September 30, 2023

Through a budding police and court system, the resistance is confronting a crime wave in Myanmar’s Dry Zone, but limited resources have left them struggling to please all residents.

Frontier Myanmar


On August 12, hundreds of Monywa residents marched through the streets as part of a funeral procession for Ma Aye Nyein Thu, shot dead during a home invasion and robbery two days earlier. On the front of the coffin was a photo of the pregnant woman, posing in a blue dress with her husband, both beaming while holding an ultrasound of their first child.

But that child would never be born. On August 10, while her husband Ko Kaung Wai Phyo was at work, a band of armed men raided their home in the Sagaing Region capital, shot Aye Nyein Thu in the head and beat her mother-in-law. They then took off with two iPhones and a motorcycle.

The heinous crime was widely reported and discussed online by members of the public, who were alarmed at a rise in crime since the February 2021 coup. After the military overthrew the elected National League for Democracy government and slaughtered peaceful protesters, a grassroots armed uprising hobbled the junta’s administration in many areas while the rule of law collapsed.

The National Unity Government, a parallel administration appointed by elected lawmakers deposed in the coup, has attempted to fill that void, presenting itself as a more responsible and legitimate authority than the military regime. The murder of Aye Nyein Thu quickly became a litmus test for the NUG’s police, the People’s Security Force, which announced within a day that it had arrested seven suspects.

In a video of their interrogation, which went viral and was later deleted, the murder suspects said they were part of an anti-military resistance group called Monywa Force.

“Some criminal gangs get guns and pose as resistance groups. Also, some resistance groups turn into criminal gangs,” a member of the Monywa People’s Administration Team, the NUG’s local administrative branch, told Frontier, adding that Sagaing has become flush with weapons since the coup.

The Monywa PAT said on August 23 that the seven suspects were charged with murder and “dacoity”, meaning armed robbery, under Myanmar’s colonial-era Penal Code, and face a possible death sentence. They will be tried by the NUG’s Monywa Township court.

But how does a police force and a judiciary function in the chaos of a war zone with limited resources?

A police force reborn from the ashes

“It’s not falling apart, it’s already game over,” said a retired police officer with more than 30 years’ service, referring to the Myanmar Police Force under the military regime.

Sagaing, which is part of Myanmar’s central Dry Zone, has the most robust NUG-affiliated administration in the country. While some border areas have stronger parallel governments and judiciaries, those are under the control of ethnic armed groups, many of which have been fighting for autonomy for decades.

An information officer from the parallel government’s Ministry of Justice said NUG police are active in all 34 townships in Sagaing, with courts operating in 24. She said there are 130 judges and 100 prosecutors nationwide, most of which are in that region.

The justice ministry’s courts collaborate closely with branches of the People’s Security Force under the Ministry of Home Affairs and Immigration. Both answer to township People’s Administration Teams, which also have branches at the village level. However, the judicial and police services are not as well paid or funded as the armed groups dedicated to fighting the junta on the battlefield, broadly known as People’s Defence Forces.

“People are eager to donate money to the resistance groups because they are fighting the junta, but they do not have much interest in donating to the police forces,” said Ko Hla Shwe, 24, the deputy police leader for Sagaing’s Ayadaw Township.

Hla Shwe had completed his six-month training course with the Myanmar police shortly before the coup but defected in protest soon after. He joined a resistance group in his hometown of Ayadaw, before helping build the nascent resistance police force.

“We started from nothing, so there were many difficulties. But I respect and love police work. I believe we can do a much better job than the police under the military,” he said.

He is one of 13 police officers in the township , who are allocated a total of K1 million per month (about US$475) by the NUG, which he says helps with the costs of travelling and holding suspects in custody, but is not quite enough to cover all their expenses.

Hla Swe said he and his colleagues fulfil typical duties like investigating crimes, detaining suspects and filing charges, but a lack of equipment, weapons and forensic capabilities often limits what they could do.

Because the region is awash with weapons and resistance-groups-turned-criminal-gangs, the police are often outmanned and outgunned.

“Many people are armed and masquerading as revolutionary groups so that they can bully civilians. The police force can’t detain these groups alone, so we need to cooperate with PDFs to arrest them,” Hla Shwe said.

The lack of modern forensic equipment poses a particular challenge in sexual assault cases. In August, the Yinmabin PSF arrested a suspected child rapist, sending him to the township court. While the victim had confirmed the allegations to the PSF in private, she was unable to repeat the testimony in court, which is not unusual for sexual assault survivors.

“It was really hard to make a blind decision in that kind of case without evidence,” said a community leader in Sagaing’s Yinmabin Township, who asked not to be named. “It would be much easier if we had a forensic specialist or lab to carry out a medical test.”

He said the suspect is still in custody and the case is ongoing.

Mixed reviews on community justice

Hla Shwe said the most common complaints are for rape, domestic violence and adultery, which is a criminal offence in Myanmar. He said police forces and PATs try to solve most cases by negotiating between the complainant and the accused, with community elders acting as mediators.

This was a common practice even before the coup, but usually there was the option to go to court if one side demanded it, which is not always possible now.

A resident of Sagaing’s Myinmu Township, Daw Aye Mya*, told Frontier she was left disappointed with the NUG legal system when her 15-year-old daughter went to live with a 30-year-old man. She reported the case to her village PAT, which tried to resolve it by separating the couple and fining the man K100,000. But Aye Mya insisted on opening a case under section 361 of the Penal Code, which prohibits removing a minor from parental guardianship.

