Deaths in custody raise questions about police interrogation

Police in Yangon were investigating the theft of a car battery when they arrested Aung Aung, a 28-year-old taxi driver, one night in September last year. After 14 days behind bars, he was dead.

His mother, Daw Aye, is convinced he died because he was beaten by police interrogators. He is one of at least five people to lose their lives in the past year shortly after being arrested.

After police detained Aung Aung, along with two of his passengers, Daw Aye spent the following day at the police station waiting to meet with him.

When she was finally allowed to meet him the next day, she told Myanmar Now, his body was bruised and he was struggling to move.

“Somebody had to hold him because he couldn’t stand,” she said.

For rights activists, cases like these demonstrate that the Myanmar Police Force, despite assistance from the European Union and the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime, has done little to reform itself since the end of direct military rule.  

The Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC) says it has asked the government to take action against those responsible in Aung Aung’s case, but Daw Aye has been left in the dark about the progress of the investigation.  

After he was transferred to Insein Prison ahead of his court hearing, Aung Aung felt able to talk openly to his mother about what happened at the police station,” Daw Aye said.

“He said they cuffed his hands behind his back and hit his chest with batons. He was also shocked with a Taser gun. Then they made him kneel down and kicked his back,” she added.

Even though Aung Aung could still barely walk, she said, he was sent to his court hearing. But as soon as he emerged from the prison van at the courthouse, he collapsed. He died three hours later.

The captain of Thanlyin police station, U Myat Soe, has been transferred to another region since Aung Aung’s death, according to MNHRC.

Police at Thanlyin station declined to comment on the allegations of violence when contacted by Myanmar Now.

Others who have died in police custody in the past year include a vendor who was detained in June in Yangon’s Hlaing Thayar township and a man arrested in the Ayeyarwaddy delta for stealing a fishing net.

In another case in 2017, a 52-year-old man arrested on suspicion of rape in Mandalay Region died after three days in custody. Five police officers were interrogated after the death, but police said they were not ready to give an update when contacted by Myanmar Now.

‘Investigate with torture’

U Maung Soe, a former police colonel who served as a police spokesperson under U Thein Sein’s government, told Myanmar Now that many officers see using violence during interrogation as normal.

“Our officers still hold on to the old belief that police should investigate with torture. That’s why unwanted problems still happen,” he said.

Another thing driving problematic interrogations is that police are under pressure to present a case at court within two weeks for most minor offences, he added.

“That’s why officers force suspects to confess during interrogation, so they can file the case on time,” he said.

Police colonel Aung Myint Soe of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) told Myanmar Now that stress and low salaries drive police misconduct.

Myanmar’s police force needs twice the number of officers it has now, he said, meaning officers are compelled to take on high caseloads for low pay.   

“If they really want to reform our police force, the most important thing to do is to solve their livelihood problems,” he said. “This is the only way.”

He added that despite appearances, police who commit crimes are not completely unaccountable. Some officers have been quietly charged and sentenced without the media or the public finding out, he said.

While there are no centralised statistics on allegations of police violence, rights groups have begun collecting data in recent years. The Association of Human Rights Defenders and Promoters says it is aware of 11 cases of police torture in Yangon and Ayeyarwaddy regions in the past 12 months. The MNHRC says it handled 29 such cases in 2018.

“These cases should not have happened,” said U Yu Lwin Aung, a commission member. “I am now planning to send a separate advisory report to the department of home affairs. We can’t accept torture and beatings in this modern age,” he said.


Myanmar’s police are under the control of the ministry of Home Affairs, which is still run by the military as per the 2008 constitution. And many top leaders in the police are former military men, with those from non-military backgrounds seeing few chances for promotion.  

This, say rights advocates, is a major barrier to reform.

One of those is Aung Soe Htike, a small business owner and former journalist who was wrongfully arrested and allegedly beaten while in police interrogation in November.

He is seeking the prosecution of the men he accuses of beating him and making him sit in stress positions, and he hopes to prevent police wrongfully detaining and abusing others.

“The police force is infamous for setting traps to arrest people,” he told Myanmar Now.  

Maung Soe, the former police colonel, said police are taught 70 rules for good conduct. The key to reform, he said, is getting officers to abide by them.

“The members of the police force need to follow the rules and regulations,” he said. “If they do, the police force will be invincible.”

(Editing by Joshua Carroll)


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