At a meeting in Singapore last week, Burma’s deputy defense minister iterated that persons taken into custody over the protests in his country of recent months had not been arrested but held “only for questioning.”
Perhaps because it was intended to deflect censure, this audacious remark didn’t get much notice. That’s unfortunate, because it implies a great deal both about how the junta thinks and how it operates.
Where does “only for questioning” fall under the law? If people are arrested, then criminal procedure applies. Police must lay charges and bring the accused before courts. But if someone has not been arrested, nor held according to established practice, then what is there?
If the military regime had even pretended to play by its own rules, then lawyers and relatives could have sought access to detainees according to those. If it had declared an emergency or otherwise sought to bypass ordinary law through formal announcement, then this could have been critiqued and campaigned against.
But dragging people from streets and houses with the help of assorted thugs and unidentified officers denies all recourse. “Only for questioning” is a blank wall, a legal void, a disavowal of everything.
Among those taken “only for questioning” was comedian Par Par Lay. Unlike some, he was released at the end of October, although being famous didn’t spare him from torture, as he told the Burmese service of the Voice of America:
“They called for me on the night of Sept. 25. Around 1a.m. we had an annual donation ceremony going on at our ward’s religious hall and I was there for that program. It was while that was going on that they came and immediately shoved me into a van.
“‘Wait, I need to get my stuff,’ I said. ‘Never mind, you don’t need anything,’ they said. I didn’t have anything warm, just a light shirt and lengyi; not even slippers. ‘Get in the van,’ they said, so I got on and they blindfolded me and took me away. I didn’t know how come.
“Back at my house, my wife asked them, ‘Which organization are you from? Tell me, why are you taking him? What are your names?’ ‘You don’t need to know,’ they said.
“There was another person in the van with face covered. At about 3 a.m. we reached the Shwesaryan riot police camp. It’s called the Number 4 Camp, riot police. After we got there, it began. ‘So, we have some questions for you,’ they said and forced us to sit and began the interrogation. It was tough, because they hit us constantly. They kept changing the guy. One would interrogate while the other one would take a rest and so on.”
Like the protagonist in Kafka’s famous story about a criminal case that is apparently but not actually tried, Par Par Lay was apparently but not actually arrested. Like Josef K., he was not told how or why. And like K’s demands to see a warrant, his wife’s questions about who was taking her husband and for what reason were treated as impertinent, undeserving of reply.
Burma’s courts may be physically less convoluted than the labyrinth of corridors and cramped rooms into which Josef K. is pulled, but their functioning is no less opaque. Although Par Par Lay was this time spared their formalities, hundreds of others have not been so lucky.
U Ba Myint’s family only learned that he would be brought into a court in Kachin State the evening beforehand, through word of mouth. On the day of his closed-door trial, he was given 15 minutes to try to get a lawyer, after which the case against him proceeded. He was sentenced to two years in prison before the day was out.
When U Min Aung complained to the district court of Thandwe that his rights had been violated as he was unrepresented, the judge added two years to his sentence for contempt. Later that order was reversed and the penalty reduced, although for reasons that again remain obscure.
These are among dozens of alleged ringleaders of the protests who have been charged and convicted under section 505(b) of the colonial-era Penal Code for offences “against the public tranquility.” Most of the verdicts are awkward facsimiles: lacking any reasoning whatsoever, consisting of wooden testimonies by government officials, a verbatim reading of section 505 and the sentence.
Whys and wherefores may be of little import to judges going through the motions on orders from above, but they should be of pressing concern to everyone else troubled about what is happening in Burma.
The U.N. Human Rights Council is troubled, apparently. Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, its special expert on human rights in Burma, is set to give a report on his recent trip at its special session in December. So what’s to be expected?
If Pinheiro’s report gets caught up in pointless games about precise numbers of killed and detained or the superficialities of political prisoners then it will lead the council to keep plodding, rather like one of Kafka’s confused functionaries, over the same small area that it has already trod for the last decade. Let’s hope that for everyone’s sake, this doesn’t happen.
If, by contrast, the report pays close regard to the real meaning, features, mechanics and wider significance of “only for questioning” then it may give the council a starting point, at least, for some understanding of Burma’s systemic human rights problems and how they relate to the junta’s disavowal of law. After all, this is the subtext of the deputy minister’s remarks in Singapore. Let’s hope that the council gets the message after all.
See also: BURMA—State, not citizens, the cause of fear and alarm (AHRC)