In the embattled townships of Sagaing, the military’s assumption of command over police forces has created a lawless vacuum in which the prosecution of crime comes a distinct second to the rounding up of enemies of the state.
As escalating conflict in Burma’s north-west causes the breakdown of social infrastructure, some residents are turning to the institution many now trust as the new protectors of the peace: the People’s Defense Force.
In Kalay, a sizeable town with a population of almost half a million, the local PDF is quickly evolving beyond its established goal as defender of the people, assuming the mantle of detective, judge, and executioner.
Yesterday, the Kalay PDF released a statement on social media celebrating the successful removal from the town of a group of 50 armed men led by a notorious criminal, Shine Thar.
Emboldened by Kalay’s state of anarchy, Shine Thar’s brigands had supposedly embarked on a wide-reaching campaign of terror; locals accused the man of committing scores of armed robberies; thieving gold, vehicles and loot, and abusing Kale’s women.
What is more, the PDF accused Shine Thar of going rogue; after pledging to protect the people, his group had launched a spree of executions across Kalay, firing at will and framing victims as “dalan”, military informants, after the fact.
“This group formed in Kalay to “clear” groups of dalan early on in the revolution. Ater growing to include about 50 people, their leader, Shine Thar, started violently robbing the locals. That’s why the people turned to the Kalay PDF,” one resident of Kalay told DVB.
The PDF says that it had been inundated with information from local people begging for help. After analysing a trove of photo and video evidence, the group, in its eyes, had enough evidence to launch its own raid on Shine Thar and his men.
”A lot of the violence and robberies occurred in villages in the southern part of Kalay. The people there very strongly believe in the PDF and provide a lot of support. As the police are now redundant, they first went to the PDF to help them,” the Kalay resident said.
“There were misconceptions that Kalay PDF members were committing the illegal acts, when in fact we had nothing to do with them,” one Kalay PDF member told DVB. For the group, the operation was both a social good and an exercise in public relations.
According to a Kale PDF statement, the group raided Shine Thar’s base on September 26, being met with fierce resistance.
“After we were fired upon, Shine Thar himself was shot dead. We captured the entire camp, took a cache of guns and ammunition, and brought into custody all members of the gang.”
Kalay PDF claims that all of Shine Thar’s men have now switched sides, pledging their support to the PDF.
Following the raid, Kalay PDF made a list of the stolen booty it had recovered. The group says it will now return the loot; a committee of community representatives has been formed to trace and return cash, gold, and motorcycles to original owners.
Kalay PDF clarified that, in carrying out the raid, they abided by the Code of Conduct for the People’s Armed Forces as laid down by the National Unity Government’s (NUG) Ministry of Defense. The group also claims to be working hand-in-hand with the nascent community-based People’s Protection Group (Pa Ka Pha).
One reporter from the Monywa Gazette noted on social media that the Shine Thar raid can be viewed as part of a broader trend in which Sagaing’s criminal cases are increasingly being reported to local PDFs. According to the journalist, in a situation where the police will not answer a civilian’s call, it is only PDF forces that can provide a systematic resolution of local people’s grievances.
The development reflects a tentative movement towards the establishment of alternate proto-state institutions across Burma. The assumption of judicial functions by Rakhine’s United League of Arakhan has been well documented over the past year, and now appears to be nearing completion.
In a host of other regions too, PDFs have recently begun establishing People’s Police Forces under the guidance of the NUG government. On August 25, the Karenni State Police (KSP) announced it was to begin operating with the help of 320 CDM police officers.
The efficacy and legitimacy of young PDF fighters enforcing the law remains to be debated. Yet, as Burma’s state continues to crumble, it is undoubtedly a conversation that the country will soon be forced to have.
UPDATE (09/30/21): The KSP today announced that it had released five suspects brought in on suspicion of being military enforcements, citing the lack of evidence sufficient to further a case. (The force remanded in custody a further four men who had been arrested at the same time.)
Such professionalism and even-handedness will be essential if the NUG is to establish full administrative credibility in the eyes of both local communities and those of the international community.