How the military perverts rule of law to oppress citizens
Image: Original art of Maung Maung Tinn, refugee from Myanmar, from “Born Free and Equal”
“When protestors refuse to listen to our orders to disperse, we shoot at the protestors in accordance with the law.”
These are the chilling words of a Tatmadaw soldier. Unfortunately, they are not isolated ones, and they show how the idea of “law” has been perverted to justify both the Feb. 1, 2021 military coup and the deplorable violence that has followed. The word “law” (or “upaday” in Burmese) has long been a tenuous concept in Myanmar. After decades living under a military dictatorship, in which laws were used as tools of oppression and could change at the whim of those in power, the people of Myanmar have, understandably, little trust in law. The recent actions of Min Aung Hlaing and the current junta have only further affirmed this perception. The concept of law and the related idea of the rule of law have been warped and manipulated by soldiers and police officers, many of whom believe they are enforcing the “law” to uphold order when they crack down on protests against the coup.
At a recent military tribunal, the “law” was weaponized as a tool to instill fear by issuing unappealable death penalty sentences to 19 young protestors for one soldier’s death even though there were no eye witnesses to the alleged crime. In telling contrast, since early February, nearly 800 unarmed civilians have been killed at the hands of Tatmadaw. It is difficult to imagine a version of Myanmar further away from rule of law than this one. There instead needs to be an all-out effort to strengthen the true meaning of the rule of law in Myanmar by both returning the country to civilian rule and undertaking constitutional reforms to enshrine democratic rights instead of using the military-drafted 2008 Constitution as a tool protecting military might.
“In Accordance with the Law”
Phrases like “in accordance with the law” or “in accordance with democracy” have frequently been used by Tatmadaw leadership to justify their illegitimate coup. Major General Zaw Min Tun, spokesman for the ruling military council, has said:
We will abide by laws that do not supersede the Constitution. Many laws have to be taken into consideration in executing political processes. We will not do anything that is not in accord with the law…. Police and other security personnel are carrying out their responsibilities in accordance with their manuals.
When a reporter asked whether the junta planned to arrest reporters, Zaw Min Tun continued: “All I can say it we will act according to the law. I will not say we will arrest nor not arrest someone. But we will act according to the law as necessary.” These empty claims are then parroted back by soldiers as they terrorize civilians across the country.
Since 1962, Myanmar’s successive dictators have used the military as the commander-in-chief’s personal army while the courts have been used to protect that army from any serious accountability. To the extent there has been any court action, the leniency of sentences only helps show the special treatment afforded the military. In one high-profile example, soldiers who massacred Rohingya civilians were released after less than a year of imprisonment, while journalists reporting on the atrocities have spent more time in jail than the perpetrators.
Today’s military junta is attempting to operate the same way, believing it is above the law, changing laws to suit their needs, and suppressing human rights defenders, activists, journalists, and anyone daring to challenge them. All of this has led to injustice and pervasive lawlessness whereby Tatmadaw soldiers are acting as if they can do what they please in the name of upholding an ill-defined concept of the “law” while the gloss of legality is used to silence any and all forms of dissent.
For instance, the military added new restrictions in February to the existing telecommunications law to “legalize” military interception of all communications, including text messages and social media. The military also amended the code of Criminal Procedure by adding a new section 505(A) to enable the arrest of anyone expressing dissent about the coup or the military and to render such criticism, whether online or public protest, a criminal offense subject to imprisonment. Hundreds of activists including celebrities have been arrested without warrant under 505(A) since its adoption on Feb. 16, 2021.
Since Feb. 1, soldiers and police can march into any household to search and seize anything or anyone at will without a warrant. Arbitrary detentions happen daily; anyone can be held by military or police for any length of time without reason or charges. Security forces searching homes and businesses have been reported stealing cash and valuables including rice, cooking oil, sunglasses, shoes, and smartphones while holding residents, including children, at gunpoint. In one instance, security forces broke into a phone shop to steal smartphones; the shop owner stated that he did not report the incident because reporting a crime committed by security forces would land the person who reported it in jail. Likewise, unarmed civilians waiting at bus-stops have been kidnapped by police for ransom of 300,000 kyat (~USD 200) to be released. Civilians are left wondering who to call to report violence and theft when it is the authorities attacking and robbing them. With the exception of desertion, misconduct by security forces has again become acceptable behavior “in accordance with the law” – at least in the eyes of military senior leadership.
Many elected representatives and civil society leaders are now in hiding, hunted by the military and police in the name of the law. Security forces have been committing extrajudicial killings of dissidents. Representatives from the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party that won a landslide majority of democratic votes, have been arrested, tortured, and killed.
Under this same guise of upholding the “law”, soldiers have met peaceful protests with brute force and indiscriminately shooting, wounding protestors and bystanders alike. Sexual abuse of women protesters has also been well documented by women’s organizations in Myanmar. Journalists report