Commentary

Junta-Era Thugs Are Back on the Streets

By Aung Zaw 6 March 2015

The arrest, beating and manhandling of peaceful student demonstrators in downtown Rangoon on Thursday drew outrage from many at home and abroad. Thanks to smart phones and local media, many have been able to view and share photos, messages and information about the crackdown. The emotion and anger on social media has been palpable.

Thuggish-looking men in plainclothes were filmed and photographed attempting to agitate student activists near Sule Pagoda on Thursday afternoon, before aiding police in breaking up the demonstration. They wore red armbands emblazoned with the word “duty” in Burmese.

On social media, some Burmese called them dogs. Others countered that dogs were loyal and faithful, whereas these men were hired thugs of the regime.

Government officials disagreed.

When asked about a similar plainclothes group who helped make arrests and disperse garment workers’ protest on Wednesday, Myint Htwe, Rangoon Division’s Eastern District police chief, said, “They are just vigilantes who want to keep law and order.”

President’s Office director Zaw Htay (also known as Hmuu Zaw) defended the use of plainclothes civilians in Thursday’s crackdown by posting a scanned copy of Article 128 of the Burmese Code of Criminal Procedure, enacted by British colonial authorities in 1898, which provides for a male civilian force to be raised if an unlawful assembly refuses to disperse.

Aung Zaw is the founding editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy.
Aung Zaw is the founding editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy.
Aung Zaw is the founding editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy.

The Facebook post caused a fire storm online and has since been removed.

There is no doubt the political temperature is rising in Burma. Less and less people have faith in the Thein Sein government’s reformist intentions; more and more people are shaking their heads over rising repression.

As news of Thursday’s crackdown spread online, many Burmese took to social media to vent their anger, describing the government as a “fascist regime” or as “sit khway,” which roughly translates to “dogs of war.”

One Facebook user wrote in Burmese, “Who knows… In the future if there is no proper education in our country, those thugs who wear ‘duty’ around their arms will one day become leaders in our country!” Many “liked” his remark.

Employing thugs and trained arsonists is nothing new in Burma. During the Saffron Revolution in 2007, many feared that regime-backed thugs were out on the streets, whipping up fear and confusion. The same pattern of using plainclothes vigilantes to do the authorities’ dirty work seems to be arising under the current quasi-civilian government, largely filled with former regime members.

Many have witnessed such gangs, roaming major cities in the country burning religious buildings, destroying shops and houses and even killing people during inter-communal violence in recent years. Have they been trained to create a sense of anarchy?

A trainer from the European Union stands in front of riot policemen during a training session under the EU's programme to support reform of the Burmese Police Force at a police training camp outside Rangoon, February 20, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)
A trainer from the European Union stands in front of riot policemen during a training session under the EU’s programme to support reform of the Burmese Police Force at a police training camp outside Rangoon, February 20, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)

On Thursday, a photo of a young boy who appears to be still in his teens, dragging a young female protester in a headlock, likely towards a waiting police truck, caused widespread angst. “Who dares to bring those thugs to City Hall?” one well-known, Rangoon-based businessman wrote on his Facebook account.

If the international community remains largely silent over such vicious crackdowns, there is a danger that Burmese people will begin to view them—predominately Western governments and donors—as accomplices. Will they keep ‘drinking the Kool-Aid’ and blindly insist that democratic reforms in Burma are real?

Thanks largely to foreign donors, including the European Union, parts of Burma’s police force are now better trained and equipped than in the past.

According to European External Action Service documents, the EU had trained 2,999 police officers in Burma to “international standards in crowd management” as of June 2014, out of a total of 30,000 officers in crowd management units. When are we going to see the results? Why did the government decide to use men in plainclothes to crackdown on demonstrators, falling back on junta-era tactics? And how does this fit with the EU-backed police reform plans?

In February 2014, EU Ambassador to Burma Roland Kobia described the EU’s police training program. “With the Crowd Management Training the European Union wants to contribute to improve the human rights performance of the Myanmar Police Force and initiate the development of a police service that respects and protects democratic rights of citizens,” Kobia said. He noted that recent incidents had underlined the need for police to change.

Since then, police shot dead a peaceful female protester at the site of the Letpadaung copper mine in central Burma in December. On Monday, police in Letpadan, Pegu Division, blockaded students inside a monastery and warned they would take action if they continued their protest march to Rangoon.

One Burmese man in his 30s, who previously worked for a Western embassy in Rangoon, jokingly wrote online: the “EU does not need to give crowd control training to the Burmese police—Burma’s rulers have their own teachers.”

He then asked, “Would arsonists and murderers in Meikhtila and Rakhine [Arakan State] have dared to show their “duty” [ta wun] armbands so explicitly?”

In failing to address protesters’ grievances and instead using thugs to stifle peaceful protests the government has committed a serious political blunder and embarrassed international donors supporting its police reforms.

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