, skilled police but just those who knew how to use their weapons and keep the public in its place, there was no strong incentive to come up with anything different. While some specialized agencies were developed and senior officers received sophisticated training, mostly to monitor and counter the growing nationalist movement, the body of the force remained, as it was from the beginning, cheap muscle.

As with other parts of the criminal justice system in Burma, there were few changes to the police in the period after independence, and the same practices that characterized policing under the colonial regime continued. Again, the corrupt and abusive behaviour of police was publicly acknowledged, with the first prime minister, U Nu, citing cases of police supplying guns to armed gangs and politicians, and releasing criminal accused on pressure from members of his own political party. To address the systemic corrupt practices known to exist not only in the police but also throughout the public service, Nu took the unprecedented step of setting up an independent investigative agency, the Bureau of Special Investigation, making it answerable directly to the prime minister. At the swearing in of its members in 1951 he stressed that, “At the outset I want to make it clear that that Bureau of Special Investigation is formed not to harass the people but to contribute its quota in the noble work of stabilizing the Union.” He was subsequently forced to defend the bureau against people alleging that it was itself corrupt. The BSI had some successes but after General Ne Win took power for good in 1962 it was brought back under the same roof as the police and its original purpose was defeated.

Although since 1962 there have been no public inquiries into the work of the police and not so many documents published on their activities, a few cases have still found their way into the law reports where police corruption and abuses are implied or made explicit, in some instances concerning serious crimes. In the Maung Tin Han case from just after 1962, for instance, police waylaid and repeatedly raped two women who had been working as prostitutes, apparently concluding that nobody would care about what happened to them [1967 BLR (SCCAC) 30]. The police gang raped them in a number of premises, including in religious buildings and in their station. They took photographs of them naked and assaulted one with a belt. They allegedly stole money from both. When one of the women tried to lodge a complaint, the desk officer refused to record it and instead charges were lodged against her and her companion. The police also concealed or destroyed evidence, and arranged for false witnesses when a case was opened against them: practices speaking to systemic problems and habitual abuse, mirroring methods used at police stations in Bangladesh or Sri Lanka operating according to the same procedures staffed with officers cognizant of the same lacunae they contain. In the years since there have been fewer and fewer of such cases in the law reports, by virtue of reduced emphasis upon precedent, corresponding reduced scope and detail of the reports’ contents, and the defeat of the independent judiciary in Burma. Nonetheless, those cases that have been reported do speak to continued official awareness of police brutality and corruption. Here are a few:

