Student protestors and their supporters march in Magway region, March 2015 (Aung Naing Soe).
Police brutality and use of paramilitary thugs against student protestors betray Myanmar government’s fear of losing control
Hundreds of police violently broke up a peaceful sit-in by students at a monastery in Letpadan town north of Yangon on Tuesday, laying bare the limits of Naypyidaw’s tolerance for dissent and raising questions over the depth of security sector reforms.
The crackdown came six days after a brutal assault on a solidarity demonstration in central Yangon, in which the police used deputised civilian enforcers to disperse the crowd.
The use of plainclothes thugs to crack down on protestors has a long history in Myanmar. The most notable militia – the Swan Arr Shin, or “Masters of Force” – was formed in 2003, and its mercenaries were soon implicated in an attack on a convoy carrying pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi that left 70 of her supporters dead.
It then played a key role in the 2007 “Saffron Revolution” uprising against military rule, where its mercenaries were deployed to round up demonstrators.
Although civilian paramilitaries have made sporadic appearances since, they have stayed out of the spotlight since Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government took power in 2011.
Last Wednesday, however, a group wearing red armbands reading “Duty” in Burmese, conferring them official status, emerged to disperse a group of striking garment workers from Yangon’s Shwepyithar township. The following day, a larger band broke up the student protest in front of Yangon city hall.
In Letpadan, the week-long impasse between roughly 200 students and the authorities, which had blocked them from marching to Yangon to protest a proposed bill that they say stifles academic freedom, ended early on Tuesday afternoon when the students received tentative permission for their march.
But the police did an abrupt about-face and turned aggressively on the crowd, beating some viciously enough to require hospital treatment. They arrested 127 students and supporters, Myanmar’s Ministry of Home Affairs said.
The sudden change of heart at Letpadan, and the reappearance of a militia in Yangon last week, has cast a spotlight on the impunity enjoyed by Myanmar’s security forces and the powerful interests that control them.
For its part, the government has remained dismissive and unrepentant about its use of force. On Sunday, members of the 88 Generation Students, a civil society group, met with the Yangon regional government, which claimed the order to send civilians into the protest site to maintain public order was within the letter of the law.
Indeed, section 128 of Myanmar’s Code of Criminal Procedure – a piece of colonial-era legislation unmodified since 1898 – states that local authorities can avail themselves of the “assistance of any male person” to disperse “unlawful assemblies” and arrest participants.
Other countries with criminal procedures derived from British colonial law – including India, Malaysia and Singapore – have variants of this statute on the books, but its actual use to justify raising militias appears to be unique to Myanmar.
So who, exactly, are Myanmar’s new generation of state-sanctioned thugs? In a country where formal employment is rare and urban day-labourer wages hover under US$3 per day, the authorities need not look far to find mercenaries for their dirty work.
Those in Yangon were reportedly paid 8,000 kyats (US$7.75) each for their services, and an hour of violence is easier than a day of bricklaying or dock work in Yangon’s excruciating heat.
Ye Htut, Myanmar’s mercurial information minister, claimed that the Swan Arr Shin no longer exists, and that the decision to mobilise mercenaries was made by Yangon regional authorities alone.
But the Swan Arr Shin was historically under tight military control, and because the government has treated the student protests as an issue of utmost national security, the notion that a vigilante army was raised in isolation is highly suspect.
The police crackdown at Letpadan – which occurred after local authorities made verbal assurances of safety for the students – also seems to point to a higher power overriding local authority.
In September 2013, the European Union earmarked €10 million (US$1.06 million) to train the Myanmar police to international standards in crowd management, community policing, and media engagement strategies. In the wake of the past week’s events, however, it has come under fire from civil society and human rights groups, who it has tried to do too much, too soon.
Urging both sides to respect the law, the EU on Wednesday underscored “the need for negotiation, mutual understanding and compromise” while condemning the use of “parallel security structures” that “lack legitimacy”.
The ferocity of the government’s response to the student protests underscores its fear of losing control, a grim omen as Myanmar’s nationwide polls in November approach. And despite the mass arrests, the students show little sign of stopping: there was another demonstration on the campus of Mandalay university on Wednesday morning, and civil society groups have pledged their solidarity with the students’ aims.