Will a Sexual Exploitation Scandal Force Myanmar Police to Change Course?

By The Irrawaddy 4 July 2020

Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss the talk of the town of last week—the detention of the police appointment-general who allegedly demanded sex from female officers in exchange for promotions. The scandal led to calls for police reforms. Political analyst Dr. Aung Myo has joined me to discuss how to reform the police force. He did a thesis on Myanmar police for the period from 1886-1945. I’m The Irrawaddy Burmese editor Ye Ni.

It was a disgraceful case. There were reports that as many as eight female police officers were sexually exploited. The case was the first of its kind in the history of Myanmar’s police. A similarly disgraceful case happened not long ago, as police revealed the name and address of Victoria [the name used by the media to refer to the child victim of a rape case in a Naypyitaw nursery school]. This has prompted calls for police reforms.

Some say that reforms to the police force are possible because the Myanmar Fire Services Department, which was notorious [for its poor performance] in the past, have now become public heroes. Many hope that similar reforms can be done for the police force. As you have conducted research on the Myanmar police force, where do you think the reforms should start?

Aung Myo: People have praised the Fire Services Department for its reforms. This was because the sole intention of the department is now just to help, as it no longer needs to be involved in inspections and arrests together with the police. So it was very easy for the Fire Service Department to improve its image, as it provides help in cases of emergencies and is no longer involved in arrests. The nature of police is different. Police have to enforce the law. No matter how much they are reformed, people will not love it as much as they love the Fire Services Department. Their image might improve to an extent if they reform, but they will not enjoy the love of the public like Fire Services Department does.

Again, the size matters in reforms—the size of the firefighting force is small compared to the police force in Myanmar. Myanmar’s police force is, however, small compared to its counterparts in other countries. There are around 200,000 police in neighboring Thailand. There are around 80,000 police in Myanmar. Another major obstacle in police reform is corruption.

I have a friend who is a brigadier-general [in the Myanmar military]. One day, his son drove to downtown Yangon and was fined by traffic police. He told his father that he was unfairly fined. His father said he complained like this because he had not seen the living conditions of the traffic police, who have to live in very crowded staff quarters. Usually police have to be based in urban areas—unlike the military, they can’t live in the countryside. So they have to bear higher living costs, and this leads to corruption. But this doesn’t mean reforms cannot be made to the police force.

Regarding the scandal of sexual exploitation of female officers, it was an abuse of power, rather than corruption. It might be because a system of checks and balances is missing in the department. To answer the question of how to root out corruption in the police force, my answer is that even the British government could not do it during its rule due to certain conditions in Myanmar, so it is even more difficult for the Myanmar government to do so. Police in Myanmar had to take responsibility for large areas and their salaries were small compared to the salaries of their counterparts in the London police force, so the British government allowed corruption at the lower levels in the Myanmar police force. But as they had a cadre bureaucracy, there was no corruption in district-level officials, who were either European or educated Burmese, and above.  The British government practiced that system and it was successful to a certain extent [in curbing corruption in the police]. But today, upper level officials are also corrupt, as even the police brigadier general is involved in the scandal. The government is responsible for this.

A strong economy is one of the main contributing factors in fighting corruption. But this requires a lot of wide-ranging changes, and I therefore don’t think there can be swift police reforms. The President’s Office and the Home Affairs Ministry, if they are interested, will only able to control abuses of power to a certain extent at best.

YN: I have the same view. In democracies, police are not controlled by the military, but by a justice ministry. As [the 2008 Constitution says] all the armed forces must be under the control of the commander-in-chief of defense services, the home affairs minister is directly appointed by the military. As the top-level positions of the police force are held by military personnel who were transferred from the Myanmar military, people call them “people who come from above.” So I think there might need to be some political give and take to put the police under the control of civilian government. At the recent press conference, government spokesman U Zaw Htay said the President’s Office and the Home Affairs Ministry are taking the case seriously. The new home affairs minister [Lieutenant General Soe Htut] apparently is hard-working. The former minister, Lieutenant General Kyaw Swe, apparently had ignored these issues. But the new minister has started to tackle corruption. But given the restrictions of the 2008 Constitution, to what extent do you think he can push for police reforms?