  • Villagers accused three police of robbing and assaulting them in June 1963. Upon study of the case, a court found that there was evidence that they had assaulted a village elder and another person but not in the manner or for the reason claimed, and so it acquitted them because of a mismatch between the allegations and the facts [Maung Kyaw Hpe vs. Union of Burma, 1965 BLR (SCCAC) 34].
  • Two officers were convicted in 1964 of having accepted bribes to cover up the theft of copper from a warehouse in Rangoon. They claimed in their defence that their station commander had instructed them to take the money, although the court refused to accept this claim for reasons that it did not make clear [Maung Chit Hpe and Another vs. Union of Burma, 1967 BLR (SCCAC) 56].
  • A court in 1965 upheld the conviction of an on-duty police officer accused of taking a teenage worker from a bus stop in Rangoon during the early hours and raping her in his box, stating that the offence not only breached his oath and duty as an officer but was injurious to the workers’ building of a socialist economy [Maung Kyaw Tint vs. Union of Burma, 1965 BLR (SCCAC) 41].
  • In a case cited in 1967, police in Pegu Division summoned, detained and raped three women in their police station because their husbands had joined the communist insurgents. The perpetrators included the station commander. At the time one of the three victims was pregnant and the other two had small children together with them [Maung Aung Than and 5 vs. Union of Burma, 1967 BLR (SCCAC) 131].
  • Police in 1973 accused a man of giving false information that another person tried to burn down his house after the latter was acquitted. The former was sentenced to six months imprisonment or a fine. Upon appeal it was revealed that the police had no evidence to support the charge and had assaulted the original defendant to get him to testify against the other [U Kyaw vs. Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma, 1976 BLR (CC) 1].
  • Two brothers accused police of torture in order to extract from one of them a confession over the stabbing murder of his aunt. According to the brother of the accused, when he visited him in the lockup he had a swollen face and had difficulty walking, and claimed to have been assaulted; however, the court in 1991 rejected the argument on the false reasoning because the accused was brought to give a confession after four days there were no signs of torture, and as neither of the two lodged a separate formal complaint alleging the abuse there could not have been any [Maung Maung Kyi vs. Union of Myanmar, 1991 MLR (SC) 103].
  • The following year, the court heard another case of alleged torture in order to extract a confession, concerning incidents of theft from two official warehouses and the burning down of one at the height of antigovernment demonstrations in 1988. The accused told the court that he had been assaulted at the station and police had instructed him to confess that he had been paid by the warehouse manager to burn it down, even though it was revealed that the fire had probably started by accident. In this instance the police story came to pieces under cross-examination and the judges found the lower court remiss in not examining the full evidence before handing down a death sentence [Union of Myanmar/Toe Yi vs. Toe Yi/Union of Myanmar, 1992 MLR (SC) 28]
  • Two police officers, an inspector and constable, were charged in 2003 with extortion after they allegedly arrested and detained two persons and demanded 650,000 Kyat (about USD 520) for their release. (No finding on the alleged crime was given as the question that came to the Supreme Court through an injunction was about the law under which the accused were charged, not the question of guilt or innocence to be decided in the lower court) [U Thaung Shwe vs. Union of Myanmar and 5, 2004 MLR (SC) 37)Screen Shot 2015-12-21 at 2.33.45 PM

    Aside from the few cases in the law reports where the corruption and abuse is explicitly alleged, there is a much larger number where it is implied, particularly where statements, confessions and other forms of evidence have been contested. There are also an unknown number of cases where violence or corruption has been directly or indirectly alleged that never make it to the official reports, including ordinary cases and ‘policy cases’ where the lawyers appearing for protestors or dissidents have openly accused the police and other security personnel of illegal arrest, arbitrary detention, and torture. (For details of such cases, see the special reports on Burma in article 2, vol. 6, no. 5-6, October-December 2007; and vol. 7, no. 3, September 2008.) There are also of course the alleged incidents reported almost daily in exiled and overseas-based media reports, like these:

    Police in Daik-U Township reportedly arrested four members of the same family after a fifth escaped arrest on 19 March 2005 for playing guitar to keep himself awake while on sentry duty the night before. The police also allegedly assaulted the four, including the absconder’s 70-year-old father and his mother, and dragged the elderly man into the street naked (Democratic Voice of Burma [DVB], 3 April 2005).

    A drunken constable attached to the Tamu Police Station allegedly raped a 13-year-old girl on 30 July 2004. The officer was subsequently arrested (DVB, 5 August 2004). In a similar case the following year, the 25-year-old victim was allegedly forced to marry and then divorce her attacker, but after doing the first reportedly refused to do the second (DVB, 31 May 2005). However, the family of a 12-year-old police rape victim in Mandalay was repeatedly coerced to take money to settle the matter (DVB, 17 January 2006).

    A police officer came to take 30-year-old timber cutter Aung Myint Oo to a police station in Meikhtila Township in February 2006. The policeman supposedly didn’t inform him that there was a warrant pending and the man declined to go. The policeman came back with his superior and about 14 other officers, who allegedly beat up Aung Myint Oo in the street. When they took him to the courthouse the judge was reportedly shocked and ordered them to take him to hospital. The police later came and took him from the hospital against the protests of the doctor that his wounds were not healed (Voice of America [VOA], 17 February 2006). In the same township, relatives of 36-year-old Ko Kyaw Htay insisted that he had died in police custody on 29 July 2007 due to torture (DVB, 2 August 2007).

