Over the last week Burma, or Myanmar, has witnessed the re-emergence of some of the most sinister methods of handling public demonstrations in its modern history. The police and civilian attack mobs have violently broken up demonstrations of workers and students in the former capital, Rangoon (Yangon), and the town of Letpadan to its north. Government officials have after the violent dispersal of crowds spread ugly fabrications about what is happening, and what police are or are not authorized to do: fabrications that are the stuff of military dictatorship, not an ostensibly democratizing country.
Police prepare to enter the fray during a crackdown on student protesters in Letpadan on March 10. (Photo courtesy with the permission by The Irrawaddy)
In Rangoon, on 4 March 2015 police together with members of a civilian gang attacked over a hundred workers protesting for higher wages and better conditions at the Shwepyithar industrial zone in the city’s north, and took over of dozen into custody, after the labour ministry had described the workers as “riotous” and had, in the manner of the thugs sent out to beat them up, crudely threatened the workers with violence. The following day, the police and civilians with red armbands attacked a small group of demonstrators gathered outside the Rangoon town hall in support of student protesters encamped at Letpadan, north of the city, calling for amendments to the national education law. Video footage posted on YouTube by the Democratic Voice of Burma shows members of the gang in a melee with protestors before police surge in with batons, pulling some onto waiting vehicles and clearing out the area.
Then, on March 10 the police also broke up the student protest camp at Letpadan with the use of barely restrained violence, officially arresting 127 students. The details of the attack are still emerging; however, according to some accounts there too non-police personnel were among those involved in the crackdown. Again, DVB has posted footage on YouTubeshowing scenes of utter chaos as policemen assault protestors everywhere and smash up vehicles standing idle and unoccupied to the sound of announcements over loudspeakers that the assembly was illegal and that for “the rule of law and community peace” the home affairs ministry was taking action under section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code to disperse it.
Three fabrications have accompanied these events: fabrications that in the opinion of the Asian Human Rights Commission must be clearly identified and addressed, lest these events be misunderstood and misrepresented, and thereby be repeated in the future.
Falsification No. 1: “Swunashin” no longer exist
According to presidential spokesman and information minister U Ye Htut in reports of March 6, the term previously used to describe the civilian attack gangs, “Swunashin”, which translates loosely as “masters of force”, no longer exists. The Swunashin were used by military dictatorship throughout the 2000s, and most noticeably in 2007 in response to monk-led protests, as a civilian force to disperse demonstrators. Ye Htut’s facile point is that as the term no longer exists, nor do such gangs.
To say that “Swunashin” no longer exists is a meaningless statement that misrepresents the issue because it is to pretend to announce the non-existence of a group that never formally existed in the first place. The group was not officially proclaimed or declared to exist at all. That was precisely its point: that it be an unofficial and ambiguous entity that would cause confusion, and whose actions could be denied and forgotten after the fact. Therefore the question of its existence or non-existence according to official announcements is pointless. What matters for the purposes of the current discussion is only the fact that the same methods are being used to attack and detain protestors as during the darkest days of dictatorship in the 2000s: and the methods are not only familiar in their general features but also in their particulars, including, for instance, the use of Dyna public transport vehicles to move the members of the gang into and out of the location, and also if necessary to transport detained persons away from the site. For anyone attentive to the work of the Swunashin, it is all too obvious that the same features that could be identified in the work of the attack gang of old are manifest in the actions of the attack gangs in recent days. In short, for all intents and purposes, insofar as an entity known as Swunashin ever existed, in the actions of the attack gangs of the last week it lives again.
Falsification No. 2: Only regional police and government know what is going on
Ye Htut added in the same comments that only the Rangoon regional police and authorities would know who the groups of men were and how they were organised, and journalists should contact them for details. In other words, his point is that as spokesperson for the president he should not be expected to know or have to respond to questions on such issues, and that nor is the president responsible for such matters.
It does not serve as any kind of excuse for the spokesman to say that the attacks are a matter of the local authorities decision-making about which the central government knows nothing. Were this expedient applied in every kind of human rights abuse then any sovereign state could offer up this excuse literally every occasion it were asked something in an international forum about its domestic affairs. The central state is, whether the spokesman likes it or not, responsible for what happened on the streets of Rangoon. Furthermore, not only legally but also factually his explanation also is entirely without merit, because Burma is not a federal state in which police forces keep to their own jurisdictions and different agencies must request information from one another, but a highly centralized and unitary one. The police force is under the central control of the home affairs ministry, in the capital city. Therefore, should the central government choose to know about what is going on it can at all times do so. Whether or not it chooses to know, or whether or not it divulges what it knows or what it ordered does not absolve it in any way of responsibility or make it any less blameworthy. On the contrary, the vapid explanations of the spokesperson make it more deserving of criticism, since it shows just how little interest the ostensibly democratising government of Burma has in addressing issues of public dissent in a democratic, or even merely humane or civilized manner.
