RANGOON — Clad in a Burmese policeman’s uniform of gray shirt, navy trousers and matching cap, 20-year-old Kyaw Ye Lin puts on a brave face as he sweats in the scorching morning heat.
The only thing setting him apart from the rank and file of Burma’s police force is his red epaulettes, which mark him as a member of the “special police” recruited to provide security at polling stations in the Nov. 8 elections.
This is his first day of training as one of 60 recruits in Thingangyun Township in Rangoon, an eclectic group composed of both young and old men with varying levels of policing experience.
They are part of some 40,000 new police officers hired by the Myanmar Police Force across the country to guard the landmark polls, billed as Burma’s first free and fair vote in 25 years.
In the run-up to the elections, activists and human rights groups have expressed fears that special police officers would be recruited from plainclothes gangs often used to break up protests and gatherings on behalf of the authorities.
Rumors are already rife within Burma’s lively social media scene that members of these gangs are now donning special police uniforms.
But recruiting officers told Myanmar Now the special police would be properly trained and disciplined, and their powers would be limited.
Kyaw Ye Lin has yet to complete high school but said he has always dreamed of joining the police. So when the opportunity came up to be part of this group, he jumped at it.
“I’m going to take the 10th standard exam again this year and then apply to become a police officer so [this work] would give me experience,” he told Myanmar Now during a break from training, which began at 8 o’clock in the compound of the township administrative office.
“I’m excited. I have friends who are auxiliary firemen in our neighborhood but I’ve never really worked with police officers before,” added Kyaw Ye Lin, who lives with his widowed mother.
No More Red Armbands
It is estimated that Myanmar Police Force has around 150,000 officers but the authorities say more are needed to bolster security and ensure a smooth process at polling stations nationwide.
They have so far recruited more than 40,000 special police officers, the vast majority of them with no education beyond high school. A special police officer will be stationed in each polling station.
Recruitment was conducted through ward officials, in a similar fashion to recruitment of ordinary police officers, and the candidates were selected based on 12 physical requirements, including good overall health, good appearance and not having bandy legs, said Thet Oo, an inspector at Thinganggyun Township police station and an instructor on special policing methods.
“In the training, we will teach them how to police without weapons, human rights, police ethics, community participation in policing, security plans for the elections, election laws and by-laws,” the inspector told Myanmar Now.
Training sessions are being held across the country between Oct. 20 and 31, and the officers will work until Nov. 13, the police said, a shorter period than when the plan was originally announced.
The 2010 elections were held with the help of security guards wearing red armbands and without any special police officers. The same system was used for security of subsequent major events.
But such security methods came under scrutiny during a violent crackdown on peaceful protesters by armband-wearing guards this year, said Khin Wai, a member of the group overseeing the recruitment of special police in Rangoon as well as former local leader of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in Thingangyun.
“We didn’t have special police in the 2010 elections. We just had men with red armbands. But as everyone knows, in one particular event, a man with tattoos wearing a red armband was pictured choking a person. Those photos spread nationwide and it became clear the red armband can no longer be used,” he said.
The Nov. 8 elections take place amid simmering sectarian tension in Burma and the growing power of Buddhist nationalist movements.
And although the Burma Army has taken a back seat in reforms leading up to the first elections to be contested by all main opposition parties, there are still hardliners in its ranks who could choose to scuttle the process, as they did following the 1990 polls.
The conduct of security forces on election day will not only determine whether the election is carried out smoothly, but also whether it is perceived as credible, according to a report published earlier this year by Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
Who Are the Special Police?
Existing policemen and recent recruits are not eligible to become special police.
A majority of special police are civilians but also include auxiliary firemen, former soldiers and army officers, Red Cross volunteers and members of ward administration offices, according to sub-inspector Khin Maung Kyaing of Thingangyun Police Station.
They are paid 120,000 kyats (about $95) a month, as well as a 1,000 kyats daily allowance and are given a booklet with 12 rules and obligations to follow.
The recruits include people like 45-year-old Khin Maung Tun, a former auxiliary firemen turned insurance salesman, and 55-year-old community elder Saw Thein.
“I take pride in having this responsibility as a special policeman. It’s only because of the elections that we are working with the state. I never thought something like this would happen,” Khin Maung Tun said.
Saw Thein said he too had never taken a responsibility such as this.
“This is the first time I’m working with the ward authorities. I’ve only ever focused on religious and social issues so I thought I should get some experience doing something for the country,” he said.
In the opening speech of the training, township administrator Kyaw Lwin told the recruits what they should do (listen to the polling officer at the station) and not do (be rash or overzealous).
“Your duty is to prevent [people] from violating election laws. Even if the ward election commission asks you to do something, you have to inform the polling officer first,” he said.
He also warned them not to escalate tensions and that action would be taken against them if they themselves violated the law.
Thet Oo, inspector at Thingangyun Township Police Station, said special police would not be carrying handcuffs or batons and could only go inside the polling station with the permission of the polling officer.
“They don’t have the authority to arrest anyone,” he said.