BURMA: A country not in accordance with law–the case of Naw Ohn Hla

According to a report in the New Light of Myanmar of 9 November 2007 on the latest visit of the United Nations special envoy to Burma, Ibrahim Gambari,

“During August and September when the nation saw protest marches, the government had to tackle in accordance with the law the incidents in which some people violated the law and the protest marches were turning to unrest and violence. Unavoidably, the government had to call in those who got involved in the marches, some of whom were artless people, for questioning. Now, all those who were not relevant to the violent acts and violation of law have been released. And those who are [suspected] of the violent and terrorist acts are being questioned…”

To illustrate just how far this description is from reality, the Asian Human Rights Commission refers to the .

Naw Ohn Hla rose to prominence in recent times by virtue of her involvement in the “Tuesday Prayer Group”, which met every week at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon to pray silently for the release of political prisoners in Burma. Throughout 2007 security forces and others acting on their behalf, including pagoda trustees, constantly harassed her and the other women. On one occasion they childishly doused the area where the group customarily gathered (the Tuesday corner of the pagoda) with dirty soapy water. Ohn Hla was herself libelled in articles printed in private journals on the orders of the government, which alluded to her as a prostitute. Nonetheless, she and the other women kept coming to pray.

After the August 15 fuel price rise that precipitated the nationwide protests, Ohn Hla was among the first to protest and be taken into custody “for questioning”. Like everyone else, she was taken without regard to any provision of law or criminal procedure. And like most others, nobody knew where she was held, for how long she would be held or the conditions of her confinement.

But on October 12 Ohn Hla resurfaced to be superficially treated “in accordance with the law”. At a court hearing in Hmawbi, just north of Rangoon, she was placed under a restricting order in accordance with the 1961 Restriction and Bond Act. She was denied a lawyer and the only witnesses were the township police chief, her village tract council chairman and an official underneath him. At the end of the brief trial, Judge Aye Aye Mu instructed that she cannot leave the township for the next year without seeking a permit, or reside in another part of the country, and must report to the local police station once every seven days.

Even leaving aside the process by which she was brought into the court and the most obvious procedural absurdities, the order itself is sheer nonsense; devoid of legality. The two subsections of the act under which Ohn Hla was charged are specifically for habitual offenders and their abettors or someone who is evidently about to commit a felony. In other words, the intended purpose of the act is to thwart hardened criminals and others that pose an imminent danger to society. Needless to say, Ohn Hla is neither of these. Nor did the court even suggest that she is. The judge’s reasons for placing her under the order were that she has “no fixed address” in her village of registration and has “no fixed occupation”. In fact, she had explained to the court how she had come to reside in another township and be placed on a guest register there, and two prosecution witnesses acknowledged that she works as a small goods vendor in her home village, and the register is both for the purposes of residency as well as trading–as if any of this was significant anyhow. Indeed, were these criteria applied evenly across the population of Burma, millions would probably have to be brought before courts for similar orders to be passed against them.

The utterly primitive manner in which court cases of this sort are being constructed and used in the aftermath of the protests of recent months speaks not only to the state’s handling of those events but, as the Asian Human Rights Commission has stressed for a number of years, to the complete degrading of its institutions. The ritual performance of the court in Hmawbi, its protagonists pushed quickly and perhaps reluctantly on stage in order to treat everybody apparently “in accordance with law”, went beyond farce and descended into bathos. In this we find the condition not only of that one court but the entire injustice system of which it is a small part.

On November 13, the special envoy gave his report to the UN Security Council on his trip to Burma, in which he described conditions in the country as “qualitatively different” from on the previous occasion that he had been there. The Asian Human Rights Commission understands that his role as a diplomat is to talk up progress and keep every side on side. It strongly backs all efforts by the international community through the United Nations and other multilateral channels, especially the Association of South East Asian Nations and the European Union, to support the unequivocal demands for change in Burma of which the whole world has heard in recent months. But at the same time it urges all concerned persons and organisations to appreciate that qualitative difference will not be measurable in Burma in terms of days, weeks or months. Diplomacy may achieve some surface differences in a short period of time, and this may be useful for diplomacy’s sake. But as the amply demonstrates, qualitative difference will take many years of hard and systematic effort to effect and will not be brought about by a few courtesy calls by some international experts.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-266-2007
Countries : Burma (Myanmar),
Campaigns : Burma Peoples Protests