Exploring the Imprisonment of Opponents as a Means of Achieving Political Ends in Myanmar

Imprisonment is a common form of punishment for law-breakers designed to resolve conflicts in society. In this piece, early career researcher, Felicita[1] from Myanmar unpacks the way that law and imprisonment are blatantly being used to further the interests of the military who grabbed power on February 1. 

Photocredit: Benjamin Small

By Felicita

After the experience of a purported political “transition” to democracy that lasted a decade (2011-2020), the military junta has now plotted to re-engineer the political power machinery by undertaking a coup. On February 1, 2021, the military junta overthrew by force the democratically elected government and seized power by arresting, detaining, and imprisoning the president, state counselor, prime minister, members of parliament, political leaders, activists, and other high-profile leaders. A nationwide peoples’ uprising – now termed the “Civil Disobedience Movement” (CDM) – followed. As of June 8, the military has in retaliation killed 857 people, arrested 5858, and currently detains 4704 people, according to statistics from the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).

When national and international communities call for the unconditional and immediate release of all detainees, the military junta contends that the arrests and detentions comply with the law. But in reality, the junta arrests and imprisons those who are against it and those it sees as a threat. Traditionally, it has been thought that these actions are designed to maintain the Tatmadaw’s (the Myanmar military’s) hold on power. However, there may be other reasons, for example, to force confessions, gain information, break down the detainees, abate the popularity of the CDM and deter the rise of further resistance. When examining the statistics about who has been detained and why, there are a variety of reasons for arrests and detentions. These include participation in activities with groups that condemn coup, fighting against dictatorship, opposing brutality, injustice and inhumanity, joining the CDM, and supporting the National Unity Government (NUG) and CDM striking workers. Some arrests and imprisonments are not necessarily due to individuals’ beliefs or activities, and some are carried out without specific reasons. Most detainees have been labeled as criminals. Viewing all detainees as their enemies, the junta imprisons them ostensibly in the name of violation of existing laws as well as laws newly reinstated such as the housing registration law. 

We know from other contexts that in many deeply contested political conflicts especially involving the military, imprisonment is often used as a tool to keep populations living in a state of fear with the aim to repress and silence all dissidents. Even though imprisonment is clearly a means of dealing with social and political conflicts, the military junta claims it is merely a response to a social (or juridical) conflict, namely, violations of law that have been designed to exert tighter social control. At the same time, in lieu of referring to juridical interpretation of just laws enacted with the authority of an elected legislature, the notion of ‘violation’ of laws lies within the interpretation of the junta representing council: the State Administration Council (SAC). The authorities interpret individuals’ behavior and decide which laws may be used to incarcerate them. In the name of law and order, the military junta resorts to imprisonment as a tool of political repression to achieve its political ends. This is a vivid example of Michel Foucault’s explanation of how the government and authorities exert their power through prison and laws. 

Prisons, as Foucault (1977) claims, are places where power operates. Crystalizing the art of punishment through formulating principles, policies and laws, governments use prisons as tactics to make punishment and repression of illegalities a regular function, coextensive with society, thus extending the power to punish deeply into society. Implicitly or explicitly, arrests and detentions are not solely based on the idea that the punished serves a prison sentences for his/her wrongful acts. Imprisonment is always a political act with effects on the society. The political motivation of governments and authorities relating to imprisonment of individuals, whether imprisonment is imposed to achieve outcomes that serve the interests of those in power, to punish wrongful acts, or to make repression of illegalities a regular function of society is crucial to bear in mind in the context of Myanmar.

Whether imprisonment serves a social/juridical goal, or a political goal is a matter to take into consideration. The political nature of conflicts has often been denied in Myanmar, even under the stewardship of the civilian government. For example, the Myanmar Prison Department issued a statement in 2019, denying the presence of prisoners who can be considered as ‘political’ prisoners. Rather than being imprisoned for political reasons, prisoners are convicted of carrying weapons, treason, terrorist acts, drug trafficking, and criminal offenses sometimes based on trumped-up charges. In that sense, it can be said to be true that prisoners are serving their sentences in violation of a specific existing law. While on the surface denying the political nature of conflict and minimizing arbitrariness through laws and courts, it is self-evident that the criminalization process is politicized. The whole criminalization process narrates how political intervention by the military and authorities in superordinate positions in the most politically sensitive cases is common, and how political conflicts are twisted into legal conflicts. Thus, what is important to keep in mind is the political motivation of the authorities when they impose imprisonment on individuals. The military junta have been using the law to serve their own ends, they have been weaponising the law. The motivation of imposing imprisonment on individuals for political ends has become much clearer since the coup.

All three coups – of 1962, 1988, and 2021 – began with the arrest and imprisonment of political leaders, politicians, activists, and other high-profile leaders. The juntas, with a view to attaining power, imprisoned their opponents or individuals, whose belief, behaviors, speech, action, or activity undermined or hindered their acquisition of power. Yet, the whole process is revealed as very political when one examines the reasons for arrests and imprisonment. Rather than crime against the state, crime and violence by the state have been clearly portrayed. Any belief and action that is deemed to threaten the interest and legitimacy of the junta yields political repression: torture, killings, ‘disappearance’, arbitrary arrest and unlawful imprisonment. To justify repression and to maintain the legitimacy of the state, the junta seeks to turn political conflicts into legal-factional divides through using show-trials, albeit in the absence of rule of law. In such cases, imprisonment is simply a key tactic of political repression to eliminate or deter behavior or actions perceived to be challenging the junta’s power. Despite the role of imprisonment in facilitating the coup, the issue of whether arrests and detentions will succeed in helping the junta to achieve their political aims or whether such arbitrary arrests and unlawful detentions undermine their legitimacy and ability to rule, is and must be contested.

[Another piece exploring further the violence of law in relation to the coup can be found here]

[1] The author’s name has been changed for reasons of safety. It is known to the curators of this series.

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