Whether the release of some nine thousand prisoners from Burma’s jails last week was an act of self-described goodwill or a strategic manoeuvre by a government preparing the latest phase in its program for continued political control is of little significance when seen against the country’s unchanging legal codes, courts and policing agencies. The excitement over the discharge of star political prisoner U Win Tin, who is a former senior journalist and veteran activist, has not been matched by scrutiny of the laws and institutions that made his long imprisonment possible.
How Burma’s criminal justice agencies have over the last half-century been turned into agencies for injustice is the subject of recent research by the Asian Legal Resource Centre. The Hong Kong-based group has marked the one-year anniversary of the protests last September with a study that links ten cases against alleged protestors and their ringleaders to phased decades-long attacks on a legal system that was once ranked highly in Asia but is now among its worst.
The study, “Saffron Revolution imprisoned, law demented“, reveals the integral yet deeply flawed role that the courts in Burma have played in both guaranteeing and exacerbating nationwide systemic abuse of fundamental human rights. It outlines the executive project to destroy judicial integrity and independence begun in 1962, when General Ne Win seized power, and points to how its consequences are reflected in the behaviour of judges, police and other functionaries today.
Among the common features of the ten cases selected for the study are the absence of rudimentary legal procedure and careless disregard for even minimal standards under domestic law, to say nothing of international norms. Most of the accused were taken and held illegally, some for months, before being brought to court. Little if any evidence has been produced against the defendants, and the police lodging a number of charges admitted that they didn’t know the facts as soldiers had done their work for them.
The case of Khin Moe Aye and Kyaw Soe is indicative. The two were in December accused of holding foreign currency illegally, yet the search that supposedly uncovered the US dollars in their bags was not made until they were already inside the central prison. What then were the grounds for military intelligence officers to waylay them and send them there? And if they were suspected of a crime why were they sent to jail and not a police station as required by law? Whatever the answers to these questions may be, they are not legally coherent ones.
In contrast to the opened doors of the prisons that excited media interest last week, the case of Khin Moe Aye and Kyaw Soe, like those of other Septemberists, is being tried behind closed ones. That to do this contradicts an article of a judiciary law that it itself introduced is no obstacle for a regime that understands legality only in terms of its own exclusive purposes. Its critics must do more to explore and articulate this aspect of its authoritarian rule if they are to make sense of their own agenda, let alone that of the military. Otherwise, there is little to be said about the intermittent liberating of some convicts, just as there is little to be gained from the making of incessant demands for the freeing of detainees who may walk out an open door today, only to walk back in again via the same closed courts tomorrow.