Photo: Rangoon police stand guard outside a Muslim boarding school in March 2013 after a suspicious fire that killed 13 students (Alex Bookbinder).
Officials in charge of implementing a €10 million police reform project in Burma reached out to local media in Rangoon on Friday in an attempt to explain some of the project’s aims.
The 18-month-long pilot project, which got underway around two months ago, will provide some 4,000 police in Burma with training in community policing and crowd management best practices, and to promote police accountability by engaging civil society and parliament, EU Ambassador Roland Kobia said.
“The main objective of this project is actually to bring the Myanmar Police Force closer to the people, to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms of the people,” he said.
The EU launched the project following a request from the President’s Office, based on recommendations made by the Latpadaung Commission Report chaired by Aung San Suu Kyi. A brutal crackdown exactly one year ago to the day on protestors at the Chinese-backed copper mine left dozens with severe burns from phosphorous bombs fired by riot police.
“The reform process will take many months and years. So while we are hopeful that we can learn quickly, we also know that it will take time, and a step-by-step approach.”
Critics of the program have claimed that the EU’s provision of riot gear might be in violation of a longstanding EU arms embargo. “The equipment the EU will be providing to the police is only purely defensive,” Kobia claimed, “not something that can be used [offensively]… nothing of a repressive nature.”
EU trainers will coach Burmese police officers on “how to secure and protect the democratic rights of citizens to gather and demonstrate, and at the same time stop communal, inter-religious and protest-related violence by using as little force as possible,” according to a statement.
Under Section 18 of the Peaceful Protest and Assembly Act, Burmese citizens require prior authorisation from local police before they are allowed to stage a public protest. If demonstrators fail to receive permission, they can be arrested and face fines and imprisonment of up to one year. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma, 57 individuals have been incarcerated under Section 18 since December 2011.
“The reform process will take many months and years,” said Gen. Thura Bo Ni of the Myanmar Police Force. “So while we are hopeful that we can learn quickly, we also know that it will take time, and a step-by-step approach.”
Rangoon’s Mingalar Taung Nyunt Township has been chosen as the pilot site for the community policing project, which will be led by David Hamilton, a veteran of policing in Northern Ireland during years of sectarian violence and tensions.
“We would like Myanmar police officers to know who their community are, and vice versa, we would like the local community to know who their local police officers are,” he said. “People expect the police to deal with their crimes. They expect them to quickly respond to their calls for assistance, and of course, when they respond to their calls, citizens expect them to be sympathetic, impartial, and professional.”
Mingalar Taung Nyunt is Rangoon’s only Muslim-majority township. Following an anti-Muslim massacre in the central city of Meiktila in late March and a deepening mistrust of the police, Muslim residents took security into their own hands and established a volunteer “night patrol” to police the neighbourhood, setting up barricades and checkpoints to screen outsiders.
“We wanted an area that was diverse in population, we wanted it to have a business district, schools, sports and recreation, a densely populated area, both rich and poor,” Hamilton said. “And I have to say, to the credit of the Myanmar police, that was the township we came up with together as being a good pilot area to deliver the community policing model.”
In anti-Muslim attacks around the country, the police have been criticised for their inaction, standing by as mobs commit murder and ransack homes and businesses. Kobia claimed these sorts of incidents underscored the need for proper training. “The whole idea, of this reform of police… is to train the police to react in a proper way to incidents,” he said. “This is what training is all about. It’s not only to give competence, but it’s also to do a mind-shift, to change mentalities when the police is confronted by an incident.”
On 10 October, an umbrella group of 15 European NGOs known as the European Burma Network released a statement raising concern that the Burmese government has not met its obligations with regard to governance and human rights protection. It called on the EU to ensure that a list of demands is included in the UN General Assembly resolution on Burma.
It said that the Burmese government has not addressed reports of human rights abuses by authorities, and said no comprehensive investigation has been carried out regarding human rights violations committed by police, security forces, the army, state and national government officials or prison authorities.
While the UN resolution on 19 November did not specifically target police compliance in inter-religious tensions or other violations, it urged the Burmese government “to accelerate efforts to address the discrimination, violence, displacement and economic deprivation affecting various ethnic and religious minorities, including the Rohingya minority in Rakhine [Arakan] State.”