RANGOON — Alone, they would have looked no different from ordinary men on the city streets. Together, they were mobilized and menacing.
In the last two days, two protests have been broken up with the assistance of groups of men in plainclothes, indistinguishable from the public were it not for the red cloth tied around each of their arms, emblazoned with the word “duty” in Burmese.
On Wednesday, they helped police break up the straggling remnants of a strike in the Shwepyithar Industrial Zone, during which a dozen female garment workers were detained alongside two reporters.
On Thursday afternoon they were downtown, attempting to agitate student protesters near Sule Pagoda before police moved in with batons to disperse the demonstration. In some cases, members of the plainclothes group seized and dragged protesters towards flatbed trucks, whereupon they were placed into police custody. A photographer from The Irrawaddy saw the agents provocateurs being shepherded into City Hall, where a platoon of police officers are regularly stationed, shortly before the crackdown began.
The incidents were reminiscent of the Swan Ah Shin (aka “Masters of Force”), the plainclothes, pro-government militia which assisted in the former military junta’s brutal crackdown on monks during the 2007 Saffron Revolution and took a leading role in the Depayin Massacre in 2003.
According to Article 128 of the Burmese Code of Criminal Procedure, if an unlawful assembly refuses to disperse, magistrates and police station chiefs have the authority to raise a male civilian force in order to break up the gathering and assist with arrests.
The article was enacted in 1898 as part of the imposition of British common law as a means to deter any public assembly containing more than five people. It has remained on the books since.
“They are just vigilantes who want to keep law and order,” Myint Htwe, Rangoon Division’s Eastern District police chief, told the media on Thursday, when asked about the group who helped disperse the garment workers’ protest on Wednesday.
San Yamin Aung, Zin No No Zaw, Wei Yan Aung and Kyaw Phyo Tha contributed to this report.