The pro-junta militia: how can they do it?

Gemma Dursley

Oct 6, 2008 (DVB), One of the more distinctive aspects of recent repression in Burma has been the involvement of apparently non-state agents , 'patriotic citizens' in the words of the SPDC.

Forming the shadowy, unofficial group known as Swan Arr Shin, these people were active during last September's crushing of the Saffron Revolution and continue to put in uninvited appearances at events on Burma's political calendar. They often make 'citizens' arrests' on activists, have been implicated in numerous violent assaults, and engage in routine neighbourhood and activist surveillance.

This is worrying. If political change is certain because, as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi says, "all the military have are guns", then it is disconcerting to think that the military might also have hearts and minds of some ordinary people. Soldiers follow orders of whoever is in government, but the 'masters of force' are tools of this administration only, and they stand and fall with it.

Many are drawn from the 23 million strong Union Solidarity and Development Association. The techniques the junta has used to build membership are well known: membership is mandatory for teachers and civil servants (and their families), it brings particular benefits such as educational opportunities, and human rights violations fall disproportionately on non-USDA members.

A large number of USDA members have also been tricked into joining. But it is hard to believe people can be fooled into beating monks or peaceful activists, or organising such violence. Many, perhaps most, of the USDA membership is indifferent to the SPDC's ambition to crush the pro-democracy movement. But some actively engage in it. Why?

Selective incentives

Unsurprisingly, money is a significant factor. Many SAS are mobilised as and when needed by ward and township USDA or SPDC officials, and are paid a daily allowance for their work. To this they are usually quite indifferent. There is also a 'hardcore' SAS who have received training in riot control and surveillance techniques and who, according to Human Rights Watch, receive a small monthly salary and food allowance in addition to any daily 'work' they might do.

Many individuals within the core of the SAS group are already on the margins of society , ex-convicts, alcoholics, persons of ill-repute , and, with such low community standing, find no benefits to investing in being a 'good person'. There is little for them to lose by participating in violence.

Organising violence demands more intelligence and strategic acumen. Individuals possessing this are unlikely to be interested in small cash sums and might be slightly more 'respectable' than hardcore SAS. Consequently, they probably look more to the long-term. Not by chance they find this within the USDA, which provides them with many lucrative corruption opportunities, as reported by DVB for many years. Their position within the USDA, and all the violent responsibilities that comes with it, becomes their career.

Team spirit

It is not completely correct, however, to see the average violence worker in Burma as a sociopath out solely for himself (they are mostly men). It is in the militia member's interest to work for the good of the group: the more effectively the group works, the bigger or more secure are the individual benefits. Consequently, there is a 'norm of contribution' within the group.

Usually, such a collective norm gives rise to a free rider problem. People do nothing, as they can , hopefully , enjoy a common good without expending any effort. However, because the core of the pro-junta militia is a relatively tight-knit, closed structure, each person's decision affects the other. Everybody has an interest in seeing the group norm enforced so group members 'do their bit', and encourage and support each other. The rational thing to do, in this instance, is not to free ride , it is to contribute and uphold the group norm.

This is one reason why those SAS mobilised for the day, simply to make up the numbers, are disinterested, unenthusiastic and quite often ashamed. Among the hardcore of SAS and USDA members, however, there is a real interest in collective action. They police one another's contribution and encourage each other to go beyond the call of duty.

The response of the Sangha to pro-junta militia activity has been an overturning of the alms bowl, while much of the public shun militia members in daily life. However, this means that active members of SAS and USDA become even more independent of the wider community, strengthening the militia structure as recruits rely on themselves.

Compare this to the communities the SAS terrorise. Within relatively open social structures , indeed, they are far more open now than in the past , individuals opposing political violence cannot depend on the support of others. Here, it is rational to free ride.

A collective identity

Organisations are powerful shapers of individual behaviour. With their own conventions, procedures and rituals they are more than just a collection of individuals. Certain behaviour within the organisation is appropriate, whilst other behaviour is frowned upon. The pro-junta militia is an organisation with expectations and obligations like any other, and its core members usually act according to their given role.

Not only do people come to willingly perform their duties but also, even if they have joined for their own selfish needs, come to feel that group objectives are important to them. It is natural for people to perceive events like their associates perceive them, and this blurring of the military and the public means that recruits are increasingly likely to identify the pro-democracy movement as an enemy.

Consequently, the Orwellian propaganda which seems so absurd to the average citizen can easily strike a chord with the active militia member, helping to keep the group unified. This is exacerbated by the lack of free media to challenge such points of view and, again, the group's ostracism by the wider public. Combined with their unique material benefits, this exclusion only serves to increase the arrogance of the militia.

It is not enough to say that people participate in militia activity for cash. Only by appreciating the range of techniques that the SPDC have used to assemble and maintain their militia can activists find a strategy to defeat it.

This is the second in a serious of articles by Gemma Dursley for DVB on Burma's collective action problem.

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