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BURMA/MYANMAR: No Rule of Law via Special Branch, Militarised Police

By Asian Human Rights Commission  •  March 15, 2014
On 11 March 2014 a presidential commission of inquiry into the latest violence in the far west of Burma, or Myanmar, presented its findings. According to the commission, which is the latest in a series examining violence around the country, numbers of security forces in some areas need to be significantly increased. Highlighting Maungdaw Township, on the border with Bangladesh, the commission observed that for security, tranquility and rule of law the numbers of police personnel and police posts need to be increased so as to suppress quickly any incidents and prevent them from spreading. File Image courtesy: www.flickr.com. All rights reserved by Timothy Neesam (GumshoePhotos) To support its case, the commission gave data on police numbers in Maungdaw. Although its analysis concentrates on the overall relatively low numbers of personnel as a ratio of the total population in the area, another ratio gives a startling indication that the mentalities and practices associated with half-a-century of military dictatorship in Myanmar are alive and well. According to the data as reported (The Voice, 12 March 2014, p. 6), Maungdaw Township has 29 Special Branch personnel and only one officer from the Criminal Investigation Department. That is to say, the township has 29 personnel gathering intelligence for every and only one doing crime scene investigation. And police intelligence makes up over 10 per cent of the total number of personnel in the area. For all the talk in Burma today about the rule of law, the ratio of 29:1 in favour of police intelligence over criminal investigation is the ratio of military dictatorship. The ratio of one police officer in ten as an intelligence gatherer is the ratio of a surveillance state, not a state concerned with the rule of law at all, and certainly not a police force tasked with carrying out activities to enable the rule of law. Nor is it a ratio that is sustainable or enabling of democratisation. On the contrary, it is a ratio that ensures the persistence of old practices, habits and thinking. Not that any of this comes as a surprise to people familiar with the Myanmar Police Force and its operations. For years, successive military regimes treated the police force as a subsidiary of the army, restructuring it along military lines, assigning it with military responsibilities, staffing it with military personnel, and providing increasingly militarised training. Despite reforms in other parts of government and in politics, the police service remains under the watch of an army officer, in the form of the home affairs minister. Despite various international projects for training and reform, it remains an institution that is rooted firmly in Burma’s past, and an institution that is backwards looking. Furthermore, police ranks continue to increase via army officers being transferred out of command posts and into the police force, which is well below target numbers of personnel at all levels and in most parts of the country, not only in the far west. According to another recent news report, some 60 military commissioned officers have taken up positions in the upper echelons of Burma’s police force in recent times (The Irrawaddy, vol. 1, no. 11, p. 10). These men bring with them their military training and outlook to the police force, to its long-term detriment. If the government of Myanmar is serious about keeping its police force in step with its expressed objectives for democratisation then it could begin by halting the recruitment of military personnel to the gazetted ranks of the police force, and instead by initiating a programme for recruitment of talented civilians. The latter approach will, inevitably, involve more work and more money. It will require of the government that it allocate a budget for a recruitment programme to target people who might not otherwise want to join the police, and ensure that they receive appropriate remuneration upon completion of training. But only by initiating a deliberate programme for the taking in of civilians and removal of military personnel from the police force will the institution begin to undergo change consonant with reforms in other parts of the state structure. As for Maungdaw, the presidential commission of inquiry might be right that the township needs more police personnel overall. But it also needs different types of police personnel. It does not need more police intelligence; not, that is, if the rhetoric of the rule of law is to have any meaning there. It does need more police officers trained in the professional investigation of crime. Therefore, if the government of Myanmar is serious about its stated aspirations for rule of law and tranquility in Maungdaw, it could begin with removing 28 members of the Special Branch, and replacing them with 28 from the Criminal Investigtion Department instead. A ratio of 29:1 in favour of crime investigation over intelligence gathering is a ratio consistent with the needs of a democratising state. And it might just contribute to the emergence of the rule of law too.
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This post is in: Human Rights, Law

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