AM: The nature of the police force is federal. I mean it has a nature like that of federal states. Police forces are centralized in single nation-states like Thailand, and it is reasonable to have a police chief in such countries. But in federal states like the US and the UK, there is no police chief who is the head of the overall police forces. By its nature, the police force can’t be centralized. So the police force functions better with a constitution that supports decentralization.

Under the 2008 Constitution, the police force is controlled by a military-appointed minister, so it is against the principles I have mentioned. But this is not so bad that it can disrupt the functions of the police. No matter what the Constitution says, the home affairs minister and police chief have very limited authority. They only have authority over renumeration, logistics, recruitment and human resources. It is in fact the civilian administrators of the General Administration Department that command the police. Along the course of history, police were commanded by administrators at different levels, from regional and divisional to township and deputy township administrators. Though police are apparently commanded by the defense minister and the police chief, it is in fact region and state chief ministers who have operational command over police on the ground. They command the police, but in case problems arise, the defense minister and the police chief have to take responsibility. So there are contradictions between these two systems.

The effectiveness or performance of the police depends on how the chief ministers manage the police force in their respective regions, so the attitude of the police towards the public depends on how the region and state chief ministers manage the police.

Another problem concerns those who were transferred from the military. The public usually highlights that problem. In the post-independence period, there was Police Major General U Tun Hla Aung—he was also a major general in the military—and then took the same rank when he took charge of the police force. When the officers from the Union Military Police and the Burma Territorial Force were transferred to the military, they all became commissioned officers. Like military officers have transferred to the police, police officers can also transfer to the military. Though police are complaining about prospects for promotion [due to military officials who have transferred from the military], it was in fact difficult for lower-level police to become high-ranking officials even under the hierarchical system of the British. Those who joined the police force as sub-lieutenant have chances to become police officers, but still it is very difficult for them to get top positions.

Yes, there are some police officers who got top positions due to their outstanding performance. Police Brigadier General Aung Naing Thu, who was forced to retire, was a very smart and bold police officer. Setting aside the reason behind his retirement, he was a really smart police officer and rose through ranks after joining the police force as a low-level officer.

If the police force wants to get such smart people, recruitment must go through the Union Civil Service Board by inviting applications for police captain positions. In the past, applicants were invited on a few occasions and eligible applicants were appointed directly as police captains. The police force can now use that system as a reform. Through this, it is possible to appoint police captains. Yes, there are military personnel who have transferred to the police. I don’t think it is a problem. It is not something that lower-level police should complaint about.

The main problem is that they are blocking the promotions of core police officers. The core police may not have high expectations about promotions. They understand they will not get top positions. They understand that only very smart police officers like Ko Aung Naing Thu can rise through the ranks to become deputy police chief. But police officers of a certain caliber should get mid-level positions and vacancies should be kept for them to get promotions. It is unacceptable that the military-appointed home affairs minister has appointed military personnel to all the top positions in the police force. While I worked under Minister [for National Planning and Economic Development] U Soe Tha [under the military regime], he allotted one-third of the mid-level positions for those who transferred from the military and two-thirds for core staff of the ministry. The home affairs minister should reform the police force in that way. Military personnel should not be blamed for transferring to the police force. The two are largely the same in nature. Police can be military personnel and vice versa. The main problem is they should not totally block the promotions of core police officers. As I’ve said, all the senior positions should not be held by military personnel, but core police officers should be given promotions to at least 15 to 20 percent of senior positions. There was a time when all the mid-level and above positions were held by military personnel. It is important that promotions are not blocked for core police officers.

YN: Police reform had started even before The Irrawaddy returned to Myanmar. For police reform, first Australia and later the EU provided training. Was such training useful for police reforms?

