Burma’s government claims to welcome complaints about malpractice, inefficiency and corruption against those in public service. But a recent case of a man imprisoned for repeatedly complaining about electricity problems speaks to how easy it is in an irrational system for the complainant, not the government officials, to wind up in trouble.
In early August, U Khin Maung Kyi called the electric supply corporation in his suburb of Rangoon a number of times to complain about a surge in power at his house. It was not the first time that he had called to make a complaint, and the township supply director had already lodged a criminal case with a local court, alleging that the 45-year-old’s repeated calls were obstructing his staff from performing their duties.
This time, Khin Maung Kyi argued with the duty officer, who refused to give his name or let him speak with his superior. Khin Maung Kyi then threatened to make a complaint to higher levels. Later, when asked about this in court, the official admitted that the caller had not used offensive language or made unlawful threats, but testified that his manner was impolite and that his calls were an inconvenience.
The director might have thought that, by lodging a case in court, he would put Khin Maung Kyi off making more calls. In any event, after this latest incident, he put the local state apparatus into movement against the annoying resident.
A flurry of letters went here and there between his office, the township council, the police and the court. But the letters did not restrict themselves to the simple matter of complaints about electricity. They listed all sorts of vague grievances against the troublemaker, ranging from his having encouraged people to vote “no” in the constitutional referendum last year to having taken photographs of flooded roads after heavy rains, presumably to use as evidence in the making of more unwanted complaints.
The whole matter would have been good for a joke had it been going on somewhere other than Burma. On Aug. 25, the township court responded by slapping a one-year bond on Khin Maung Kyi. But because of the criminal case lodged against him already, the court ordered that he be kept in custody.
The story is, in a number of respects, reminiscent of the case of Tony Fernando. In 2003, Fernando brought a motion in the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka against the chief justice and two other judges who had refused an earlier motion on a compensation claim. The chief justice himself heard the new motion. At that time, Fernando became agitated and spoke too loudly for the judge’s liking. The judge then immediately sentenced the petitioner to a year in prison for contempt of court.
Fernando’s case was made worse by the fact that it was the chief justice himself who took the initiative to jail an ordinary citizen who had come to the court not as a defendant, but as someone seeking relief. Notwithstanding, what that case and the one in Burma have in common is that they are symptomatic of the diseased psyche of an irrational state.
Under a rational state, communication is encouraged, even though it may inconvenience officials and may sometimes be frivolous or annoying. Measures are put in place to mollify dissatisfied members of the public and to take action to address complaints properly. Measures also exist to take action against people who abuse the system. Among these, criminal sanctions are a last resort. Things don’t always work as they should, but attempts are made to reduce the opportunities for abuse of authority.
Under an irrational government, communication is not only discouraged in practice, but is opposed as a matter of principle. Irrationality does not need or want open exchange. Measures are put in place so that officials can silence those who irritate them by making complaints, and criminal sanctions, or at least the threat of criminal sanctions, are high on the list. Many opportunities are given for abuse of authority, and officials do not hesitate to use their power, or at least to remind citizens of it.
Khin Maung Kyi’s problem is not his electricity, just as Fernando’s problem was not his loud voice. In each case, the problem was the irrational system with which each man was trying to communicate.
Tellingly, among the many things of which the local authorities accused Khin Maung Kyi was that he had also spread “unwanted” news. For people fortunate to live in places where government is more or less rational, this is an unfamiliar concept: news is often irrelevant, but there is no objective category of news that can be described as unwanted. In contrast, for an irrational government, not only does such a category exist, but it is essential to the management of society and the control of troublemakers like Khin Maung Kyi and Tony Fernando.
Fernando was released after a year. He later left his country for a more rational one. Khin Maung Kyi is still in jail, while the hearings for the charge of obstructing a public servant continue. If he is released from the charge in that case, he can get out on bond. But he cannot legally be imprisoned for more than three months, even if he is found guilty, and he has already been locked up for two. What will happen to him after that remains to be seen, but so long as he continues to spread “unwanted” news, he too will be unwanted.