Burma Vigilantes

Image via DVB TV’s Facebook page.

Among the crowds of students and riot police that clashed in downtown Yangon on March 5 were groups of men (including what appeared to be teenagers) sporting red armbands emblazoned with the word “Duty”, and who aided several baton charges at protestors. AFP quoted one witness as saying: “The authorities said they would give the protesters 30 minutes to disperse … But after 20 minutes, about a hundred people with red armbands attacked them. Some activists were arrested after they were beaten.”

The spread of protests to Yangon is exactly what the government had been hoping to avoid, as evidenced by its attempts to keep a separate group of several hundred students protesting the National Education Law kettled inside a monastery in Letpadan, just outside of Yangon. The outbreak of demonstrations in Yangon both raises the potential for wider mobilization and increases the international visibility of the protest movement, thereby throwing into sharper contrast the legitimacy of their demands for a greater slice of the state budget for education (currently 5.92%) and reduced government control over the sector, versus the government’s resistance to implementing these. The government, still touting its reformist credentials, is eager to reduce this sort of negative publicity.

The presence of security forces, and of what appear to be hired vigilantes, clearly however does little to aid its image. Quite who these “Duty” mobs are remains unclear, although they have become increasingly visible since the outbreak of anti-Muslim violence over the past two years. Needless to say Burma has a long history of cultivating “neighbourhood watch” teams that come out to play during times of unrest. The Irrawaddy noted the following:

“According to Article 128 of the Burmese Code of Criminal Procedure, if an unlawful assembly refuses to disperse, magistrates and police station chiefs have the authority to raise a male civilian force in order to break up the gathering and assist with arrests.

“The article was enacted in 1898 as part of the imposition of British common law as a means to deter any public assembly containing more than five people. It has remained on the books since.

“’They are just vigilantes who want to keep law and order,’ Myint Htwe, Rangoon Division’s Eastern District police chief, told the media on Thursday, when asked about the group who helped disperse the garment workers’ protest on Wednesday.”

It’s a cynical ploy, but one familiar to citizens of authoritarian states. Using civilian against civilian drives up levels of inter-communal distrust and paranoia, further confusing distinctions between enemy and ally. This was used to great effect during the 2007 uprising, when plain-clothed members of the Swan Arr Shin civilian militia led dozens of attacks on monks. Armed civilians also surrounded the convoy carrying Aung San Suu Kyi during the Depayin massacre in 2003.

Among Burma’s poor, the government has a fertile source of civilian recruits, and exploits the impoverishment it has created to drive recruitment to militias. Pliant civilians in effect then become instruments of state power, a bitter irony given that the poor have felt the effects of misplaced power most painfully. See, for example, this Human Rights Watch briefing around the time of the 2007 uprising. The quote is from an opposition politician:

“The military is organizing the Swan Arr Shin in poor areas that were very active during the 1988 demonstrations. This is smart, as it will help ensure control over these areas and it will split the poor from the broader [protest] movement. Swan Arr Shin members are paid 3,000 kyat [$3] a day and given two meals—this is good pay and it is easy work, as most Swan Arr Shin are day laborers who are used to doing hard manual labor, like working as porters in the market or at the ports.

“Each day, the Swan Arr Shin units are sent by bus in a convoy led by an army vehicle to areas other than those where they are resident. They are under the control of an army major and the police. In the area where I saw them working, they were under the command of an officer from the 66th Light Infantry Division. The township offices have to raise funds to feed the Swan Arr Shin that are sent into their areas.  In our area, each quarter has to provide 500 kyats per day. This leads to resentment, so the officials collect the money under false pretenses, saying it is for street cleaning and such things.”

During several waves of anti-Muslim violence, residents of towns besieged by mobs would often report that busloads of armed men would arrive and begin attacking Muslim-owned property. It doesn’t however always take the form of violence. In October 2014, it emerged that those who participated in a demonstration against the US sanctions imposed on Aung Thaung, a powerful MP with close ties to Than Shwe, had been promised payments of food. The Irrawaddy reported:

“About a thousand people joined the rally, brandishing placards with statements of support such as “We oppose US sanctions against our representative”, “We love our representative” and “Our representative is a nice person.”

“Trucks carrying takeaway Biryani packs and bottled water arrived and began to distribute food as planned, but the crowd quickly became restive after an announcement that the food would soon run out.

“’They suddenly dropped the placards, nudging each other and fighting for the biryani,’ said Aung Myo Tun, a resident of Taung Tha. ‘After that, the road was left with pile of garbage, broken placards and plastic bottles. At some places, rice grains from broken biryani containers were scattered everywhere. Later, some police and USDP members arrived to clean up the trash’.”

The government knows it has little ideological support among the populace, but also evidently knows that hunger is enough to drive the mobilization of crowds. Moreover, to those not familiar with these tactics, the presence of civilian thugs could give the impression that the government does have a support base, and that protestors have enemies among the public. It’s a depressing situation, especially considering many of the vigilantes involved in attacks in Yangon this week appear to be teenagers. The successful exploitation of poverty to turn civilian against civilian shows how ruthlessly adept government manipulation can still be, and the extent to which it will go to snuff out the exercising of freedom of assembly that it claims to be in support of.