Abolishing Burma’s feared border force: PR or reform?
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Abolishing Burma’s feared border force: PR or reform?

Surprise news arrived on Sunday with a statement from President Thein Sein’s office announcing the disbanding of NaSaKa, the feared security force that has manned Burma’s border with Bangladesh (and previously the Chinese and Thai borders), and attracted fierce criticism for its treatment of civilians in western Burma. It was always seen as symbolic of the Burmese military’s evil – a force that acts with total impunity and indifference towards the suffering of those it is meant to ‘protect’. Formed of a toxic marriage between the police, army, customs and immigration offices, it has long been unclear to whom it answers, and likely deliberately so.

So the announcement appears a positive step. A quick Google search of the word will give an idea of why it’s held in such fear in Arakan state, and why its departure would bring much relief: razed villages, mass rapes and extrajudicial killings are included in its repertoire. It’s the kind of shadowy group with a malleable remit that can induce, to great effect for a central government whose control of the peripheries has always been shaky, perpetual terror among civilians.

But as with any ‘development’ in Burma, there is equal cause for concern. The timing of the announcement, coinciding with Thein Sein’s trip to the UK, is clearly tactical. The UK government has been quite explicit with its feelings about Naypyidaw’s treatment of the Rohingya, who along with Arakanese have felt quite brutally the agenda of NaSaKa. “Disbanding the NaSaKa is a good way to soften the blows he [Thein Sein] will receive on that, without really having to do anything substantial to improve the situation of the Rohingya,” says David Mathieson from Human Rights Watch.

The fear is that it could just be a name change – that the personnel could regroup under a different banner. Burma is no stranger to this – see the Border Guard Forces in the country’s east, for example, who are merely members of formerly government-aligned militias brought into the ‘legal fold’, with little done to reform their bad ways.

What’s also apparent with the NaSaKa incident is some face-saving on the part of the government. Thein Htey, the general recently sanctioned by the US for coordinating ongoing weapons deals with North Korea, had been the former Minister for Border Affairs, ostensibly the NaSaKa boss. “It’s nothing more than removing a target organization that became too controversial and a PR liability,” says Burmese academic Maung Zarni. He suggested it might also be a way to divert attention from a press bill just approved by the Lower House that does little to break with past censorship laws, and effectively bans criticism of the military-drafted 2008 constitution.

And in turn, it works very well for the UK, which recently announced it would begin military engagement with Burma. The abolishment of NaSaKa takes away some of the controversy surrounding the engagement, which is probably more to do with geostrategic concerns, but still cloaked in human rights chat.

And again, it offers the pretense of a reform effort in the Burmese military that is not actually happening. Those NaSaKa personnel won’t be retiring from active duty, but will probably be reassigned. And even if they’re withdrawn from Arakan state and placed elsewhere, the same police and military that have made life so miserable for Arakanese and Rohingya will remain, guided by the same mentality towards civilians that really should be the target of reform. “In the absence of accountability for the crimes committed by Nasaka soldiers, the utility of their disbandment is highly limited,” says Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights International. “There is nothing to prevent the next security force from simply replicating Nasaka’s abusive ways, particularly if it comprises the same soldiers.”