Arrest, abuse, cover up: A Muslim poet’s harrowing encounter with Yangon police

Than Toe Aung. Photo: Jacob Goldberg
Than Toe Aung. Photo: Jacob Goldberg

Than Toe Aung’s wounds have mostly healed in the weeks since he was allegedly chased, abducted, beaten, and jailed by six plainclothes policemen one night near his home in downtown Yangon. But he’s still exhausted. He has barely slept since that night, and neither have the rest of his family. His mother wakes up in the middle of the night screaming “Don’t open the door! The police are coming to get your brother!” She eventually falls back to sleep, and the episode is wiped from her memory by morning, but her children remember.

The 25-year-old poet, translator, and civil rights activist is taking the long road to recovery by seeking justice for how he was treated by people ostensibly employed to protect him. But the police are are putting whatever obstacles they can in his way. Than Toe Aung says they have concealed evidence, spread lies about his mental health, exposed him to Islamophobic threats, and published his address on Facebook.

In another country, he says, justice might have been within reach. But here, in what he terms the land of excuses, fake apologies, and impunity, “justice is not even a word people recognize.” He doesn’t know what form justice might take, but he knows that if he wants a chance at achieving it, he has to keep telling his story.

The arrest

Than Toe Aung was walking home after a long day of translating between Burmese and English at the Myanmar Digital Rights Forum on Jan. 18. He set out at around 9pm and got into a long texting conversation with a friend along the way. He stopped at the corner of Bogyoke Aung San Road and 40th Street and sat under a street light to avoid texting while walking. It was about 11pm.

That’s when the white van pulled up next to him.

“It wasn’t a police car; it was just a typical white van, with one guy looking at me through the window,” he told Coconuts.

The van stopped on Bogyoke Road, just outside the Asia Plaza Hotel, and six men got out and started shouting at him, telling him to “Stay there!” and “Don’t run!” They were not wearing police uniforms. The street was otherwise empty. He thought he was about to get jumped.

“There have been cases before where some people were beaten by some racist Burmese dudes, so I thought, they’re not wearing uniforms, they’re wearing normal clothes. These guys must be some racist, Islamophobic group, and I, as a Muslim, as a kalar, I’m just sitting alone,” he said. “I was an easy target. And the way they approached was as if they were going to do something to me… I thought it was one of my last minutes on earth.”

He ran for his life. When he realized he could not outrun the men, he turned and made for the entrance of the Asia Plaza Hotel.

“I thought if I ran into there, their security could help me, and my life would not be in danger,” he said.

Asia Plaza Hotel
Asia Plaza Hotel on Bogyoke Aung San Road. Photo: Jacob Goldberg

He ran into the lobby, past the security checkpoint, but the men followed him. He asked a security guard and a receptionist for help, but they stood still, seemingly at the instruction of his pursuers. Then, the security guard ordered him to leave the hotel and threatened to sue him for trespassing.

“You’re supposed to help me!” he said at the time. “I don’t know these guys. They’re trying to beat me. I don’t even know who they are. Please help me.”

The hotel staff just said: “You have to get out.” Than Toe Aung was forcibly escorted out, even as he pled for his life. He still didn’t know who was chasing him or why.

Stills from a bystander’s video showing hotel security staff removing Than Toe Aung from the Asia Plaza Hotel.

Finally, as he was being dragged out, one of the men told him: “We are police.” At the same time, Than Toe Aung noticed that the man was wearing a bulletproof vest that had the word “POLICE” on it.

Realizing who he was dealing with, Than Toe Aung tried to explain why he had run away.

“I didn’t know you were police. You didn’t come with a police car, and you were not wearing uniforms at all,” he said to the man in the vest. “I didn’t know you were police. That’s why I ran. I thought you were thugs, that you were trying to beat me or kill me.”

The man said: “We’re going to arrest you.”

Than Toe Aung discreetly called his father, who listened as his son argued with the cops. During the dispute, one of the men handcuffed him, and he called out for help from the hotel staff, who were now silently watching the drama unfold from the lobby entrance.

Plainclothes police receive Than Toe Aung from the hotel security staff and force him into the back of an unmarked van.

The men took Than Toe Aung’s phone and pushed him into the back of the van – “violently,” he said.

One of the men got into the back of the van and sat facing him, with their legs parallel. After the van started moving, Than Toe Aung said, the man kicked him in the ribs repeatedly, and another man who was in the back of the van with them held Than Toe Aung’s neck in the crook of his arm.

