Can Myanmar’s Police Force Be Reformed?

By The Irrawaddy 4 January 2020

Kyaw Kha: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss whether Myanmar’s police force will reform following mounting criticism. I’m joined by Joint General Secretary of the Democratic Party for a New Society Daw Hnin Hnin Hmwe and the chairman of the Union Lawyers and Paralegals Association, advocate U Kyee Myint. I’m The Irrawaddy chief reporter Kyaw Kha.

At the recent press conference given by the Myanmar police force on Victoria [the victim in a toddler rape case at a Naypyitaw nursery school], police revealed the identities of the girl and her parents and also posted their personal information online, which drew harsh criticisms from the public. This not only tarnishes the image of the police force, but also marred the image of the country. What is your view on public criticism of the police force after they revealed the identities of the victim and her relatives?

Hnin Hnin Hmwe: While the news media have reported ethically [by hiding the released identities], the police who are responsible to protect the public, and whose slogan is “May we help you,” have breached confidentiality. I was quite shocked and angry that they revealed [the victim and her parents’] identities not only in a live-streamed press conference, but that they also posted their personal information online. It is quite awful that police who are responsible for protecting the people and enforcing the law have violated the law.

KK: Since then, there have been calls to reform the police force. But how can it be reformed? To what extent does the President have the authority to reform the police force?

Kyee Myint: The 2008 Constitution states that the Commander-in-Chief of Defense Services is the chief of all the armed organizations in the country. It was easier to put the General Administration Department [which used to be overseen by the Home Affairs Ministry, which is led by a military-appointed minister] under the control of the civilian President: when the General Administration Department filed lawsuits against anti-war protesters in Tamwe [in Yangon Region], we criticized them harshly and demanded that the department be put under the control of the President’s Office. This happened.

I am not unreasonably criticizing the 2008 Constitution, but it does represent an obstacle to accomplishing certain things. The Home Affairs Ministry is under the president, and the police force is under the Home Affairs Ministry. So, at first glance, it appears that the police force is under the control of the President. But in reality, the President can’t give direct orders to the police force—only the Home Affairs Ministry can. Therefore, there is a need to change the procedures, I think, to make it so the police force is under the President, just as the Home Affairs Ministry is under the President.

Another path [to reform] is to divide the police force into two—one half would have responsibilities in the judicial system, such as investigating crimes, and should be under the direct control of the President, and the second one will be responsible for riot control. If the police force is divided that way, then people will love the police force. It might be quite difficult to reform the institution of the police due to the 2008 Constitution, so what we can do is to set up an institution for law enforcement and the judicial system. This may have the same impact as putting the police force under the direct control of the President.

KK: State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi reportedly met high-ranking police officers in Naypyitaw the day before the police held the press conference. She has also indirectly suggested that the police force should be under the civilian government. Why would she say this?

HHH: It is an international norm that armed organizations are overseen by civilian governments. As Saya U Kyee Myint said, the 2008 Constitution is the main obstacle as it puts the armed organizations above the President. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was indirectly pointing this out, I assume. The 2008 Constitution officially grants excessive powers to armed organizations and those armed organizations barely follow the laws that are under the 2008 Constitution. Former police officers pointed out that the press conference on the Victoria case breached the police’s own procedures. By revealing the identity of a child victim, they also blatantly violated Article 96 of the recently enacted Child Rights Law and the CRC [the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child], to which Myanmar is a signatory. They are responsible for enforcing the law but they break the law and I’d like to ask whether they have the authority to do so. What concerns me is also that those who break the law are Union-level officials.

KK: Why did Daw Aung San Suu Kyi say she prefers that the police force is under the control of the elected government?

HHH: According to international practice, armed organizations must be under the control of the elected government. But in the case of Myanmar it is quite difficult to handle, as all the armed organizations are not under the government due to the Constitution. Whether the military and police force will take instructions from the government is open to question. They make use of the government when they need it. For example, after the clashes broke out in Rakhine State, they asked the President to sign [to allow the military to carry out counterinsurgency operations against the Arakan Army]. But will they stop fighting if they are ordered to do so [by the President]? I think Daw Aung San Suu Kyi suggested that the elected government should have the authority to handle all the affairs of the country.

KK: Can the police force be brought under the control of the President’s Office like the GAD [General Administration Department]?

KM: Regarding the provision that all the armed organizations must be under the control of the Commander-in-Chief of Defense Services, as I’ve said, the police force can be divided into two halves for different purposes: one for riot control and border security, and a second for law enforcement including patrols and work related to the judicial system. We can set up a new institution for the second purpose and attach it to the GAD. If so, it would be under the control of the President’s Office. Despite the constitutional provision, part of the police force would be those who are responsible for the judicial system, and they would be separated from the riot police and border guard police. I think doing so will contribute to the rule of law, and improve judicial proceedings.

KK: People including politicians have been talking about police force reforms. How would you like to see the police force reformed?

HHH: The police force is meant to protect the people and realize the rule of law. But one of the questions is that of whether the existing laws really protect the people. In the Victoria case, [the suspect, who has now been released] Ko Aung Gyi had to spend several months behind bars, which hurt him both physically and mentally, and Victoria has also suffered. The perpetrator should have been identified in a short time but it has been several months. Her parents and relatives have been going through hard days in anguish. Police should apologize to them. They should resign and action should be taken against them. But we are now talking about this specific case—what should be done to prevent similar cases in the future? Not everyone in the country feels secure. Even those of us who live in Yangon do not feel secure. So, a lot still needs to be done to secure legal protection. Reforms must be undertaken on the entire structure, and there is also a need to amend the laws.

KK: People have long been frustrated with the police and the Victoria case has deepened their frustration. People have long mocked the police’s inability to arrest fugitives [ultranationalists] U Hla Swe and Sayadaw U Wirathu and Aung Win Khaing, who is believed to be the mastermind behind the assassination of lawyer U Ko Ni. How can the police force be reformed? Should it start with amending the 2008 Constitution or changing the mindset of individual police officers at the lower levels?

KM: The police force can’t be reformed without changing the 2008 Constitution. That’s why I am pointing my finger at it. Some argue that the government is using the 2008 Constitution as an excuse [to cover its failures]. But as you can see, there are restrictions imposed by the 2008 Constitution: we can’t reform the police force without amending the Constitution, because it is under the Commander-in-Chief of Defense Services and not under the President. Police are used to control riots, guard the border, fight the war in Rakhine and enforce the law. The police force is overstretched. Again, those above the ranks of township police force heads are ex-military officers. They have never undergone police training and know nothing about police work. They only know how to carry out the instructions from their higher-ups. In the Victoria case, the three senior police officers [who held the press conference] acted irresponsibly. They knew that what they were going to say would violate the law. They know that the same article of the Child Rights Law was used to sue [prosecution lawyers] Daw Su Darli Aung and U Khin Maung Zaw. They are acting as if they are above the Constitution and can violate it. If we want to see the best results of reform, the 2008 Constitution must be amended and the entire police force must be brought under the control of the President’s Office. Of course, there is also the short-term option that I’ve mentioned: to separate the police force for the judicial system. But to get the best result, the entire police force must be brought under the control of the President’s Office.

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