AM: It can be said that they were very useful. The man who took interest in and started police reform is retired minister U Khin Yi. He was serving as the police chief around 2009. I had just received my doctorate degree with the dissertation “The Police Administration in Myanmar 1886-1945” in 2007. However, I had been appointed as a director-general in 2002 and U Khin Yi was acquainted with me. Therefore, he invited me to the police headquarters where research officers gave a presentation on police reform for officers above the rank of police lieutenant-colonel. Other officers and I took part in the discussions.

The police reforms, including new uniforms, started at that time and continued during the tenure of Police Chief U Zaw Win. Just before U Khin Yi left the police, Australia and the EU conducted training for the police during the term of U Zaw Win under former President U Thein Sein. Police Chief U Zaw Win himself pointed out to me that it was wrong in principle to train the police as soldiers instead of training them as police. Australian instructors agreed with him.

But it cannot be said that this is true. They were looking at only one role of the police. In rich countries, the richer the countries, the more medical doctors have to select a specialization. Similarly, the more developed the work of the police, the more subjects the police have to select.

For example, there are the riot police, the SWAT to rescue hostages, the maritime police and air marshals. However, Myanmar is not developed and the police just before the independence from the British, when communists Thakin Than Tun and Thakin Soe revolted against the government, played a major role in counter-insurgency. That is why Police Chief Sir Charles Crosthwaite wrote in his “The Pacification of Burma” that the pioneers of law and order are soldiers but the permanent guardians of tranquility are only the police.

The Myanmar police played a role in counter-insurgency and played the role of the army. Therefore, police battalions were formed and were trained to fight in unstable areas. A clear line cannot be drawn between the two roles, which go side-by-side. Therefore, Australian instructors said it was a good idea to form the police as a separate force. However, in my opinion, this is not a good idea for Myanmar. It was the police who first set the most successful example of counter-insurgency in Myanmar. Although the army carried out counter-insurgency operations, battalions in regional commands are similar to the military police. During counter-insurgency operations, the army was able to defeat the insurgents in Ayeyarwady Region only because of the role of the police, who implemented the “four cuts” doctrine. Although the army troops wear military uniforms, they are similar to the police. It was the role of the police who implemented the four cuts doctrine, a strategy adopted by British generals in Malaysia. If the police did not play the role, the army would take up the role. To be successful, it is necessary to promote the role. Therefore, the concept of Australian police officers—that it is wrong to train the police as soldiers—is not true for Myanmar. Such an approach cannot be adopted at present.

YN: Since the police reforms, which started in 2012, participation of women in the police has been raised to about 20 percent. They are assigned equal duties with men. However, women have been promoted only to the rank of police major. From the perspective of women’s rights, it can be said that women cannot enjoy equal rights with men. At the administrative level, women also possess abilities of good governance, critical thinking and good reasoning. What role should women play in police reform in your opinion?

AM: It is really necessary for women to join not only the police but also the army. There are many roles women can play in the police. When an offender is a woman, police officers who are responsible for detaining her must be females. It is better for women officers to handle child culprits because they have a maternal mentality. We encourage women to join the police and women should also participate in the police force. Although they cannot do everything because of their body structure, the gap has become narrower in the US. When women can fight on the battlefield together with men, they will be promoted to the same ranks as men.

As far as I know, Daw Khin May Htway, who lived in the same village as me and was a daughter of a school teacher, ran away from home as she wanted to join the police. Now, she is in the counter-terrorism squad and is able to fight with three or four men. She is now about 50 years old and has become a police major. There should not be restrictions for women in the police. They should be promoted based on their performance.

A writer, I think Tet Toe, wrote that Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir and the prime minister of neighboring Bangladesh did not look like women and their ways of thinking were the same as men. They did not exchange gossip like women. When a woman becomes a leader, she has developed leadership. She is no longer a housewife. We must accept the leadership of women. It is not a good idea to promote a woman just because of the fact that she is female. Her performance must be taken into consideration. I would like to urge the president and the home minister to think about the issue based not on gender but on equality. I hope they will take measures accordingly.

YN: Thanks for your contributions!

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