He recounted: “I couldn’t really breathe anymore – it hurt so bad. I shouted, and the guy [holding my neck] beat me with his hands against the back of my head and said ‘Don’t shout!’ I complained: ‘How can I not shout? It hurts so bad! He’s kicking me right here’,” he said, pointing to his ribs.

“The guy in the middle started cursing at me, calling me ‘motherfucker’ and all these rude words, and I said: ‘If you’re a police officer, that’s not how you’re supposed to behave,’ so he hit me two more times, and the other guy was kicking me until we arrived at the police station. It was around eight or 10 times he kicked me in the same spot.”

When the van arrived at the Kyauktada Township police station, just a few blocks away, the police brought Than Toe Aung to a private room, where he says they continued beating him as they searched and questioned him.

He protested: “You cannot beat a civilian like that. Show me your identity. If you’re not wearing a uniform, show me your police ID.” But they just kept beating him, he said.

When the police failed to find anything incriminating in their captive’s possession, they grew vengeful.

Than Toe Aung recalled one of the cops saying: “You seem very educated, you know so much about the law. Let’s see what we can do with you.”

The cop ordered an underling to put Than Toe Aung into a cell and allegedly said: “I’m going to charge him with something.”

He threatened to bring him to a hospital to have him tested for drug use. Than Toe Aung surmised that the results would come back positive, even though he had not used any drugs. He also expected to be charged for obstructing the police.

But before he was brought to take the drug test, Than Toe Aung’s father, known as Ko Ko, called his son’s phone, and the police picked up. They told Ko Ko where his son was, and he came to the station at about 3am. Than Toe Aung was not initially allowed to see him. But after the father talked to the police for about an hour, he was released without any charges.

Ko Ko, desperate to remove his son’s fate from the hands of the police, had given a bribe of K100,000 (about US$75) each to two senior officers named Aung Zaw Win and Myo Thant. The former is the Kyauktada Township police chief and had driven the van that picked up Than Toe Aung earlier than night. Myo Thant had not been involved in the initial arrest. Ko Ko later said that the two senior officers had threatened to bring drug charges against Than Toe Aung if he did not pay the bribe.

The cover-up

When Than Toe Aung got home at 4am on Jan. 19, he finally saw all the bruises and scratches he had suffered over the previous five hours. He couldn’t sleep. He left home four hours later, still shaken, to attend the second day of the Myanmar Digital Rights Forum. When he told his colleagues what he had been through, they returned with him to the Kyauktada police station to demand an explanation and action against the officers who beat him.

When the group arrived, they were met by a genial police chief who was eager to apologize on behalf of the other officers. Sensing that the chief was only apologizing in order to avoid having to take action against his subordinates, Than Toe Aung demanded proof that action would be taken in line with the law. The police chief said he would provide the proof within five days and asked him not to speak to the media about the case.

Than Toe Aung honored the chief’s request for five days. When he heard nothing, he called, but the chief never picked up. He concluded that the chief was avoiding him, so he decided to share his story with the public, hoping this would prevent a repetition of such violence in the future. On Jan. 25, he posted an account of the arrest, including photos of his injuries. It was shared more than 15,000 times.

The police immediately went on the defensive. A Jan. 26 post by the Kyauktada Police Station Facebook account set out to “expose the lies being spread by Than Toe Aung’s account that Kyauktada police officers engaged in police brutality as untrue.” It claimed that the police approached Than Toe Aung while he was “sitting in the shadows” and that he “swore at the patrol unit and ran away” as they approached him.

The police account went on to say that after Than Toe Aung ran into the Asia Plaza Hotel, “the security staff told the youth to leave the hotel. The youth acted aggressively and rudely, so the hotel manager ordered the security staff to take him outside and hand him over to the patrol unit. He was taken into custody to the police station.”

Kyauktada Police Facebook posts
The now-deleted Kyauktada Police Facebook posts, which included CCTV footage of Than Toe Aung’s removal from the hotel.

The Facebook post also shared Than Toe Aung’s personal ID number, his religion (“Islam”), and his family’s full home address with the page’s 650 followers.

“I think they intentionally did it, because under my original post were a lot of racist comments… Even killers’ exact addresses are not shared publicly,” he said.

