RANGOON — As the first phase of an EU-funded program designed to professionalize Burma’s police comes to an end, its beneficiaries find themselves in the spotlight after three violent crackdowns on peaceful education reform protestors in less than a week.
Student protestors in Letpadan, Pegu Division, were on the receiving end of brutal police baton charges on Tuesday, bringing a violent end to a tense standoff there, and demonstrators were met with force on the same day in Rangoon. The incidents followed a similar effort to break up a rally on Thursday in Rangoon, where police were aided by plainclothes thugs using tactics that critics have said harkens to the dark days of repression under Burma’s former military junta.
One of the peripheral victims of fallout from the episodes has been the European Union, which has come in for criticism on social media and from human rights groups for its 18-month program training the Myanmar Police Force (MPF) on crowd control techniques.
The European Union has directed as much as 10 million euros (US$11 million) in funding toward the training, which involves courses on media relations and community policing initiatives as well. It has also included the provision of nonlethal equipment such as helmets and riot shields, according to an officer working for the EU program with knowledge of its details.
Last week, protestors in front of the office of the EU Delegation to Myanmar demanded answers about the training initiative, the first phase of which ended this month.
“Given what happened now, those trainings are somewhat like [assisting in] the beating and arrest of students and people. So we condemn it. We are staging a protest here today to let the EU know about it,” said a student demonstrator during a protest on Friday against the government’s handling of the City Hall protestors the day prior.
The EU Delegation released a statement on Tuesday, saying it was “deeply concerned to hear reports of the use of force against protesters in Letpadan,” and calling for an investigation into the crackdown.
“The fundamental purpose of the training is to increase the respect of human rights, stress the importance of negotiation and—only as a last resort—consider the use of proportional force. Any actions which go against these principles are of great concern to the EU,” read a Facebook post on its official account.
The delegation defended its relationship with the police and said events over the last week reinforced the need to continue training the MPF, but added that the EU “cannot make decisions on the ground.”
To date, the program has trained some 4,000 MPF officers out of approximately 72,000 nationwide.
A spokesperson from the EU project confirmed that training would be extended for an additional six months, and that the EU Delegation was considering a “follow-up project” to come afterward.
She declined, however, to take further questions from The Irrawaddy, saying she was following the instructions of her superior. She said she could provide no further specifics on why this order was in place, and referred The Irrawaddy to another EU staffer who did not respond to multiple attempts to seek clarification this week.
Images of the violent crackdowns in Rangoon and Letpadan have circulated widely on social media, drawing condemnation of the MPF, Burma’s government and the European Union.
“Don’t waste your time and money EU. Burmese government are not human. They will never change their mind,” posted Facebook user Sethu Minn, in apparent reference to the EU statement’s assertion that “In a country with a history such as Myanmar’s, changing mindsets is needed, but takes time.”
Mark Farmaner, director of the Burma Campaign UK, said any further training should be contingent on a repeal of repressive laws in Burma.
“[The] EU training Burma’s police in crowd control can only be effective if their political masters are willing to accept that people have the right to protest,” Farmaner told The Irrawaddy. “The government is still using the police as a means to control people, not protect them.”
David Mathieson, a senior Burma researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch, echoed calls for a conditional approach to more training.
“The EU should be deeply troubled by the security forces rejecting almost every principle of effective policing during the protest in Rangoon, and ensure that any future training or engagement is firmly rooted in best practice and the highest human rights standards,” he told The Irrawaddy.
Thursday’s violent dispersal of protestors in front of Rangoon’s City Hall—in particular the role played by plainclothes ruffians wearing red armbands inscribed with the Burmese word for “duty”—has focused attention on Article 128 of the Burmese Code of Criminal Procedure. That provision allows authorities to raise a male civilian force in order to break up the gathering and assist with arrests in the event that an unlawful assembly refuses to disperse.
Rangoon Division Police Chief Win Naing denied any involvement from his command in the plainclothes vigilantes’ presence, saying local township authorities were responsible for bringing them in.
“We didn’t know anything about them,” he told The Irrawaddy.
The EU Delegation made reference to the plainclothes men in its statement, saying it has “stressed the importance of using trained, professional police officers in these situations, not parallel security structures which may be written into law, but lack legitimacy.
“It must be made clear that the EU does not train non-police forces and does not condone their use in police actions.”
That would appear to put the European Union at odds with the government, which has defended its right to call upon civilian support under Article 128.
President’s Office Director Zaw Htay, whose Facebook account is under the name Hmuu Zaw, posted Article 128 to his Facebook wall on Thursday evening, but deleted it about an later. On Sunday, members of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society met with Rangoon authorities, and told The Irrawaddy that the division’s Chief Minister Myint Swe had also voiced support for the law.
Events over the last week come more than two months after police shot dead a female protestor in her 50s on Dec. 22 at Sagaing Division’s Letpadaung copper mine. About two years prior, police at the same site controversially used incendiary devices containing white phosphorous to disperse protestors, injuring dozens of Buddhist monks and others.