The European Union has defended a 30 million euro project to train the Myanmar Police, after a police witness in a case against two local journalists told a court this month that a senior police commander had ordered their entrapment.
Police Captain Moe Yan Naing said that he and other officers had been threatened with jail by Brigadier-General Tin Ko Ko if they didn’t arrange to meet journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo and hand over “secret” documents. This led to the journalists’ arrest that December evening and their continued detention under the Official Secrets Act.
Sunday a police spokesman said Moe Yan Naing had been sentenced to jail for violating the police disciplinary act. Within 24 hours of Moe Yan Naing’s testimony against the police his wife and two children were evicted from their police housing. A police spokesman said the timing of the eviction was a “coincidence.”
The two journalists, who work for the Reuters news agency, were investigating a massacre of Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State. If convicted, they face 14-years in prison. The EU delegation in Myanmar and the EU member states have demanded their immediate release, calling their detention an attack on press freedom.
The five-year MYPOL project, launched in late 2016 and funded by the European Commission, aims to assist the Myanmar Police “in becoming a modern police agency that adheres to international standards, respects human rights and maintains gender awareness.” It follows a similar EU-funded program begun in 2013.
When asked by VOA whether the case against the reporters would make the EU rethink its engagement with the Myanmar Police, EU Ambassador Kristian Schmidt said, “The Government of Myanmar aspires to democracy and the rule of law. The Reuters case has clearly shown that to progress towards this, Myanmar needs a modern, honest and accountable police force. We therefore believe the EU’s support to police reform is more needed than ever, and we are encouraged by the government’s commitment to our partnership.”
The Myanmar Police operates under the Ministry of Home Affairs, one of several key ministries controlled by Myanmar’s military, which has been accused by the United Nations of conducting ethnic cleansing in Rakhine State.
VOA was referred to multiple departments of the Myanmar Police but was unable to obtain comment for this story.
MYPOL communications officer Tom Opdyke told VOA there had so far been 14 courses on topics including “community policing, cyber security, crowd management, and crime scene investigation.” They have also hosted consultations with civil society and a workshop with members of parliament about security sector reform.
He said General Tin Ko Ko “has not taken part in any of our instructional courses.”
Beyond the EU, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has been assisting the Myanmar Police in modernizing its training curricula and advocating for data-driven crime prevention strategies.
Troels Vester, the UNODC country manager for Myanmar, told VOA, “Police reform will take a generation.” He stressed the need for comprehensive legal change, pointing to penal and criminal procedure codes that largely date back to the nineteenth century.
Noting the case against the Reuters journalists, he said “it’s always a fine balance” for the United Nations and donor countries engaging the police. “The important thing is to be engaged, and to constantly advocate for changes,” he said.
Chain of command
Burma Campaign UK director Mark Farmaner told VOA, “It’s hard to see how the EU can continue to justify this training program when we see these cases where the highest levels of the police force are involved in framing journalists.”
“The case of the Reuters journalists just exposes how much the military control the police,” he said. “There’s no way you can reform the police force if the people in charge of that force aren’t interested in respecting human rights.”
Wanna Soe, a local political activist, spent a year in jail after a violent police crackdown on students protesting a new education law in early 2015. Speaking to VOA, he did not object to international involvement in police training, but thought the government should be taking greater responsibility.
“We can’t rely on donor organizations all the time. What are the ministries here doing? They should organize the training with local or foreign experts,” he said.
Moe Thwe, chairperson of a local organization of pro-democracy activists, Generation Wave, told VOA police behavior had improved somewhat, but the problem lies with the chain of command, which bypasses civilian authorities and democratic control.
“They are trying to follow the procedures and are a bit more aware of international police standards. But, that doesn’t mean they will disobey orders. Sometimes the police still have to do bad things even though they know better,” he said.
“I wouldn’t say the EU should stop supporting the training and reform of the police,” Moe Thwe said. “But as long as we can’t change the command system, giving training and technical support won’t be very effective, particularly concerning human rights.”