A chilling account has emerged of the torture and death of a 19-year-old man in police custody in Rangoon. The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) details the case of Myo Myint Swe, who was arrested in June this year in connection with the murder of a flower seller in the former capital’s Mayangone township. It is important to note  that since the accused’s death in July, police have arrested someone else for the flower seller’s murder.

AHRC notes in its report that photographs taken by the family of Myo Myint Swe’s body “show that the right cheek and forehead … are heavily bruised and swollen, as is the left jaw and lower cheek. The neck of the deceased is black with bruising, and scars and bruises are obvious on his shoulders and back.” An image carried on their website shows his swollen shins black with bruising, likely as a result of bamboo being rubbed forcefully up and down his shins – common practice during police interrogation.

Police blamed his death on an illness contracted whilst in custody, while a post-mortem concluded it was a heart attack. The family are launching a lawsuit, but authorities remain stubborn – during a court inquest, “it was registered as a simple death, not as a murder,” says AHRC.

“When the death inquest hearing was being held, Daw Sein Sein [Myo Myint Swe’s mother] also saw that the photographs of the deceased that the police submitted to court looked nothing like those that she had seen, and that they had evidently been modified with a computer program to conceal the scars and wounds on the dead body that can be clearly seen in the original photos.”

Seemingly knee-jerk arrests, like that of Myo Myint Swe, are common in Burma. Authorities are made to deliver quick results regardless of the evidence. This is for two reasons: one is that public anger at a societal affront such as murder can whip up very quickly and get out of hand; another is that Burma’s security system is a vertically integrated one in which those at the top end of the hierarchy demand evidence of a rapid response from those lower down. This means that, as far as local police are concerned, the need for any arrest is far greater than the need for the right arrest.

The results of this can be horrendous, with innocent people often spending years as police pawns, moving from station to station or prison to prison in order to satisfy the demand for a result. Many thus live out years in jail clueless as to why they are there.

Although we’ll never know whether Myo Myint Swe played any part in the flower seller’s murder, he could well have been a victim of this charade, thus making his fate doubly tragic. The use of torture is well documented in Burma, but global attention is largely focused on torture of the political opposition – few spare a thought for the bystander dumped into the dark and corrupt hole that is Burma’s legal system. Observers often argue that the country cannot become a functioning democracy until the dictatorial mentality that creates this cold, hard void between authority and civilian is eroded, and rightly so.