The Sun Never Set on the British Empire’s Oppression
Late last month, the leader of Myanmar’s junta, Min Aung Hlaing, stood on a huge parade field to recount the military’s “immense prestige etched in the annals of history.” Hundreds of soldiers who had not been deployed to quell an uprising against the country’s coup marched in formation at dawn. Armored vehicles spewing black smoke rumbled alongside them.
The speech marked Myanmar’s annual Armed Forces Day, telling a soaring and selectively edited tale of the institution’s “glorious past.” As in most retellings of the country’s recent history, special attention was paid to the wrongdoings of its former colonial master and the way the military “annihilated the British Imperialists.” Indeed, Myanmar (also known as Burma) might have won independence in 1948, but almost all of the country’s ills—real and perceived—are still regularly blamed on the British.
Yet that disdain is not quite enough to do away with the onerous laws Britain left behind: Successive Burmese governments have shown a fondness for wielding them to silence critics and quash dissent—and Min Aung Hlaing has proved no different. Five days after his speech, his regime charged Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s de facto leader, who has been detained since the February 1 coup, under the Official Secrets Act. The law dates from 1923 and covers a plethora of offenses, including trespassing and possessing documents deemed secret. It carries a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison.
Across Asia, in places such as Myanmar, India, and Hong Kong, leaders that espouse nationalist rhetoric and bemoan their former colonial overlords see no issue with deploying laws designed by those foreign masters against their own people. These lasting vestiges of the British empire are draconian, overly broad, and vaguely worded, but they persist very much because of these traits, existing as powerful weapons of modern lawfare. In fact, rather than repealing them, some governments have tweaked and fused them with new rules, creating even more problematic regulations.
“Any government would want these laws to remain so that they could use it whenever politically convenient for them, and to silence dissenters,” Chitranshul Sinha, a lawyer and the author of The Great Repression: The Story of Sedition in India, told me of that country’s colonial legal legacy. “These laws cause a chilling effect on free speech—that archnemesis of authoritarians.”
Democratic and quasi-democratic postcolonial governments in Asia have for decades avoided abolishing or significantly reforming such laws, including Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act, sedition laws in India and Hong Kong, and a host of other colonial-era regulations, despite ample warnings about possible future misuse. In 1997, months before Britain returned Hong Kong to China, the late legal scholar Ming Kou Chan assessed the much-praised legal system that would be left behind when the Union Jack was lowered. “Despite British claims that they brought the blessings of the rule of law to Hong Kong, as in many other colonies,” he wrote, “the British have in fact created a legal system emphasizing law and order while neglecting the personal liberties and individual rights associated with the common law tradition.”
In Myanmar, the military—which in an effort at legitimacy has named itself the State Administration Council—has made liberal use of these outdated laws. Although Suu Kyi’s case has drawn the most attention, the junta makes almost nightly pronouncements through state television and radio of new arrest warrants targeting journalists, activists, models, and medical workers, all issued under a section of the country’s 1861 penal code that has long been criticized by activists and rights groups for criminalizing speech. (The military tweaked a portion of the law following its seizure of power, making possible the punishment of those who question the legitimacy of the coup or the military government.)
Among those at risk is Myat Noe Aye, a well-known actor and influencer who used her substantial social-media following to rally support for anti-coup demonstrations and document her own attendance at protests. This month, the 25-year-old saw her picture on TV alongside those of others accused of incitement. Seemingly unperturbed by the possibility of imprisonment, she turned to Facebook to do a bit of quick trolling, posting a screenshot of the broadcast with the caption “Thank you for using a beautiful photo” and a kissy-face emoji. “They want people to be afraid of them, to make them feel like they are powerful,” she told me of the junta. To do this, she said, they had resorted to their old tactics, using “stupid” laws, communications cuts, and arbitrary killings. But, she said, “we are living in the 21st century; they can’t scare us easily.”