“I think he should go to prison according to the law, since my daughter is underage,” she said.

Aye Mya said she tried to file a complaint with the NUG’s Myinmu Township court, but the man fled to another township and the court wouldn’t accept the case because the defendant couldn’t be found.

In other instances, though, Hla Shwe said resolving disputes through mediation helps avoid more serious tensions or even interfaith strife.

The NUG courts still use the pre-coup legal framework, despite pledges to abolish or amend certain controversial laws such as the Buddhist Women Special Marriage Law, which tightly regulates marriages between Buddhist women and non-Buddhist men.

An NUG-aligned PDF patrols Sagaing Region’s Tabayin Township in February 2022. (Mar Naw | Frontier)

Hla Shwe said the police force’s hands are tied because members of the community still file complaints under the interfaith marriage law.

“We can’t avoid people’s complaints, but we try as much as possible to solve these issues in the community and not to bring them to court,” he said.

Veteran advocate and well-known legal expert U Gyi Myint said another problem with the courts and PATs is that the NUG is appointing officials from above, rather than allowing local communities to build these institutions themselves.

“The administration and judiciary are not representative of the local communities or the local revolutionary forces, but are appointed from above,” he said. “The judicial systems in ethnic territories, in comparison, are born from their consultative councils which have a mandate from the local area.”

One of the biggest problems for the NUG is having to select its judges from a very small pool of qualified candidates. Compared to other state sectors, very few judges or legal officials went on strike after the coup. This has led to appointments like the head judge in Sagaing’s Kalay Township: a 26-year-old local who was working as an office clerk before the coup.

The Minister of Justice overseeing the NUG judiciary is U Thein Oo, who was elected to parliament in 1990 as a representative of the NLD, which won that election in a landslide. The military refused to recognise the results, and Thein Oo served in the same position in the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, a parallel government opposing the military junta that ruled Myanmar between 1988 and 2011.

Today, he also serves concurrently as the attorney-general and head of the NUG’s supreme court.

“That’s why I’m saying there is no check and balance in the system, the NUG just appoints whomever they want,” Gyi Myint said.

However, Frontier understands the supreme court position was offered to at least one other prominent judge first, who turned it down, underlining the NUG’s limited options.

Seeds of progress

Kalay Township resident Daw San Yee*, 35, said she tried to file a complaint with the junta’s police force against her husband, who she alleged routinely beat her. The couple lives in the rural north of the township, where PDFs have a strong presence.

She said the police declined to take her case, saying they couldn’t access the area, and suggested she file a complaint with the resistance police instead.

“I was really surprised when they genuinely advised me to go to the resistance police force to open a case,” she said.

Despite the limitations, resistance policing has helped to fill the dangerous void in law enforcement that followed the coup.

In Magway Region’s Pauk Township, elsewhere in the Dry Zone, two brothers aged 19 and 23 were killed in 2021 after being accused of serving in the pro-military Pyusawhti militia, a charge their family has always denied.

“At that time there were no police or courts, only PDF groups and they let the suspects go,” said U Yin Tun*, a relative of the victims, who claimed the young men were brutally beaten before being executed.

But in May this year, the Pauk PSF accepted the case and arrested 12 suspects in connection to the killing.

“Because the police force was formed, we could reopen the case and investigate it more deeply. I’m glad police forces are present in the community, so disputes aren’t just decided by the most powerful armed group,” said Yin Tun. But he added that the family continues to live in fear that the suspects could be released and seek retribution.

But a lawyer from Monywa said that despite such signs of progress, the NUG has exaggerated the extent to which its police and court system are functioning. He said while the parallel government claims it operates judiciaries in 24 townships, in reality only a few are stable enough to have proper, well-functioning courts.

The justice ministry information officer acknowledged that only some townships have permanent courts in fixed locations, while others are mobile and meet irregularly. She also said that each court is supposed to have three judges, but in many townships there are only one or two, and defendants are often unable to access lawyers. Meanwhile, judges only started getting paid a meagre salary of K50,000 per month in August.

“What kind of judiciary is this?” asked the lawyer from Monywa, who added that in many cases defendants are unable to appeal verdicts. “If the system isn’t complete, it can’t protect the people’s rights.”

These limitations partly stem from a lack of funding. Because keeping people in custody is costly, the Kalay Township head judge said they typically reserve prison sentences for the worst crimes.

“We have a problem with space and can’t hold too many people,” he said.

The justice ministry’s information officer said the NUG operates prisons in 20 townships in Sagaing and insisted they are “spacious, well-planned, able to accommodate hundreds of detainees and built in locations conducive to good health”. She added that they receive medical care from striking public healthcare workers and two meals a day.

But contradicting this comment, Hla Shwe said the prisons were overcrowded within months and new buildings are urgently needed.

“We operate the prisons with money donated by the public. I’m not satisfied with this because we’re feeding these criminals with money from the people. Sometimes I think it would be better to execute criminals like rapists and murderers,” he said.

This has likely happened in some cases. In September last year, the Monywa PDF cracked down on a criminal gang accused of multiple rapes and murders. The PDF said the gang leader was “killed while resisting arrest” and another member “died of a heart attack while being interrogated”. These claims are difficult to verify, but they echo the justifications given by the junta when political detainees die in custody.

Hla Shwe said despite the temptation for extrajudicial killings in response to heinous crimes, the NUG police force should strive to set a better example than the military regime.

“I defected from the Myanmar Police Force because I hated the brutal acts being committed by the military. We must be better than those barbarians,” he said.

*indicates use of a pseudonym for security reasons

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