Guest Column

‘May I Help You?’ The Police and National Reconciliation

By Kyaw Htut Aung 3 April 2019

The four main responsibilities of the Myanmar Police Force (MPF) are to ensure domestic security and regional tranquility, to uphold the rule of law, to prevent and tackle the narcotics trade, and to serve the public interest. The phrase “May I Help You?” appears on the Myanmar Police Force (MPF) website, and in every police booth in the country, catching the eye of every passer-by. However, given the MPF’s history of abusing its power and using violence both to suppress public protest and in its daily policing tasks, “May I Help You”, which on the surface suggests a spontaneous offer of assistance to anyone in need, conveys an extreme ambiguity, even notoriety, among the general public.

Yet, the MPF’s notoriety comes as no surprise if one looks at the organization’s history. The police force has never enjoyed public support. During both the British and Japanese colonial eras, police were viewed by the general public with disdain as corrupt law-enforcing servants of the ruling administrations, which the public resented. Public perceptions of the police have yet to improve. Ironically, the oppressed minorities and the dominant Bamar ethnic group, which often hold contradictory political views, stand united in their perceptions of the police in Myanmar; and this shared perception stems from their shared experience of the police’s indiscriminate brutality and violence against civilians across the country. This shared perception suggests the existence of a certain pattern concerning policing.

Not so long ago, the Saffron Revolution of 2007, which was predominantly led by the Bamar ethnic group in Yangon, saw police brutality against students, monks, nuns, passers-by and demonstrators. While soldiers played the major role in the ruthless crackdown on the peaceful demonstrators, the police—especially the Lon Htein, or riot police—abused their power to violently wield batons against the crowd, beating and detaining non-resisting demonstrators. Even one of my friends who was a passer-by received his share of violent baton punishment from the police. Many other innocent individuals and peaceful demonstrators had excruciatingly painful atrocities inflicted upon them during their detention and imprisonment.

In 2012, during a protest in the Letpadaung mining area, 10 Buddhist monks were burned when a grenade containing highly flammable white phosphorus was allegedly thrown at them, and two of them sustained severe injuries. And in December 2014, another civilian, Daw Khin Win, was shot and killed on the spot, and two others were injured, by police during a demonstration against the Letpadaung copper mine operated by the Chinese government-backed Wanbao company.

In Kachin State’s Hpakant, where many state-owned and Chinese government-backed companies excessively mine jade, killings of civilians by security guards are not uncommon. Myanmar police armed with guns usually serve as security for those companies. To cite a few examples, jadestone picker Ko Zaw Wai was shot and killed in the presence of six policemen led by Sergeant Myo Min Oo at the Wakyae Jade mine in Hpakant in early June of 2017 (as reported by RFA on June 26, 2017). In November 2018, Ko Aye Than from Rakhine State was killed by security personnel from the Jade Leaf Mining Company (Irrawaddy, Nov. 20, 2018). Again in 2019, U Kyaw Zin Phyo was shot in the back of the head and killed at the San Hkar Mine in Hpakant (Myanmar Peace Monitor, Feb. 6, 2019). While it is surprising to learn that Myanmar police hire out their services as a security force to Chinese government-backed mega mining companies, from whose operations Myanmar citizens almost never benefit, it is also appalling that civilians are killed almost at will and with impunity. Leaked videos showing police involvement in capturing, interrogating and torturing members of the Rohingya minority during military clearance operations following ARSA terrorist attacks also reveal the degree of police involvement in atrocities, brutality and violence against civilians with impunity.

During a police crackdown on peaceful ethnic Karenni demonstrators who were protesting the controversial placement of a statue of General Aung San in Loikaw, 21 youths sustained injuries from rubber bullets used by police. Many were shocked and disturbed to see images of a Karenni youth with a bloody rubber-bullet wound to his face. Yet, the perpetrators have not been brought to justice.

In September 2016, a video showing Police Lieutenant Soe Zaw Zaw wildly pointing his pistol at and threatening participants at a meeting in Hpakant went viral online (Irrawaddy, Sept. 9, 2016). Yet details of the legal action taken against the officer for his outright power abuse and misconduct remain largely unknown to the public. Although the officer may be explained away as just a “one bad apple in the barrel”, the other above-mentioned incidents are too numerous to dismiss as isolated occurrences; instead they portray a consistent pattern of police brutality and violence, of committing crimes with impunity across the state.

With recent attacks on police in Rakhine State claiming several lives, it may be time for the MPF to reevaluate its four main responsibilities. In the aftermath of the Yoetayote Police Station attack on March 9, police chief Kyi Lin commented in an interview with The Irrawaddy that “the general public is also responsible for the attack in some respect… the public has become weak in information sharing.” While it may not be deemed wise or responsible of the police chief to blame—even to the slightest degree—the general public, whose trust the police have yet to earn, it is worth noting the importance of collaboration between the police and the general public in response to issues that disrupt social order and challenge domestic stability and regional tranquility. Yet, police chief Kyi Lin’s comment clearly demonstrates the public’s distrust of and reluctance to collaborate with the police force.

Given the incidents discussed above and the comment in the aftermath of the Yoetayote Police Station attack, one does not need a highly sophisticated knowledge to see the breadth  of police brutality committed with impunity, and the resulting lack of trust in the police—and the lack of will to collaborate with police—among the general public. The perpetrators of these acts must be prosecuted at the individual level, but the incidents also demonstrate the need to address the long-existing practice of police brutality against citizens. This would allow the MPF to redirect its energies to truly serve the interests of the public and gain its trust.

In order for the police to establish a positive image and secure positive collaboration from the public, the initiative must come from the police force itself. In addition to formulating mechanisms to prosecute individual perpetrators of police killings and violence, the MPF also needs to question the state of the “barrel”—the system itself—that has consistently been riddled with so many bad apples. And this proactive move may be the best way to gain public support given all the suffering inflicted upon the general public.

The continuation of police abuse of power, brutality, violence and killings will only lead ethnic minority groups to show greater support for their respective armed or civil forces; this could in turn escalate armed clashes between the Myanmar military (or Tatmadaw) and ethnic armed organizations. Moreover, the police could become easy targets for ethnic armed groups, which would gain greater support from their respective ethnic groups. Attacking police may also be viewed as easily justified in the minds of the armed groups by giving to them the tag of being “traitor(s) to the public”.

Such a vicious circle would further hinder domestic security and the reconciliation process. The rise of Rakhine nationalism serves as the one of most recent living testimonies to the consequences of police brutality, violence and killings. However, the desirable results of the re-evaluation of police misconduct and mistreatment of civilians would be three-fold: the achievement of the police’s objectives; reducing the vulnerability of the police in armed conflict zones; and a significant contribution to domestic security and national reconciliation.

Kyaw Htut Aung is a pseudonym for a Kachin analyst doing his master’s degree in education abroad.