    Prison staff in February 2006 reportedly refused to accept 42-year-old Ko Thein Shwe, who had been given a three- month sentence for drunkenness, because of his poor physical condition. He was brought back to the Bogalay lock-up where he suffered delirium tremens, so the police chief had his hands and feet restrained. As he was kept like this and not fed he became unruly and police sentries allegedly came and assaulted him with rifle butts, fists and feet, killing him. A charity cremated him before his family received news of his death (Yoma 3, 20 February 2006). Similarly, police moved in to break up a rowdy crowd at a variety performance in a pagoda compound of Taunggup Township on 4 January 2007, and arrested 30- year-old Htwi Maung. The next morning he was sent to a local hospital but was dead on arrival. The victim was a cycle rickshaw driver and around 200 of his peers reportedly gathered at the township police station to demand action against the culprits. Meanwhile, his wife was threatened not to open a case against the alleged perpetrators (Yoma 3, 14 February 2007).

    The police chief in Kyimyindaing on 8 June 2006 arrested and allegedly assaulted Ma Khin Mar Lwin, a washerwoman, one of whose clients accused her of stealing things. During the alleged assault in the police station her eardrums burst. She was later released and the station chief together with officers from the government-organized Union Solidarity and Development Association and women’s affairs association offered her hush money (DVB, 13 June 2006). The next month, police in Insein also allegedly detained and for two days tortured Ko Moe Zaw Htet as a suspect in an ordinary crime. The methods of alleged torture included electric shock, dripping of hot wax onto his face, and dousing in water mixed with chili. They then called his wife to the police station and allegedly tricked her into signing something that they could use to cover up the incident (DVB, 14 August 2006). And police in Thanlyin during November 2008 allegedly held and tortured overnight a police and fire brigade volunteer on claims that he had been involved in theft and forgery. The methods of torture they used allegedly included running a rolling pin up and down his shins. They released him the next day and he and other volunteers resigned in protest. The local council chairman reportedly told them not to bother with making a complaint, as he would quash it (DVB, 20 November 2008).

    Three members of the anti-drug squad in Myitkyina, Kachin State, allegedly beat 22-year-old Maran Seng Awng to death in public on 30 July 2007, warning onlookers to keep a distance before taking him away in a motorized rickshaw. Even as he died in hospital the officers allegedly threatened bystanders. Officials allegedly offered his mother money and warned her not to pursue a complaint (Mizzima, 6 August 2007).

    A man accused of involvement in a gang stealing Buddha statues from religious sites allegedly died in the custody of Magwe Division Police Station No. 1 after being assaulted during interrogation in June 2008 (DVB, 25 June 2008). In a similar case from the same region in 2006, involving the theft of the diamond-encrusted tip from the spire of a pagoda, local police allegedly detained some 60 persons, while also supposedly taking bribes from the chairman of the pagoda trustees to protect the real culprits (DVB, 26 January 2006). And in yet another case of this type a pagoda trustee reportedly died in 2007 sitting in a chair waiting to be registered at the prison after he and six others were also accused of stealing the gemstones from the top of a pagoda and were allegedly assaulted during police interrogation (DVB, 9 August 2007).

    The driver of a motorized tractor-trailer in Nyaunglebin whose vehicle a drunken man on a motorcycle with two pillions hit in February 2009 was reportedly blamed for the incident and told to pay over a million kyat as compensation; it emerged that the bike driver was related to a detective at the local station, and the policeman and his superior doctored records and opened a case against the trailer driver to extort money from him (DVB, 2 March 2009). Meanwhile, police in Moulmein had reportedly detained and assaulted some 70 people after somebody stole money and a mobile phone from the wife of the regional army commander (DVB, 20 February 2009).

    These and many other reports of their type have a number of consistent features that indicate the persistence of systemic abuse and corruption in policing in Burma since the colonial period to the current day:

    1. The use of violence is routine. Police deal with suspects either through threat of brutality or its performance.

    2. Violence and the threat of violence follow in all types of cases. Many serious assaults and killings follow from trivial incidents or from police acting out on personal interests or out of a favour to someone else; perhaps a local businessperson, council member, relative or family friend.

