RANGOON — The knock at the door of her family’s home came without warning in the dead of night, just as it always did during Burma’s long era of military rule.
Outside, a group of government officials announced they had come to verify who was living there, citing a law that empowers the state to enter private homes any time they wish. When the woman opened the door, they hauled her son away.
Such intrusions, known here as “midnight inspections,” have declined dramatically since Burma’s army ceded some power in 2011 and opened the country as never before. But the law that facilitates them is still on the books and being employed to suppress dissent. It’s just one facet of the massive power the military continues to wield here despite the country’s much-touted transition from junta rule.
“They knocked on the door saying they needed to conduct a midnight inspection, but when we opened it, they took my son,” the distraught mother said of the 1 am visit last week. The woman spoke on condition of anonymity because she feared both for her safety and that of her son.
Several of those detained recently had been deemed sympathetic to students whose protests against a new education law were brutally crushed by police this month. The night the woman’s son was taken into custody, The Associated Press documented three other inspections that ended with student activists being detained.
The legislation allowing “midnight inspections,” known as the “Ward or Village Tract Administration Law,” has been on Myanmar’s books for nearly a century, since British colonial times. It was adopted by successive military juntas, which used it to monitor political opponents and restricting their movements, helping smother pro-democracy uprisings in 1988 and 2007.
The law requires families to obtain permission from the state to host guests in their own homes, in some cases every three days, regardless of how long the visitors are staying. People who rent their homes are also considered “guests,” as are squatters who have built dwellings on land they don’t own.
In the impoverished Yangon neighborhood of Dala, residents say administrators drive around on rickshaws equipped with speakers reminding people to register guests or “face charges according to the law.” Violations are punishable by seven-day jail terms and fines of about US$50.
The law gives administrators the right to examine “the places needed” to ensure compliance, paving the way for “midnight inspections.” This grants local officials “almost boundless authority” over their subjects, according to the Bangkok-based advocacy group Fortify Rights, which is releasing a report called “Midnight Intrusions” on Thursday urging the government to dismantle the law.
The group says the law “represents a systematic and nationwide breach of privacy” that has been used to obstruct public gatherings and stymie political activists, some of whom have sometimes been refused permission to host guests for training workshops.
“It’s a remnant of authoritarian rule that’s still being used to control the population,” Fortify’s executive director Matthew Smith told The Associated Press. He said he fears that as Burma moves toward elections expected later this year, “we’re going to see this implemented more and more.”
Although the local administrators who enforce the law are elected, they report to and must be approved by the Home Affairs Ministry, a portfolio overseen by the army. The home affairs minister, Lt-Gen Ko Ko, was accused in a Harvard study last year of bearing responsibility for the execution, torture and enslavement of civilians during his time as a military commander.
The government says the law is aimed at ensuring peace and security. Parliament member Thein Nyunt said the law is essential in a country still wracked by rebel fighting and ethnic tensions.
“It’s too early to speak of abolishing it. You can’t look at it solely from a human-rights perspective. We need stability first,” he said. But he added, “We need to ensure the law is used to protect, rather than oppress.”
Changing the law is not a priority for opposition parties, which are more focused on amending the nation’s charter, in part to ease the military’s hold on power. At present, soldiers are guaranteed 25 percent of parliament seats and the army commanders hold the “right to take over and exercise state sovereign power” if an emergency is deemed to threaten the union.
Smith also said many people are so habituated to submitting to the midnight-inspections law that they don’t even consider it intrusive, or a violation of human rights.
Home inspections typically include community representatives of the government, police, army and intelligence services, even firefighters. The Myanmar Red Cross also has taken part, though last month announced it would no longer allow staff to participate.
In the Dala neighborhood, several residents interviewed said that although they had not experienced “midnight inspections” for nearly a year, they were still required to register guests with the township administrator.
Dala resident Htwe Yi said most people were used to the process. When a 17-year-old relative came to stay with her recently, she had to send him to the township administrator’s office to get permission first. For three weeks, her family had to register the boy every three days, until authorities relaxed the requirement to each week.
Though administrators are prohibited from collecting fees during their duties, Dala residents said they routinely come to homes holding out bowls to collect cash. The residents said they typically pay between 50 US cents and a dollar.
In one township administrator’s office in Dala, where geckos scampered across wooden desks covered with paper and notebooks, administrator Sein Win denied that he or his staff take payments from residents.
Records are kept in simple pen-and-paper ledgers, which list guest names alongside their age, national identity card numbers, host names and addresses, where they’ve traveled from and the amount of time the government has allowed the guest to stay.
Asked how long the data is stored, Sein Win pointed toward the ceiling, where cobwebs shrouded seven large white rice sacks perched on two thick bamboo poles. Each sack was filled with ledgers going back to 1994.
Pyone Cho, a pro-democracy activist who spent much of the last 20 years in jail, said the government uses the data when it needs to: “I know, because when I was in prison, they came to me with records of where I had been in this and that year.”
Whether authorities enforce the laws or not, “people remain afraid of them,” he said. “This was used as a weapon to oppress us for decades. We’re still traumatized. Everybody knows they can enforce turn these laws against us whenever they wish.”