BURMA: Government by thuggery

After a man in Mettaya, upper Burma, assaulted U Than Lwin on 15 June 2007, he ran for cover in the local office of the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), a government-organised mass mobilising body. Police officers who came to the office were refused access, and they did not demand it, despite the fact that the law of criminal procedure gives them the right to enter any premises where an alleged criminal is believed to be hiding.

The attack on U Than Lwin was the latest in a series of assaults in Burma apparently organised by the USDA, which has the military junta’s senior general as its patron, together with local councils that are systematically mobilising groups of thugs, known as “Swan-arshin”, with the purpose of attacking and intimidating persons deemed threats to the regime.

The Asian Human Rights Commission has obtained documents that reveal unequivocally that the Swan-arshin members are working as organised muscle under the township councils. The documents make plain how the councils are recruiting and mobilising their numbers through local markets. Most of them are small traders or persons nominated on their behalf that have no choice to participate or lose their business permits. By day, the group’s members are compelled to act as the eyes and ears for the councils; by night they are deployed alongside police in security details at street intersections and checkpoints.

The use of violence through non-conventional forces has been a part of how Burma’s military regime has got things done for many years. The Swan-arshin and USDA were both implicated in the brutal attack on a convoy carrying democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters at Depayin in 2003. However, the extent to which they have now been incorporated into the routine monitoring and control of the population indicates a disturbing new phase in the country’s downward slide, away from the “law and order” that the military junta claims to uphold and towards government by outright thuggery. It signifies a further diminishing and displacement of the police and courts, and a strengthening of arbitrary and extralegal institutions with no other agenda than to manipulate and brutalise.

As the balance of power shifts, it will become increasingly difficult for even the most mundane and ordinary criminal procedures to be followed in Burma. That the police who came to look for Than Lwin’s attacker did not bother to enter the USDA office speaks to where the real authority lies. The murder of Ko Naing Oo inside a local council office in Rangoon during March, over a petty family dispute, was successfully covered up by the USDA officials. They even arranged for his prompt cremation, to prevent subsequent post-mortem inquiries. Last year, a USDA executive in the delta region escaped investigation and prosecution after allegedly raping his 15-year-old neighbour.

The rising number of violent and coercive incidents involving USDA members, Swan-arshin, and ununiformed police, army personnel and their affiliates presages growing lawlessness and fear in a country that has for decades been characterised by lawlessness and fear. The Asian Human Rights Commission takes this opportunity to iterate its earlier calls for close examination of the institutions for investigation, prosecution and trial in Burma, and open discussion about the implications of growing use of goon squads in lieu of conventional policing and security officials, in order that the true situation in the country be properly understood and there be informed national and international debate on its implications. This will do more to confound the sort of diplomatic nonsense about “progress” that has recently come from the UN special envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, than mere naysaying or more of the politicised complaint that has for too long hampered meaningful discussion on Burma.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-173-2007
Countries : Burma (Myanmar),