    3. Police enjoy a high level of impunity but it is tempered by the fact that in Burma the police force is a subordinate of the armed forces and weaker in the executive structure than the local councils. The lack of effective criminal investigative agencies or a working independent judiciary together with the power that police wield over people in their localities offer certain guarantees of safety for wrongdoing; however, to protect themselves the police need to ensure that the local authorities in these institutions too will either back them up or not get involvedScreen Shot 2015-12-21 at 2.40.20 PMScreen Shot 2015-12-21 at 2.38.35 PM

    The full extent of police corruption in Burma is at present impossible to estimate, apart from saying that it is endemic. According to people working in the judicial system, it arises mostly in conjunction with corruption in other parts of the system, such that a police officer, court clerk, prosecutor and judge will all receive payments to cooperate in having a serious charge changed to a lesser one or to have a charge dropped altogether. Then there are the sorts of protection rackets for gambling syndicates and brothels that are found all around the world, and traffic police openly collect money from checkpoints and off intersections. There are also less direct and more institutionally organized forms of corruption, such as the confiscating or leasing at below market rates of land for the growing of crops and plantations with the use of free or underpaid labour of local persons: the types of activities commonly associated with army battalions. While some of these plantations may be intended to raise income, in other places, such as on well-traveled roads, they may be intended to advertise support for a national agenda, such as by planting physic nuts for biofuel.

    Together, these practices indicate an institutional psyche associated with regime-service and self-service policing, rather than with policing as a public service. The mentality that the role of the police is to follow orders, get whatever one can at the same time, and to hell with everyone else comes out in how police interact with members of the public, where even the simplest exchanges are coarsened and accompanied with an attitude that the citizen has no right to know, and in some cases, that it is even impertinent of them to ask. A young man’s account of his arrest in Rangoon mid-2007 for a minor offence is typical:

    I’d gone to give money to my father in Shwepyithar and as I was returning around 8:20, [the police officer] didn’t ask, “Where’re you going? What’re you coming from?” He called me to get on the motorcycle: “You follow me to the station.” “Which station must I follow to?” “You’ll know once you’ve arrived.”

    At the station, he learned that he was to be charged with vagrancy, even though he had been returning to his home at time of arrest, and with being drunk and disorderly; he was rushed through a court hearing along with ten others likewise charged before getting a short jail term. This ‘what’s it to you’ attitude extends to relations with persons in other parts of the criminal justice system, such as private lawyers and prosecutors.

    Abusive policing is a feature of all authoritarian regimes, be they nakedly repressive like the one in Burma or the sort to maintain a veneer of democratic process, like in Sri Lanka and, for the time being, in Pakistan. This is both a direct consequence of regime imperatives for control as well as the bad habits that these imperatives inculcate, encourage and exacerbate. Attempts to address and reduce the incidence of abusive and corrupt behaviour are unsuccessful where regime interests predominate and there is a lack of public support because of skepticism and low expectancy of results. In Burma, the breadth and depth of military control over policing rule out the prospects of reform in the absence of corresponding political change, and the lack of effective avenues for complaint and redress by comparison even to most other countries in Asia are major obstacles to victims of abuse and corrupt practices.

    Whether or not the decline or demise of military control over government in Burma would result in a more autonomous and perhaps better-functioning police force remains to be seen. Although political change will certainly bring demands for reform, and attract international agencies with generic remedies and the wherewithal to have them swallowed, the habits of a century- and-a-half are unlikely to be quickly broken, and there will be many vested interests keen to have old practices continue. That in other countries of Asia that have experienced must greater social and political change in recent decades, such as the Philippines and Pakistan, the police have remained highly resistant to attempts at reform speaks to the durability of entrenched institutional behaviour. For the foreseeable future the police in Burma will remain the same cheap and abusive muscle that they’ve always been.

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