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Fearing the Midnight Knock

Dawn in the Rangoon township of Hledan. (PHOTO: Alex Bookbinder)

It’s a right most people in the world can take for granted: if you want to spend the night at a friend’s house, or stay with relatives in another town, there should be no reason for the authorities to take an interest.

In Burma, however, this is not the case. Under the Ward or Village Tract Administration Law – passed in 2012 by the Ministry of Home Affairs and replacing two colonial-era laws that served the same purpose – it is a crime to fail to inform township-level authorities of overnight guests. The sweeping powers enshrined in the law authourise spot inspections by local authorities, which usually manifest in the form of raids in the early morning hours.

A report released on Thursday in Rangoon by Thailand-based watchdog Fortify Rights – prepared in partnership with the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School – details the ways in which these “midnight inspections” are used and abused, with inspections disproportionately conducted against the poor, minorities and dissidents.

“There’s good news, which is that this law is being enforced less often now. In some communities, there have not been inspections in the last few years,” said Matthew Bugher, a research fellow at Harvard Law School and the report’s primary author. “But the bad news is that this law remains on the books … constituting a threat to every community in the country.”

Enforcement varies on a township-by-township basis, and wealthier, better-educated urbanites are generally less affected than the poor, who are unaware of their rights and less likely to resist attempts at extortion by the authorities. The report maintains that the law violates fundamental rights to privacy, and freedoms of movement, residency and association, flouting internationally recognised human rights norms.

The rule of law in Burma, officially known as Myanmar, remains spotty at best. In 2014, Burma ranked 89th out of 99 countries surveyed in an annual global survey on the rule of law conducted by the World Justice Project, a US research organisation.

Although law enforcement agencies worldwide need legal mechanisms to conduct searches of private property, the powers granted to local authorities in Burma – often with the backing of the police or military – “gives administrators almost boundless authority over the physical premises of their wards and village tracts,” the report claims.

“The across-the-board requirement that residents register their guests, and the very broad enforcement powers that are given under this law to local government authorities, don’t even come close to meeting [international] standards,” Bugher said.

According to Ko Nyi, a prominent human rights lawyer, the concept of guest registration has its roots in efforts to stamp out threats to British Imperial rule. A large proportion of the laws currently on the books in Burma have carried over largely unmodified from the colonial era, including the country’s penal code and criminal procedures.

“When we regained independence in 1948, these two laws [The Village Act and The Towns Act, dating to 1907] that were established under British rule for the sake of their own interests should have been abolished. But they weren’t,” he said. “To be honest, this new law is even worse than the two old laws from the colonial times.”

Exemplifying the often-contradictory nature of Burma’s hodgepodge legal system, he noted that the Ward or Village Tract Administration Law appears to violate Article 355 of the 2008 constitution, which states that any citizen has the “right to settle and reside in any place within the Republic of the Union of Myanmar according to law.”

Midnight inspections are also routinely used to harass civil society, a phenomenon that activists fear will become more common in the run-up to the elections scheduled for November. The recent emergence of a nationwide student protest movement – opposing a new higher education law they feel stifles academic freedom and which bans the formation of student unions – has elicited a brutal response from the authorities, who cracked down violently against a group of some 200 demonstrators in the town of Letpadan on 10 March, arresting 127 students and their supporters.

Those that managed to avoid the dragnet went into hiding, as did student leaders not directly involved in the standoff at Letpadan. On the night of 12 March, authorities in Rangoon’s Ahlone Township raided the home of a video journalist working for Agence France-Presse who was temporarily sheltering four activists from the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), a network of student activists that has taken a leading role in organising demonstrations against the education law.

“[The authorities] broke into the house, looking for guest registration documents. They did a house inspection, but that was not their real intention,” said Aung Nay Paing, an ABFSU central committee member who spoke at the report launch. “They use guest registration and household inspection laws as a political tool to arrest student activists.”

Although the law has been employed less and less over the past few years, Aung Nay Paing is deeply concerned by the fact that midnight raids remain part of the government’s arsenal in its confrontations with civil society.

“Since the law exists on the books, it can be applied at any moment. It depends purely on the government’s intention,” he said.