The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is having trouble finding violent crime in Burma. This is strange, given its mandate; stranger still given that police and local officials there assault and kill people with impunity, and often over the most trivial things.
This March a man in suburban Rangoon was beaten to death by local council officials for having a row with his wife. Naing Oo was picked up after an in-laws complaint, brutally assaulted and dumped in the council office for the night. The next morning when his brother saw the mauled body and asked what had happened, he was told that the young man had “caught a cold.” The authorities worked fast to cover up his death.
Similar reports of senseless killings by security officers are commonplace. In January, a man in the delta region was taken from his house after eloping with his new wife. The police, apparently again acting as a favor to the woman’s family, took him on the pretext that he hadn’t registered on the overnight visitor list. When relatives found his bloodied corpse in a local hospital the next day they were told that the cause of death was malaria; they have since been intimidated and silenced.
Last year a young man was beaten to death by municipal officers in a city marketplace after a dispute over where he had urinated. When his mother persisted in making complaints, some trishaw drivers were charged instead of the real perpetrators. Elsewhere, a young lady died in police custody after being casually stopped on her way home from shopping. Police also beat a washerwoman to within an inch of her life after a client accused her of petty theft.
This is a handful of the total number of incidents. What they reveal is not a society where the “stability of the state” prevails, as trumpeted by its military government, but where random violence and criminality are the norm, and where institutions hang on the verge of barbarism.
Why doesn’t the UNODC seem to know anything about this?
The profile on its Web site describes Burma as a country where “there is very little violent crime: not even anecdotal reports of murders, rapes or kidnappings.” Crime, it concludes, just “does not appear to be a major concern among the population.” How did the profile’s authors reach this remarkable conclusion? They don’t say. Nor do they seem to consider it a matter of any importance. After all, they are not in Burma for crime; they’re there for the drugs.
Does it make any difference to the UNODC that police and local council officials are beating people to death in Burma? The short answer is that it does, because its credibility depends upon realistic and candid assessments of what’s going on beyond the doors of its office. The fact that it is in denial about crime, or that it does not seem to rate it as worthy of serious attention, suggests a much deeper denial that undermines everything it does and represents.
The agency talks in its documents about the need for improved “law enforcement.” To achieve this it cooperates with police and army personnel, and civil servants. This cooperation presumes the existence of “law enforcement” officers. But what if the presumption is wrong? What if such persons don’t exist?
Around the world, law is often conflated, deliberately or otherwise, with order. Yet the two are completely different. Substitute “law enforcement” for “order enforcement” and this becomes obvious. Law enforcement requires proper criminal investigations; order enforcement requires none. Law enforcement requires training; order enforcement is easier without it. Law enforcement depends upon rational behavior through written rules and communications along a hierarchy; order enforcement can be arbitrary and undocumented. Law enforcers are themselves answerable to the law; order enforcers are not. Ultimately, order can be enforced with or without law.
What exists in Burma is a system of order enforcement, not a system of law enforcement. Where order alone is enforced, it is both normal and necessary for people to be routinely tortured and killed by state officers. Where law is enforced, such incidents will be relatively few, and contrary to the needs and interests of the system itself.
The challenge for the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime is not just admitting that violent crime is prevalent in Burma, but that its root cause is the system of order enforcement. The challenge is to acknowledge that there are no law enforcers with whom to cooperate. This is not to say that cooperation is out of the question, but it cannot begin from the same presumptions that may apply elsewhere.
The United Nations’ capacity to work effectively and speak with authority depends upon clarity of thought, word and deed, not denial, obfuscation and disarray. If it is unable to see and speak clearly about the obstacles to the rule of law and human rights in a country then it should get out. At the very least it should not publish and distribute documents that completely misrepresent reality and insult the intelligence of every man, woman and child there who knows better.
UNODC Myanmar: http://www.unodc.org/myanmar/en/country_profile.html