BURMA: Public assaults and deaths in custody; no one to investigate

In recent days a spate of public assaults by the police and deaths in custody has been reported by independent media monitoring conditions in Burma. 

According to the Oslo-based Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) Radio, on 27 July 2007 a 58-year-old man died while being transferred from police detention to a prison in Mandalay Division, upper Burma. U Ohn Kyaing was among seven pagoda trustees from Pan-aing village arrested and charged over the theft of the historic Shwemawdhaw Pagoda’s diamond-topped umbrella. He had allegedly been tortured during interrogation at Meiktila Police Station No. 1 and not received medical attention. The court hearings are continuing against the remaining six. 

Two days later, a young man accused of stealing a motorcycle also died in the custody of the same police. Ko Kyaw Htay, 36, was kept in the police lock-up after being arrested at his house late at night by a unit of ten officers from Meiktila Police Station No. 2 on July 27, who according to his mother began assaulting him from the moment that they slapped on handcuffs; he was later transferred to the same station as U Ohn Kyaing, where he allegedly died. Visitors were denied access to him just a few hours before his death.  

Meanwhile, on July 30 a young man was reportedly beaten to death by special drug squad police operating in the capital of the northern Kachin State. According to the Delhi-based Mizzima news service, 22-year-old Maran Seng Aung was sitting on the road in the vicinity of his home in Myitkyina around 9:30am when three officers on motorcycles came, bound his wrists and assaulted him in public before pulling him into an auto rickshaw. By 5:30pm his dead body was in the local hospital. His mother has reportedly been warned against pursuing a complaint in the local court. The case is strongly reminiscent of the death in special drug squad custody of another young man, Maung Ne Zaw, in May 2006. His mother refused to give up on making complaints; she was forced out of the country by constant threats and harassment from the perpetrators and other state officers. Mizzima reports that people in Myitkyina claim that there is at least one death in the drug squad’s custody every month.

At the start of August, DVB also broadcast that 38-year-old Ko Maung Myint died in detention in the northeastern town of Muse having been stopped while illegally crossing the China border and not having enough money with which to pay off the police as demanded. When his wife came to the station on the third day of his custody, August 4, she was told that his body had been sent to hospital. When she went there she reportedly saw bruising and injuries suggestive of an assault. 

These reports are both credible and consistent with other similar cases documented in detail by the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) over the last couple of years, including the assault and death in Rangoon local council officials’ custody of Ko Naing Oo this March, the death in police custody in Pegu Division of Maung Lin Lin Naing during February, and the assaults and deaths in police custody of Htwee Maung in Arakan State and Maung Chan Kun in Irrawaddy Division during January 2007 alone.  

The increasingly frequent accounts of bloody assaults by the police and other local security forces in Burma speak to the fearlessness with which these personnel operate. Although the military regime pretends to invite complaints against state officers, in reality there are no avenues through they can be entertained properly–least of all where they involve allegations of murder–as all parts of the state apparatus are compromised and controlled. 

But whereas the existing state institutions cannot themselves be called upon to offer redress to victims, in the past there was at least one other viable option. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) could earlier access prisons and other centres of detention and confidentially report specific cases to higher authorities. It had been opening up new offices around the country and for some time had been making important interventions, in accordance with its global mandate, that must certainly have saved lives. 

However, since late 2005 the ICRC has been stopped from visiting detainees, after the authorities refused to comply with its standard arrangements and procedures, including that it be entitled to talk with prisoners in private. At the end of June it issued a vigorous press release in which it roundly condemned the government for its attempts to thwart the committee’s work in the country. Its president, Jacob Kellenberger, was quoted as saying that 

”The organization uses confidential and bilateral dialogue as its preferred means of achieving results. However, this presupposes that parties to a conflict are willing to enter into a serious discussion and take into account the ICRC’s recommendations. This has not been the case with the authorities of Myanmar [Burma] and that is why the ICRC has decided to speak out publicly.”

In response, the government used one of its proxies to accuse the committee of relying on “wrong assessments” and “made-up exaggerated stories”. The wife of the junta’s head, who doubles as the head of the Myanmar Women’s Affairs Federation, in July observed Myanmar Women’s Day by saying that the ICRC was to blame as its personnel “mostly met the prisoners who were in the list given by anti-government groups… [which] were followed by unrest and protests at the jails” and so “the authorities had to hold discussions to lay down new procedures”.

The belligerent response reinforces the ICRC’s point. The government in Burma has long approached discussions with international organisations not with the intention of seriously taking into account their recommendations but in order to give the appearance of dialogue while achieving nothing. In this manner the revamped armed forces have remained in control for nearly two decades. 

However, people in Burma need international groups to persist in their efforts to intervene, if for no other reason than that it will be many years before any credible domestic institutions may exist upon which citizens can rely to assert their rights and obtain even some limited form of redress. It is for this reason that the steady withdrawal of the ICRC from the country is a great loss for people in Burma. 

The Asian Human Rights Commission strongly supports the both principled and pragmatic position of the ICRC on its work in Burma and hopes that it, and other concerned international organisations, will be able to find some means through which to do effective work that can save lives there. However, where their mandates are so restricted and perverted as to make them meaningless, there is little that can be done other than to withdraw until such a time that a new opportunity exists for intervention. Meanwhile, the stream of reports of beatings, torture and deaths in custody across the country is evidence that the concerns of the ICRC are neither made up nor exaggerated. Rather, the incidence of abuse can only be far higher than that reported, as while the deaths in custody continue, there is no longer anyone there to investigate. 

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-191-2007
Countries : Burma (Myanmar),