An excessive sense of justice

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Some months ago, Le Monde reported that a man in Russia had been jailed for an “excessive sense of justice.” Nikolay Skatchkov, the French newspaper said, had protested against the brutal treatment of demonstrators during 2006. Recalling Soviet days, police in Omsk sent him for six months of psychiatric treatment.

An excessive sense of justice among citizens implies its opposite among officialdom. Certainly, the absence of a sense of justice is a key feature not only of governments but of so-called justice agencies in most countries across Asia.

A new study has hit upon this, and applied the notion of mental illness not to persons but to legal and political life in Burma. The study, by the Asian Legal Resource Centre, is the first to look at how chronic disorders have forced rationality out of the country’s courts and public offices. It treats the recent protests and the response to them not as aberrant but as consonant with Burma’s case history. Institutional — not individual — lunacy is the real cause for concern.

One poignant story relates how a mother’s sense of justice led her from the country’s hospitals and government offices to police stations and army barracks, and finally, beyond its borders, offering many small glimpses into the maladjusted behavior of the state apparatus along the way.

In March 2006, 28-year-old Maung Ne Zaw and two buddies were travelling by motorcycle near the border of China when a special narcotics unit stopped and searched them. The police allegedly assaulted the three and charged them with possession. Ne Zaw later died in custody.

His mother, Daw Mi Mi Htun, knew nothing of it until she came back from travelling on business. She immediately went to get her son’s body, but found that he had already been cremated. She says that when she asked the doctor about the cause of death, she was told, “It’s not my job to tell you.” No death certificate was provided.

Mi Mi Htun grew suspicious and began to investigate. At the site where the police had arrested the three, she found a teenager who had witnessed the assault and arranged for him to testify during the trial against the two surviving accused. Then she began to lodge formal complaints with higher authorities. In May, she wrote a letter to the regional army commander requesting legal action against the accused.

When the police got wind of it, they began searching for her. Terrified, she fled to an army compound and stood at the gate, crying and begging to meet with the deputy commander, whose wife she knew from schooldays. Finally she was able to confer with an intelligence officer, who told her to get the necessary documents to support her claims. She brought these and the eyewitness as well.

In June, Mi Mi Htun was called to the officer’s room. There two doctors told her that her son had died from a cocktail of AIDS, malaria and pneumonia. She refused to believe them, alleging that had it been so they would not have concealed the truth from her in the first place.

But realizing that the doctors’ version of events undermined her own, she submitted a second letter in the same month instead calling for action against the police for planting drugs and falsely accusing the young men. She flattered the army and echoed state propaganda in an effort to win favor, but to no avail. When contacted by special investigation police they instead asked her about political party links.

Mi Mi Htun had thought that if she stuck close by the army then she could succeed, but she was wrong. Although under army orders, when protecting one of their own the police could hold their ground. After narrowly escaping another search, her lawyer advised that she couldn’t possibly win, and should flee. “They killed your son, they will kill you too,” he stressed.

Daw Mi Mi Htun sold her jewelry and used the money to get to Thailand, where she obtained assistance to apply for asylum abroad. What began with a complaint over her son’s death ended with her becoming another refugee; and another victim of an excessive sense of justice.

Most people in Burma don’t have as much going for them as Mi Mi Htun did. She had some knowhow, some knack and at least one friend in a high place. Her son was a victim of the police, not the army; of a routine search and assault — the sort that goes on daily everywhere from Dhaka to Manila — not a political killing. She had a better chance of getting some redress than many. Yet justice was still too much to ask.

In Burma, as in many of its neighbors, an excessive sense of justice is apparently any sense of justice at all. Afflicted persons may not end up in an asylum, but they could wind up dead, imprisoned or in hiding. The problem is that it is not they who are really sick. It’s the system suffering the malaise, and there is no immediate cure.

Source: An excessive sense of justice

See also: BURMA: Young man allegedly dies due to assault by special drug squad; mother flees country (AHRC Urgent Appeal)

MYANMAR: Violent crime by state officers causing lawlessness (AHRC Open Letter)

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