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Police still getting away with murder in Myanmar

BURMA/MYANMAR: Police, soldiers still getting away with murder

Despite the political and social changes in Burma (Myanmar) of the last two years, police and soldiers continue to enjoy impunity for the murder and torture of civilians. Despite the constant efforts of the families of victims to obtain justice, the military and police institutions are resistant to efforts to have perpetrators in their ranks held to account for their crimes.

Among the cases that the Asian Human Rights Commission has in recent times issued appeals on are those of Myo Myint Swe, tortured to death by the police during 2011; U Than Htun, also tortured to death by the police, during 2013; and Zaw Min Oo, whom three soldiers murdered on a riverside in the same year. In none of these cases have the exhaustive efforts by family members and their supporters resulted in any form of satisfactory action against the perpetrators. Rather, in each case we observe a pattern that involved agencies have taken some kind modest administrative measures against the accused, saying that they are for some reason unrelated to the actual offence, and leaving matters at that.

The AHRC in 2011 issued an appeal on the case of Myo Myint Swe, whom policemen in Rangoon, or Yangon, during the same year brutally tortured to death over his alleged part in a murder case. Despite the overwhelming evidence of torture, including eyewitnesses and photographic evidence, a doctor recorded his death as being due to natural causes. Observing the records of the extent of injuries to the body, a judge concluded her post mortem inquiry in 2012 that it was difficult to believe that the young man died naturally (AHRC-STM-251-2012). Despite this finding, no further investigation has been conducted against the police, and lawyers are pessimistic that they can take the case forward. Myo Myint Swe’s family has worked tirelessly to pressure the concerned authorities into action but to date their dozens of letters and meetings—including with the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar—have been to no avail.

In 2013 police in Pyi, or Pyay, central Burma, tortured U Than Htun to death in another criminal case (AHRC-UAC-098-2013). Than Htun was among a group of farmers struggling to reobtain illegally confiscated farmlands, and he had already been prosecuted for trespass onto the land, among other matters. Like in Myo Myint Swe’s case, extensive evidence exists to show that the police tortured him to death: including eyewitness accounts, photographs and other material evidence. Unlike in the former case, the doctor also resisted pressure from the police to collude with them, the ordinary practice in Burma, and recorded the death as unnatural. Despite the finding, both the township and district level courts declined to pursue the matter, finding that the injuries were not likely to have been caused by someone else. On 7 October 2013 the Bago Region High Court on appeal from the family overturned the findings of the lower courts that nobody could be held responsible for the death, but did not give a specific order on what action should be taken next. Because the court gave no order on further action, since that time

Three low-ranked soldiers attacked Zaw Min Oo and his companion on a riverbank in Pyi during 2013 nearby the Nawaday Bridge over the Irrawaddy River (AHRC-UAC-122-2013). Zaw Min Oo died in the attack while his companion survived by feigning death. She ran to call for help and in a short time local search parties had located the men, whom they took to the police. The police initiated criminal proceedings but the commander of the battalion where the men were stationed came and took them from police custody. Although investigating police, including from the specialised Criminal Investigation Department, told the family and other persons involved that they have enough evidence to prosecute and are sure that the three soldiers are the perpetrators of the crime, the army has refused to hand them over. Instead the battalion conducted a court martial that absolved the men of any responsibility in the crime. The court martial was closed off from the family or other persons concerned with their interests, and according to them all the authorities have refused to deal with them or keep them informed of what has happened to the alleged murderers. Even the men’s whereabouts are uncertain, with some reports suggesting they are still being at their battalion camp, others that they have been transferred elsewhere.

Each of these cases speaks to the incredible efforts that relatives of persons murdered by the police or military must go even to have their voices heard in Burma today, as in the past, let alone to have any effective action taken. The power of the police and military is manifest by the fact that in the case of Than Htun, even the accurately recorded death certificate was insufficient to get the lower courts to move on the case, and it was only in the high court that the possibility of some kind of action against the accused was reopened. In the Nawaday Bridge case, widespread public anger and the involvement of many people in the search for and arrest of the three police were insufficient to get them brought before a civilian court.

The obvious problem here is that the primary, or rather exclusive concern of those involved in the maintenance and management of police and military forces in Burma continues to be with the reputation and integrity of their institutions. All responses to such events, and public actions and criticisms, are designed to devolve the institutions from any type of responsibility or blame. With this purpose in mind, minor disciplinary action is taken against accused officers, to signal to others that the institution of which they are members suffers inconveniences as a result of wayward behaviour—at least, wayward behaviour resulting in death that attracts public attention and condemnation. In the case of Than Htun, the police station chief was demoted shortly afterwards, not, supposedly, for the case of torture but for dereliction of duty. In the Nawaday case, the three soldiers also received punishment for breaches of discipline, independent from the question of their role in the murder and attempted murder of civilians. And as the purpose of such action is also to offset the possibility of any further formal inquiries or criminal actions, it is not only meaningless but also counterproductive for the families and friends of victims like those in these three cases.

The larger concern for people in Burma at a time of political change and progress on some fronts is that if those changes do not penetrate institutional behaviour and impunity for grave crimes by military and police personnel is not brought to an end, then Burma’s democratisation will prove to be ephemeral. If greater political openness and participation do not correspond with institutional changes for the defence of human rights and prosecution of police and soldiers responsible for crimes like these then people in Burma will rightly be sceptical about the real meaning of the much-vaunted change for their daily lives.

Of course, large-scale institutional change after protracted military dictatorship is nowhere an easy task, and in Burma it will likely be more difficult than many other places. But it should at least be possible, and is in fact essential, that in cases such as those of Myo Myint Swe, U Than Tun and Zaw Min Oo where the facts of the crimes are manifest and the evidence for prosecution available, that if impunity is to be ended the accused be prosecuted and punished for their crimes; the families, compensated and offered other support in accordance with international standards. Impunity needs to be tackled both at the larger institutional level and as well as one case at a time.

Therefore, the Asian Human Rights Commission again calls for the prosecution and penalization of those police and soldiers responsible for the deaths of these persons, accompanied by other actions, legally and institutionally, to bring an end to impunity of the police and soldiers in Burma. In particular, the legal barriers to prosecution of these persons, in the case of the police through the Criminal Procedure Code and in the case of the military through military regulations and orders, need to be removed so as to enable ready prosecution of accused persons in cases of this sort.
ends

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