Guest Column

Old Laws, Same Military

By Matthew Bugher 26 March 2015

Earlier this month, Myanmar authorities brutally crushed student protests in Yangon and a small town 90 miles to the northwest. Pictures of baton-wielding riot police, bloodied activists and trucks packed with detainees brought back memories of ruthless crackdowns under prior authoritarian regimes.

What the pictures don’t show is that the recent violence is being directed by the Myanmar military, which retains control of the laws and institutions it used to dismantle pro-democracy movements in previous decades.

In Yangon, men in plainclothes wearing red armbands emblazoned with the Burmese word for “duty” confronted peaceful protesters. These men—backed by riot police—argued with the group of students and activists and then threw punches. When the protesters defended themselves, police intervened, beating students and their supporters. The thuggish red-armband brigade helped make arrests, putting protesters in headlocks and dragging them to police trucks.

When pictures and amateur videos of the crackdown emerged, social media in Myanmar lit up with speculation about the re-emergence of Swan Arr Shin, or “Masters of Force.” Swan Arr Shin was a band of thugs-for-hire bankrolled by previous dictatorships in Myanmar. The group became notorious for its role in crushing the monk-led “Saffron Revolution” in 2007 and leading a deadly 2003 attack on the convoy of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. None of its members have ever been held accountable.

Responding to the widespread rumors, a government spokesperson quickly stated that Swan Arr Shin was defunct, but provided no further explanation for the identity of the red-armband assailants involved in the recent unrest. A Yangon Region official was quick to point out that the police force retains legal authority under the Myanmar Criminal Procedure Code to “require the assistance of any male person” to help put down protests.

The Criminal Procedure Code is not the only law being used to undermine the student movement in Myanmar.

Last week, the human rights organization Fortify Rights published a report that I helped research and write concerning arcane legal provisions used by authorities to crack down on protesters. The 2012 Ward or Village Tract Administration Law requires all residents of Myanmar to register overnight household guests with government authorities and empowers local officials to inspect “the places needed to examine for prevalence of law and order [sic].” Under the authority granted by the law—and two predecessor laws employed by past military regimes to the same effect—government authorities have conducted routine late-night searches of homes, ostensibly to check if guests have been registered.

We have spoken to individuals in communities across the country who described the fear they experienced when large groups of men—ranging from government administrators and police to military officers and plainclothes intelligence agents—examined all corners of their homes. We found grave breaches of privacy and were deeply disturbed by the vast troves of personal data collected by the government under the authority granted by this law.

Mandatory guest registration and late-night inspections have been used in a targeted fashion against political activists and those involved in protest movements. In previous decades, hundreds of political prisoners were arrested during warrantless searches conducted under the pretense of checking for the presence of unregistered houseguests. Thousands of activists endured routine harassment, as authorities entered their homes after midnight without explanation or justification.

“I believe that this policy will still be used in the future as a tool for crackdowns,” a political activist told me last year.

His premonition has been realized. In recent weeks, authorities in Yangon and elsewhere have inspected the homes of known student activists late at night, claiming to check for guests and then dragging away those suspected of supporting the protest movement.

These bad laws are made more dangerous because their implementation is, in practice, directly controlled by the Myanmar military, an institution with a prolific record of abuse. Both the Myanmar Police Force and the local government officials who enforce guest registration are controlled by the Home Affairs Ministry, the most powerful ministry in the country. According to Myanmar’s Constitution, the minister of Home Affairs is an active duty military officer who is nominated by, and reports to, the military commander-in-chief.

The current minister of Home Affairs is Lt-Gen Ko Ko. He’s no saint. In November, my colleagues and I at the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic published a memorandum detailing Ko Ko’s responsibility for war crimes committed in eastern Myanmar in 2005 and 2006. Last Monday, a group of lawyers and monks announced a lawsuit against him for his role in the 2012 firebombing of peaceful protesters near the site of a controversial Chinese-backed copper mine.

Ko Ko has been a mouthpiece of the Myanmar government concerning the recent student protests, calling the students “extremists” and “puppets” of political parties. As Home Affairs minister, he is directly responsible for the violent events earlier this month.

It’s deeply worrying that the government’s response to recent protests has been controlled by a powerful military man with a long rap sheet of international crimes. So long as the military has the relevant legal and institutional tools at its disposal, it will continue to dispatch protesters and activists as it has in the past: bloodied and in chains. In order for Myanmar to achieve its democratic aspirations, the government’s longstanding tools of repression must be retired for good.

Matthew Bugher is the Global Justice Fellow at Harvard Law School and a pro bono researcher for Fortify Rights. Follow him on Twitter @bughermk1.