When it comes to crowd control, the Myanmar Police Force can only be described as hopeless. Examples abound: Take the way they handled the student protests against an unpopular education bill in Letpadan in 2015, or the outpouring of anger by local people at the government’s last-minute ban on a public event in Mrauk U early this year. Both ended in bloodshed and deaths.
Over the weekend, the police’s incompetence was on full display yet again.
Saturday’s anti-war protest in Yangon was supposed to be a peaceful one. Activists gathered to demand an end to fighting between government forces and ethnic armed groups in Kachin State. When police told the protesters that they were assembling in a prohibited area, the organizers agreed to disband. The situation rapidly spun out of control, however, when riot police forcibly dispersed the protesters, aided by a group of unidentified, self-described “citizens”. These thugs attacked the protesters right before the eyes of law enforcement officials, who did nothing to stop them.
Unchecked attacks on people right in front of the police is a sign of total lawlessness.
We ask the authorities: Who were those self-proclaimed “citizens” and why did the police officers present turn a blind eye when they attacked? Apart from physically attacking the activists, these anonymous people cursed and threatened members of the media who were there to cover the protest. Again, the police simply ignored it.
It is clear from Facebook Live feeds broadcast from the scene, as well as reports from journalists on the ground, that among these thuggish “citizens” were some familiar faces who have in recent years been active at nationalist and pro-military activities demanding that the government step down for failing to protect race and religion, and supporting military campaigns in Rakhine State.
Shortly before the police crackdown began on Saturday, members of this group could be heard shouting “Kill them! Beat them! Let us in!” from behind columns of riot police, while the peace activists were in the process of negotiating the end of their protest. The police neither warned the protesters they were in danger, nor made any effort to stop their attackers.
Why do these thugs enjoy such impunity? Why did the police stand by and let all hell break loose? Did the police just decide to turn a blind eye because they were pro-military activists who were “countering” the anti-war protest?
(The Myanmar Police Force is administered by the Ministry of Home Affairs. The minister, Lieutenant-General Kyaw Swe, is a military appointee.)
The joint participation of civilians and police officers in Saturday’s crackdown on a peaceful protest is a grim reminder of the Swan Arr Shin, the popular name for state-sponsored thugs recruited to help crush democratic forces under previous military regimes.
Myanmar State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was herself the victim of one of their attacks, the Depayin Massacre in 2003. When Buddhist monks took to the streets during the Saffron Revolution in September 2007, Swan Arr Shin were deployed along with security forces to beat and kick the monks into trucks before they were hauled off to interrogation centers.
The negligence displayed by police during Saturday’s crackdown is an embarrassment for the National League for Democracy-led government. Despite the NLD’s repeated vow to enhance the rule of law in the country, its law enforcement services simply turned a blind eye as thugs kicked peaceful anti-war protesters and threatened journalists on Saturday.
The government must take this issue very seriously. The Yangon Regional Government has a responsibility to explain to the public what caused the police to mishandle Saturday’s protest. If needed, the home affairs minister should be summoned to explain the incident to Parliament. We want a police force that serves the people. The negligence they displayed during Saturday’s crackdown shows the police are still far from living up to their official name: Pyithu Ye, meaning “police for the people.”