Unwanted news, Rangoon electricity and irrationality

By Awzar Thi
Column: Rule of Lords
Burma’s government claims to welcome complaints about malpractice, inefficiency and corruption in the public service. But a recent case of a man imprisoned for repeatedly complaining about bad electricity supply speaks to how easy it is in an irrational system for the complainant, not the government officials, to wind up in trouble.
In early August, U Khin Maung Kyi called the electric supply corporation in his suburb of Rangoon a number of times to complain about a surge in power at his house. It was not the first time that he had called to make a complaint, and the township supply director had already lodged a criminal case with a local court, alleging that the 45-year-old’s repeated calls were obstructing his staff from performing their duties.

This time, Khin Maung Kyi argued with the duty officer, who refused to give his name or let him speak with his superior. Khin Maung Kyi then threatened to make a complaint higher up. Later when asked about this in court the official admitted that the caller had not used offensive language or made unlawful threats, but testified that his manner was impolite and that his calls were an inconvenience.

The director might have thought that in lodging a case in court he would put Khin Maung Kyi off making more calls. In any event, after this latest incident, he set the local state apparatus into movement against the annoying resident. A flurry of letters went here and there between his office, the township council, the police and the court. But the letters did not restrict themselves to the simple matter of complaints about electricity supply. They listed all sorts of vague grievances against the troublemaker, ranging from his having encouraged people to vote No in the constitutional referendum last year to having taken photographs of flooded roads after heavy rains, presumably to use as evidence in the making of more unwanted complaints.

The whole matter would have been good for a joke had it been going on somewhere other than Burma. The township court on Aug. 25 responded by slapping a one-year bond on Khin Maung Kyi. But because of the criminal case lodged against him already, the court ordered that he be kept in custody.

The story is in a number of respects reminiscent of the case of Tony Fernando. In 2003, Tony brought a motion in the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka against the chief justice and two other judges who had refused an earlier motion on a compensation claim. The chief justice himself heard the new motion. Tony became agitated and spoke too loudly for the judge’s liking. The judge then immediately sentenced the petitioner to a year in prison for contempt of court.

Tony’s case was made worse by the fact that it was the chief justice himself who took the initiative to jail an ordinary citizen who had come to the court not as a defendant but as someone seeking relief. Notwithstanding, what that case and the one in Burma have in common is that they are symptomatic of the diseased official psyche of an irrational state.

Under a rational state, communication is encouraged even though it may inconvenience officials and may sometimes be frivolous or annoying. Measures are put in place to mollify dissatisfied members of the public and to take action to address complaints properly. Measures also exist to take action against people who abuse the system. Among these, criminal sanctions will be a last resort. Things don’t always work as they should, but attempts are made to reduce the opportunities for abuse of authority.

Under an irrational state, communication is not only discouraged in practice, but as a matter of principle it is opposed. Irrationality does not need or want open exchange. Measures are put in place so that officials can silence irritating persons who insist on making complaints when they should know better, and criminal sanctions, or at least the threat of criminal sanctions, are high on the list. Many opportunities are given for abuses of authority, and officials don’t hesitate to use their powers, or at least remind citizens of them.

Khin Maung Kyi’s problem is not his electricity supply, just as Tony’s problem was not his loud voice. In each case the problem was the irrational systems with which they were trying to communicate.

Tellingly, among the many things of which the local authorities accused Khin Maung Kyi was that he had also spread “unwanted” news. For people fortunate to live in places where government is more or less rational this is an unfamiliar concept: news is often irrelevant, but there is no objective category of news that can be described as unwanted. By contrast, for irrational government not only does such a category exist but it is essential to the management of society and the control of troublemakers like Khin Maung Kyi and Tony.

Tony Fernando was released after a year. He later left his country for a more rational one. Khin Maung Kyi is still in jail, with the hearings for obstructing a public servant going on. If he is released from the charge in that case, he can get out on the bond. But even if he is found guilty, he cannot legally be imprisoned for more than three months, and he has already been locked up for two. What will happen to him after that remains to be seen, but so long as he continues to spread unwanted news he too will be unwanted.

(The Asian Human Rights Commission has issued an appeal on the case of Khin Maung Kyi: http://www.ahrchk.net/ua/mainfile.php/2009/3284/)

(Awzar Thi is the pen name of a member of the Asian Human Rights Commission with over 15 years of experience as an advocate of human rights and the rule of law in Thailand and Burma. His Rule of Lords blog can be read at http://ratchasima.net)

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