In Thein Sein’s BBC Interview, the Apology That Never Was

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 24 March 2015

Ten days after the public was shocked by images of police brutality in a crackdown on student protestors northwest of Rangoon, Burmese blood pressures rose again this week. This time the source of the anger was Burma’s president, Thein Sein.

In a BBC interview, the president defended the March 10 crackdown, in which dozens of student protesters were injured and 127 people were detained in Letpadan, Pegu Division. Saying police did not breach international best practices in crowd control, he added that “there are worse riot control [practices] in Western countries today,” according to a Burmese-language transcript posted on the BBC Burmese website.

“Even though you say [the police] violently cracked down on the protesters, it was just a response because they [protesting students] beat the police first,” he told Jonah Fisher of the BBC, in reply to a question about his thoughts on the police action. “Police just took preventive measures as they were pelted with stones.”

Well said, Mr. President!

Except that this portrayal of the events that day does not appear to match the reality on the ground, where pictures and video taken as police moved to forcibly break up the protest paint a different picture.

Thein Sein’s denial of wrongdoing didn’t impress many, and critics say the response hardly sounded presidential.

Yan Myo Thein, a Rangoon-based political commentator, said the president sounded “childish.”

“It is a government-sponsored crime. The way he responded to the crackdown that everyone had witnessed [via video and pictures posted online] is shameful,” Yan Myo Thein said.

Indeed, the president sounded like he was dusting off the “eye for an eye” ethos of Hammurabi’s Code to justify the crackdown: In Thein Sein’s adaptation, that means, “If a student protester beats the police, the police shall beat the student.”

The president’s remarks to the BBC stand in stark contrast to the trademark signoff he employs in his monthly national address to the country: “Wishing you all mental and physical well-being.”

According to reports from journalists on the scene, it’s very unlikely that students launched an attack on police first. At the very least, the students would not have been capable of a level of hostility that would justify the heavy-handed response, equipped as they were with only megaphones, banners, smartphones and perhaps a few admittedly menacing selfie sticks.

The police sent in to handle the protestors, in comparison, were armed to the teeth, with batons, riot shields, helmets and even slingshots. The notion that police were responding to a “threat” posed by the students doesn’t hold water. Additionally, journalists present said they did not see students hurling stones at the police, as was claimed.

Following his defense of the police, Thein Sein went on the attack: “One more thing: You are one-sided in saying how the police behaved. Thanks to the attack from the protesters, policewomen were hit on their heads by stones, windshields of police vans were smashed, barricades were destroyed. So many things. You should be balanced.”

Sadly, there is no evidence to support this statement. The Letpadan crackdown was witnessed and documented by journalists from both local news outlets and international wire agencies. In their pictures, there is little if any proof that might corroborate his accusations.

Instead, the photos vividly portrayed a cringe-inducing degree of police brutality. In one photo captured by both The Irrawaddy and Reuters photographers, an unarmed protester is running for his life while several riot police beat him from all directions. In another picture taken by one of The Irrawaddy’s photographers, a helpless protester is shown cornered by four policemen who are attacking him with batons as if he were their arch-enemy. These moments—these snapshots of reality—are hardly reflective of “preventive measures,” as Thein Sein put it.

In the aftermath, questions have arisen.

Where were those baton-wielding riot police during the onset of communal violence between Buddhists and Muslim in Mandalay last year? When they finally showed up, it was too late. Two men had been killed, and ties that had bound the two communities for centuries were frayed.

Similarly, if they had been deployed earlier to the streets of Meikhtila to take “preventive measures” to protect civilians in 2013, more than 40 people might still be alive but instead were added to the roster of victims of communal violence. Where was the decisive police action then?

Indeed, a focus on suppressing those who propagate hate speech instead of cracking down on peaceful student protestors might have helped prevent the diminished status of Burma’s Buddhists, a radical minority of whom have managed to create the impression internationally that Burma is a nation of intolerant Buddhist extremists.

Why are students beaten into silence, while agitators are allowed to foment religious tensions uninhibited?

Mr. President, as head of the country, could you take those questions, please?