Falsification No. 3: Organizing civilian levies to attack civilians is legal
According to both U Ye Htut and the Chief Minister of Rangoon Region, U Myint Swe, the organisation of civilian attack gangs is authorized under section 128 of the Criminal Procedure Code, whereby an officer in charge of a police station or judge can in the event of an unauthorized assembly “disperse such assembly by force, and may require the assistance of any male person… for the purpose of dispersing the assembly, and, if necessary, arresting and confining the persons who form part of it”. Critics of the attacks have rightly complained that these provisions, written by colonial autocrats for a different period in history, are out of step with public aspirations for democratic change–although insofar as the country’s 2011 Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law serves to prohibit rather than authorize people wanting to demonstrate, it could be said that they are consistent with everything that the government of Burma has continued to do in its period of ostensible political reform, even if they are not consistent with the aspirations of the country’s citizenry.
However, not only are the claims of the information minister and chief minister reprehensible from a political point of view, they are also falsifications of the law. Although section 128 does allow for the raising of a civilian levy, it does not say that police can go out and willy-nilly round up some thugs and teenagers, slap a few arm bands on them and send them to beat people up. The police in taking these steps must comply with the Police Manual and 1945 Police Act. According to paragraphs 1057 and 1058 of the Police Manual, a police officer apprehending a situation that he cannot control needs to notify and obtain approval from a court to take the step of raising a civilian force, and according to section 27 of the Police Act, the request must be made by a police officer not below a rank of an officer now classed as a police major. Yet, no evidence exists to suggest that the police in recent days complied with any of these legal requirements, nor, for that matter, with the other provisions in the Police Manual concerning careful selecting and systematic management of such civilian levies, to ensure that they do not commit abuses of precisely the sort that were freely committed in recent days.
Furthermore, the provision of such a civilian force must be, according to section 27 of the Police Act, for the purposes of dealing with a situation in which “the police force ordinarily employed for preserving the peace is not sufficient”. Yet, the crowd of protestors attacked in the centre of Rangoon numbered only a few dozen people, and the strikers on the city’s outskirts, only a few hundred. To suggest that the existing police forces are inadequate for dealing with such gatherings would be utterly preposterous. Therefore, the choice to use civilian attack gangs is without basis in law and the claims of the spokesman and chief minister that the arrangements of recent days are lawful are sheer fabrications.
These attacks on civilians are of course by no means the first in the current era of political change. Farmers protesting the theft of land by the military and cronies have come under repeated attack. When people among their number fall as casualties, like Daw Khin Win, shot dead at the Letpadaung copper mine site, nothing happens to the responsible officials; however, when they fight back and a police officer or official becomes a casualty, the farmers are themselves imprisoned, as in the case of the farmers disputing land taken from them in Ma-Ubin. Unfortunately, erstwhile allies, like elite members of the National League for Democracy, have done little to stem the violence and by their inaction, silence or tacit acceptance of the government position have perhaps encouraged the continuation of such attacks up to the present.
In this regard, commissions of inquiry–like one the government has yet again announced to look into the violence outside the town hall–have also to date proven a convenient device not by which to get at the truth and address impunity but to further obfuscate and falsify. No better example exists than the commission into the Letpadaung copper mine operation, where police violently attacked encamped protestors, most of them monks. The investigation commission, headed by no lesser a personage than Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, succeeded only in covering up the facts and patronizing the aggrieved persons, adding insult to injury and contributing to the continuation of violence at the mine site up to the present day. Nor is the commission formed to look into the violence at the town hall independent: instead its head is a deputy home affairs minister, Brigadier General Kyaw Kyaw Tun; and all of its other members are government officials. Pretend solutions like this one to violence of the sort people in Myanmar have yet again seen in recent days are not at all what the country needs, and are only going to be greeted with further scepticism and pessimism about what is going on and why.
Inaction and tacit acceptance of the situation is no longer an option. With the latest attacks and falsifications Burma has tilted precipitously back towards its dark past, and talk about there being no u-turns, no going back to earlier practices, sounds more and more hollow. For these reasons, the Asian Human Rights Commission condemns both the attacks and the falsifications of government officials that have followed in the strongest possible terms, and urges all parties concerned with the current situation in Burma to do the same. The government of Burma for its part must stop both the violence and the obfuscations and falsifications, and accept responsibility for what has happened, if it is to avoid repetitions. And, if the violence of recent days–and the manner in which it has been performed–is repeated in the days ahead, then we will be right to conclude that in their falsifications government officials in Burma are, along with the police force, telling a very different story from the one they are claiming to tell.
A police officer holds a demonstrator in a headlock during the Letpadan crackdown on Tuesday. (Photo courtesy with the permission by The Irrawaddy)
The Asian Human Rights Commission earnestly hopes for the sake of the people of Burma it is not the case that the country’s authorities wish to drag its people back to earlier decades of wanton violence and violations of human rights, and that any further such incidents can be forestalled, and all those persons detained in recent days released and treated not as enemies but as legitimate participants in dialogue over the country’s future, for its betterment. If government officials in Burma who claim to want democracy are serious about their claims then they have to demonstrate their commitment to the democratic ideal, not merely mouth their support to it. Above all, this ideal rests not in the notion that office-holders are right and anyone who disagrees with them are wrong and deserves to be punished for refusing to change their views, but in the notion that everyone has a right to express his or her opinion and to act on it to the extent that it does not impinge on the rights of others. Inasmuch as the demonstrators in Shwepyithar, downtown Rangoon and Letpadan were doing just that, they were acting democratically, and deserve to have their expressions and actions heard and respected.