When on September 23 the Government of Myanmar announced that it was releasing 9002 people from its jails there was the usual response in the foreign media and from international agencies: how many were political prisoners? It turns out that about seven of them fell into this privileged category, among them the longest-serving of all, U Tin Win, who didn’t want to be let out anyway. (See the Times article.) Still, Ban Ki Moon “welcomed” the release of he and the other six and called for a process of dialogue for national reconciliation, whatever that means.
How about the other 8995? No one in the media or U.N. bothered with them, as most will have been mere poor people locked up for crimes like theft, assault and fraud that they may or may not have committed. Most of them will have been released back into lives of poverty and hardship, and into an even more depressed economy with higher prices than the one that they knew prior to imprisonment. Few will have a chance of getting a job for a survival wage, let alone any job at all. Some will be homeless, perhaps without family and friends, and will have been released from prisons in parts of the country far from their hometowns.
Although they didn’t feature in international reports, the 8995 have become a subject of interest among people locally, as their simultaneous release under these circumstances has quickly resulted in small crime waves.
For instance, some of the 72 convicts released from the Meikhtila Prison, south of Mandalay, are suspected of assaulting trishaw drivers and robbing them of their vehicles. One driver told the Voice of America (Burmese service) and an internet news group that because over ten of his buddies had been mugged in the last couple of weeks, drivers are refusing to take passengers beyond the town limits or go out at night, even though this means that they are losing their meager incomes:
“They hire the trishaws then wait on the roadside, that’s how they do it. There’re around ten groups of them now. On the night of the 7th, a 13-year-old kid hired my friend’s trishaw and on the way had him stop because he said he wanted to piss. Then they appeared and beat him up and robbed him. He’s been put in hospital.”
While complaints have been lodged, so far no one has been apprehended. Nor have the police yet arrested anyone for murdering a pagoda watchman and stealing jewelry in the same town on October 10. Whether the badly-paid and poorly-trained cops know the crooks or not, they perhaps have good reason to be reluctant about going after them. In the first week of the month a policeman pursuing a trishaw robber was reportedly also hospitalized after being stabbed.
It’s hard to know how widespread this sort of thing is because none of it is getting reported in the Yangon journals. Crime may be up, but with heightened censorship since the anniversary of last year’s protests, reporting on crime, and just about anything else, is way down. A journalist was arrested recently for writing about a double murder and attracting the ire of someone with clout, even though his article had passed the censors, and people working in or close to the industry have complained that it is getting harder and harder for writers and editors to know what can or can’t be published. So while parts of the country struggle with murder and gang robbery, the news on the stands is that baby formula is safe (not made in China), the Asia Highway is taking shape, and the latest GSM phones are now available.