Nay Min: “Don’t believe what a fucking [literally: cunt] kalar says. [I can’t believe] we are still recognizing these dog kalars as people.”
Ya Tu Moe: “All of you should be sent back to Bengal.”
Soe Thiha Thein: “No matter what he says he was doing by himself, if a kalar [he uses the quantifier for animals, not humans] is hanging out in the dark at night with a package, shouldn’t he be checked?”
Kyaw Moe: “Motherfucker [literally: child of the woman I fuck], all kalars should die.”
Nay So Tun: “Being a Muslim kalar, you can check them on suspicion. Just check them. Just beat them. These people are going around the world causing problems. If they are Myanmar Buddhists or Myanmar Christians, don’t check them too much.”
Moe Thein: “He looks like a terrorist. The police didn’t go too far. Just look at him.”
Htet Yati Min: “He’s a Muslim kalar…I was reading because I though he was Myanmar…It even made my eyes sore…I didn’t realize he was a dog Muslim until I saw the picture…They should have just killed him.”
De Zin Bar: “I don’t believe that a person like that suffered something like that.”

The Facebook post also included a CCTV video clip that showed hotel staff removing Than Toe Aung from the hotel lobby. The police wrote: “There are CCTV video recording files that show that the injuries he suffered were from his brawl with the hotel staff, and he sustained those injuries when he, Than Toe Aung, had a brawl with the security staff inside the Asia Plaza Hotel. So that people will know the way this incident unfolded, this video bears witness to Than Toe Aung being dragged out of the hotel by hotel security personnel.”

The next day, however, the police realized that they had been thwarted by their own machinations. The CCTV footage they posted also shows several police officers in the lobby of the hotel, clearly not in uniform, which netizens pointed in the comments.

The commenters also demanded to be shown the entire CCTV record of that night’s events. According to Than Toe Aung, footage from the camera facing the street would show the police beating him as they forced him into their unmarked van. He suspects that police confiscated the footage.

“If you could see the CCTV footage from the front side of the hotel, you would see the whole gang in the van and how they pushed me and beat me, and if you can see that, you can have an idea of how they beat me and kicked me in the car the whole way to the police station,” Than Toe Aung told Coconuts.

The Kyauktada Police Station deleted its Facebook post shortly after its blunder was exposed.

However, the next day, a post appeared on the Yangon Police Facebook page, which has 417,500 followers, attempting to clean up the mess. The new post offered a few new details about what the police were doing at 11pm on Jan. 18, saying the patrol was part of Eagle Operation – a nightly effort to “catch thieves and robbers, narcotic dealers and users, criminal groups and gangsters who would terrorize the public, and those committing evil deeds.”

Yangon Police Facebook page
The later post on the larger Yangon Police Facebook page.

It also claimed that Than Toe Aung’s father told police that his son “has a history of occasionally going crazy.” (Than Toe Aung said this claim might be based on a document Ko Ko was forced to sign in order to secure his son’s release. Neither of them was allowed to read the document before signing it.)

The post also claimed that the cops who arrested Than Toe Aung were wearing uniforms and that Than Toe Aung “was not subject to police beatings.”

It did not contain or make any reference to the CCTV footage.

Than Toe Aung returned to the hotel to review the CCTV footage from that night, but he was told by staff that it had already been deleted. When Coconuts asked representatives of the Asia Plaza Hotel about the events of Jan. 18, they refused to comment.

Representatives of the Yangon Region police force and the Kyauktada Township police station declined numerous invitations to comment on this story.

A history of abuse

Than Toe Aung’s story is just one of many that have solidified the reputation of Myanmar police as  corrupt, discriminatory, and abusive. Police regularly subject public protesters to brutal crackdowns, and, as Coconuts has reported previously, transgender sex workers report frequent beatings, rapes, and theft at the hands of police.

In December 2014, a man named Than Lwin was arrested on suspicion of breaking a car windshield in Yangon’s Tamwe Township. When he did not confess, police officers beat him, leaving bruises all over his body. He was released the following day, but died of a brain hemorrhage a week later.

When his family released photos of Than Lwin’s injuries to the public and accused the police of brutality, a Tamwe police superintendent said his officers had never struck Than Lwin. They also told reporters that Than Lwin was a “mental patient.”

To Than Toe Aung, the frequency of police brutality cases is an indication that Myanmar’s transition to democracy has not gone very far, but that’s exactly what he wants to change.

“In a so-called democratic country, this is not how things should be,” he told Coconuts. “I wish I could keep silent. I wish I could move abroad and live my own life. But nothing will change unless I speak out. Even though it involves a tremendous amount of risk for me and my family, I would be morally guilty in this case if I didn’t speak out.

“I don’t want the police to get in trouble. I just want them to follow procedure. I want to set an example that shows police that they cannot act lawlessly and get away with it.”

Additional reporting by Aye Min Thant.

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