Rangoon Govt Defends Plainclothes Force as Lawful

By Yen Saning 9 March 2015

RANGOON — The Rangoon government on Sunday defended its deployment of plainclothes men to assist in a recent crackdown on protesters, according to a prominent activist group, claiming that the move was within the law.

Six members of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society met with divisional officials following a press conference at which the group denounced the government’s actions in the violent dispersal of student protesters in front of Rangoon’s City Hall on March 5, during which plainclothes men of unknown affiliation helped police arrest 8 activists.

According to 88 Generation member Tun Myint Aung, Rangoon Division Chief Minister Myint Swe defended the use of a plainclothes force, maintaining it was in accordance with Article 127 and 128 of the Burmese Code of Criminal Procedure, a 19th century provision granting magistrates and police station chiefs the authority to raise a male civilian force in order to break up unlawful assemblies and assist with arrests.

“We object to what they said,” Tun Myint Aung told The Irrawaddy on Monday. “These laws have existed since the colonial period and they need to be revised in Parliament. These articles were not suitable to be used in the current situation, they were meant to be used if there is violence, rioting or robbery.”

He said the group told government officials that the incident, during which several peaceful demonstrators were injured, damaged the image of the country and risked stoking hostility among the public.

“The government must be accountable and responsible. We warned them that if they aren’t, instability will be speedy,” Tun Myint Aung said, adding that the group believed the men deployed were affiliated with Swan Ah Shin, a plainclothes, pro-government force 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.

The government has said that the Swan Ah Shin is now defunct, but similarities have prompted concern among activists that the group of plainclothes men involved in the incident, identifiable by red arm bands reading “duty,” could become a tool for inciting unrest.

Referring to the use of a civilian force as “mismanagement,” Tun Myint Aung said 88 Generation “would like to warn [the public] that the government is the culprit of instability.”

Local media reports surfaced on Monday that some of the men deployed to break up the protest were selected by local administrators and transported to downtown Rangoon just before the demonstration, some claiming that they were unaware of the task at hand.

Activists, trade unions and ethnic political parties have all spoken out about the incident, calling for the government to negotiate peacefully with student demonstrators and their supporters, who since November have demanded a more participatory role in Burma’s educational reform process.

Following successful negotiations between the government, lawmakers, students and educators, a core column of demonstrators marching from Mandalay to Rangoon vowed to continue the demonstrations until they arrived at their destination, after which they would monitor Parliamentary action.

The demonstrators were stopped by police in Letpadan, Pegu Division, prompting a solidarity protest in Rangoon. About 200 students and supporters convened at City Hall, but were swiftly dispersed by the plainclothes crowd and police officers. Several people claimed to have been injured during the crackdown, while photographs and videos of police wielding batons on demonstrators went instantly viral.

The eight people who were arrested during the melee, including women’s rights activist Nilar Thein, were released from custody the following morning.

Remaining demonstrators in Letpadan on Sunday issued a warning that they planned to continue their exodus to Rangoon on March 10 at 10am. Witnesses on the ground in Letpadan told The Irrawaddy that police reinforcements have been stationed around the protesters, who have held a sit-in in front of Aung Myay Baik Mann monastery for almost a week.