Myanmar’s lingering torture problem

Wrapped in a dressing gown, Brang Shawng casts his eyes at the floor as he recounts his arrest and incarceration in June 2012.

John Zaw and Simon Lewis, Myitkyina township
January 8, 2015

Wrapped in a dressing gown, Brang Shawng casts his eyes at the floor as he recounts his arrest and incarceration in June 2012.

His forehead bears a blood-red patch, and similar red streaks run down his neck, the signs of a traditional medicine practice employed by his ethnic group, the Kachin — as well as others in Asia. The practice, in which a metal spoon is scraped across the skin, is believed to heal maladies.

Brang Shawng’s skin also bears other marks. The slight 27-year-old pulls up his pyjamas to show thighs covered with scars he says were inflicted by military intelligence officers during a brutal interrogation.

“Now I am not feeling well. Its hard for me to work because of the injuries I got during the beatings,” he told in a recent interview at the Ja Mai Kaung camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Brang Shawng eventually confessed to having links to the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and was sentenced to two years in jail. He was released in a presidential amnesty in July 2013, long after it became clear the charges were unfounded — the only evidence in his case was the violently elicited confession.

Brang Shawng’s case, and the connected cases of two other Kachin men who remain behind bars, highlight a proclivity for torture among those in power in Myanmar. Allegations of torture by the former military regime were rife, but the problem has not gone away since the government of President Thein Sein took charge four years ago, despite the nominally civilian administration publicly opposing its use.

Amnesty International has documented cases of officials mistreating people in custody since 2012 in ethnic minority areas like Kachin state, but also in central areas.

“It’s difficult to assess the scale of the use of torture in Myanmar because from our experience people are often afraid to speak out, fearful of repercussions against themselves and their families,” the group’s researcher-campaigner on Myanmar, Laura Haigh, told by email.

“However, what we do know is that the use of torture and ill-treatment has continued in Myanmar under the Thein Sein administration, both by military officials and members of the police.”

Further, she said, the government and the courts have not removed incentives for officials to use torture to force confessions.

“Where torture has been used to extract a confession, we found that courts still accepted the confession as evidence, even after victims or their lawyers complained to the authorities and to the courts,” said Haigh. “This is a flagrant violation of international human rights law.”

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, is currently visiting the country to assess the human rights situation. Her itinerary includes travel to northern Shan state, which has been drawn into the fighting that broke out between the government and Kachin rebels in 2011.

Brang Shawng fled fighting at his rural village of On Pawng to the Kachin state capital, Myitkyina, in mid-2011. With his wife and three children, he moved into the Ja Mai Kaung camp, which is run by the Kachin Baptist Convention.

One night, military officers came into the camp. Brang Shawng’s name appeared on a list of people alleged to have links with the KIA who were living in IDP camps. The military believed that a network of KIA agents was living among displaced civilians, and was plotting bomb attacks in government-controlled areas.

Brang Shawng was taken to the Myitkyina office of the military’s Security Affairs Department, the current incarnation of Myanmar’s notorious military intelligence. His interrogation lasted for three days.

“One group after another came. I told them I was telling the truth, I have no connection to the KIA. They hit me on the neck and cut me with a knife,” he said.

“Then, they took a knife and put it in the fire, and held to it my cheeks.”

Believing his torturers would not stop until he was dead, leaving his children fatherless, he caved in and confessed to having contact with an official in the Kachin Independence Organization, the KIA’s political wing.

Without any other evidence to make allegations of a bomb plot stick, military intelligence filed charges at the court under Article 17(1) of the Unlawful Associations Act — a colonial-era law that bans contact with non-state armed groups and has been widely used against the Kachin during the current conflict.

Brang Shawng is now free thanks to a protest campaign by local civil society members and fellow IDPs. But two men who fled from the same village remain locked up after befalling a similar fate.

Laphai Gam and Brang Yung were staying in the Shwe Set IDP camp in Myitkyina. Against the advice of community leaders, they left the camp to take jobs herding cattle in Waing Maw township — an area designated as a black area by the army.

They were picked up on June 12 by a group of local militiamen and held in a Buddhist monastery for five days. There they were beaten, according to their lawyer, Mah Khar, but the treatment got worse when they were handed over to the Security Affairs Department.

At the military intelligence compound they were subjected to humiliating treatment, according to allegations made to family members and their lawyer, and published in individual reviews of their cases by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. They claim they were forced to perform sex acts on each other and to stand in a “crucifix” position — apparently a crude reference by their torturers to their Christian faith.

“The wounds still seemed fresh when I met them in court,” said Mah Khar, who also represented Brang Shawng and said he had not been allowed by the court to take photographs of his clients’ injuries.

They were accused of being part of bomb plots also including Brang Shawng, and alleged to have been in contact with the Kachin rebel group. They too eventually signed confessions, and were convicted on that evidence alone, according to Mah Khar.

Brang Yung and Laphai Gam got 21 years and 20 years in prison, respectively, for charges including the Unlawful Associations Act and other charges relating to the bomb plots they supposedly took part in.

Commenting on Laphai Gam’s case the UN working group said, “The army in this case is prosecutor and judge, and has arrest, investigative and trial authority, leaving little room for an impartial trial and outcome.”

On Brang Yung’s case, the working group said, “The Government of Burma has not rebutted the allegation that Mr Brang Yung was arrested in order to extract a confession under torture in detention.”

Mah Khar said the pair’s ongoing incarceration highlights the fact that the court system has changed little since military rule. Defense lawyers are now allowed to make their case in court, he said, but they are usually trumped by the official line put forward by police or prosecutors, no matter how testimony is elicited.

“Under the civilian government there are some improvements. We have a right to argue and there are some witnesses now, at least,” he said.

“But it’s not a big change. The procedure is different, but the result is the same.”