Burma’s military and police are using a repressive colonial-era law to arbitrarily detain civilians in Kachin State and torture them into confessing to membership of the Kachin rebels, a human rights group alleged on Tuesday.
The Asian Legal Resource Center (ALRC) said it examined 36 cases in 2012, in which police and military detained civilians under the 1908 Unlawful Associations Act on accusations of having contact with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
ALRC said authorities were aware that most of the accused in the cases were not in contact with the rebels, but they use the draconian law to arrest and interrogate them. “The system is organized to deliberately capture, torture and imprison innocent persons,” the researchers said.
“Sometimes they detain them because the accused have failed to pay money; sometimes on orders from above; sometimes it is because an incident has occurred and they need to act to hold someone to account,” the group said.
ALRC said Burmese police and military in government-controlled parts of Kachin State were using the colonial-era law to detain Kachin civilians, as the act allows for accusing people of being “politically dangerous to the state by virtue of their identities.”
Burma’s central government and the KIA have been involved in an ongoing, bloody conflict since June 2011, as ethnic rebels demand greater political autonomy for their state.
Once people are accused of being enemies of the state there is a rationale for using violence against detainees, ALRC said. “Torture here is the extension of the violence of warfare into the internal space of the interrogation,” it added.
The report uses the testimony of the Kachin wives or mothers of the victims to highlight examples of torture by police and the military.
Burmese police came to Bawk La’s house on Nov. 15, 2011 and said they needed to bring her son to the station “to ask him something.” After numerous visits and requests, she was finally able to see him again on Nov. 27.
“As soon as I met him, I was shocked and I cried,” Bawk La told ALRC. “He lost his hearing after his temple had been struck for three days… I felt like my heart and my bones had been taken out and crushed.”
ALRC said President Thein Sein’s reformist government should revoke the repressive Unlawful Associations Act and review all current pending cases under the act.
It noted that attempts by lawmakers in 2012 to revoke the law “failed due to the heavy concentration of army personnel, former army personnel and people connected with the army in the Parliament.”
President Thein Sein’s spokesman Ye Htut said in a reaction thatALRC’s allegations against Burmese government security forces in Kachin State were unfounded. “The Tatmadaw [army] does not practice the arbitrary arrest of the local civilians,” he wrote in an email. “If the ground forces commit such crimes, the civilians can complain to the local commander together with the evidence. They can also submit a complaint to the military commander-in-chief and the Myanmar Human Rights Commission,” he added.
Asked whether the government would revoke the colonial-era law that is being used to detain Kachin villagers, Ye Htut said, “I do not want to comment on the lifting or amending of the Act including the Unlawful Association Act because this falls under the authority of the Union Parliament.”
In a separate statement released on Monday, ALRC also stressed the need to reform of Burma police force, as it relies on the “systemic” practice of “extreme” torture of people held on criminal charges.
ALRC said confessions gained through torture were commonly used by police so that they could present offenders in their criminal investigations. It added that senior police officers, the courts and administrative officials are all “aware of its occurrence, are involved actively or are complicit.”
ALRC said in order to eliminate torture in criminal cases in the long term, Burma’s police force should undergo drastic reforms, while the judiciary should be independent and strengthened.
In an example of 2010 torture case that ALRC documented, two men, San Win and a monk U Thubodha, were framed for the murder and rape of a village girl—a crime they did not commit.
“One of the accused the police hung by his tip-toes with a noose, and they forced needles through his tongue, causing him to swallow blood and have a sensation of death,” ALRC researchers said, adding that the victim could not tolerate the pain and confessed.
At the trial, the accused complained of being torture and retracted their confessions. Despite their pleas and lack of conclusive evidence, the judge sentenced the men for rape and murder. They are currently held in Mandalay Central Prison.
This story was updated on 20 Feb, 2013.