A solemn commemoration ceremony was taking place on the edge of a pond near Kyi village in Depayin Township, in northwest Burma’s Sagaing Division, on 30 May.
Dozens of long-time supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) gathered at the site of a brutal attack on her campaign convoy exactly 12 years previously. The popular opposition leader narrowly escaped, but four of her supporters were killed and dozens more injured.
One supporter, Zaw Phone Myint, recalled witnessing hundreds of thugs attack the NLD convoy with bamboo sticks and knives. It later emerged they belonged to the former military regime’s political organisation, the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), and a vigilante group called Swan Arr Shin.
“This will remain an unforgettable event in our lives,” Zaw Phone Myint said recently. “But we don’t think this is the proper time to call for justice in this case.”
Indeed it might be too early to call the thugs to account.
The Swan Arr Shin—which means “Masters of Force” in Burmese—had not been seen since the army installed a nominally civilian government in 2011, while the USDA became the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in 2010.
But in March, the plain-clothes thugs appeared again. The despised vigilantes reemerged during crackdowns on a student protest and a labor strike in Rangoon, Burma’s biggest city.
An investigation by Myanmar Now has uncovered how local authorities have recruited the men from impoverished areas and used them during the clampdowns.
The return of the thugs has concerned opposition politicians and activists, some of whom fear the Swan Arr Shin could be used to disrupt a general election scheduled on 8 November, or during its potentially complicated aftermath.
The NLD is expected to roundly beat the USDP of the ex-generals in Burma’s first democratic polls in 25 years.
“If some parties canvass, provoking racial or religious sentiments, then violence can happen. Also during the elections, if there are some irregularities in the voting list, some people may provoke violence,” said Sai Ye Kyaw Swar, director of the People’s Alliance for Credible Elections.
How to rent a thug
On a dreary night in March, a group of tattooed Burmese men sat in a dingy alcohol shop in Set Sun, a poor village near Rangoon overlooking the muddy waters of the Hlaing River, and recounted the violent dispersal of a student protest a few days earlier.
“I kicked that guy in the groin. And did you see blood coming out from another guy’s head? That’s the one my son attacked,” an authoritative-looking, middle-aged man told his friends, while pointing at a tall, stout young man waiting for customers.
This reporter, who overheard the conversation while sitting at a table nearby, instantly recognised the young man. Pictures of him dressed in shabby red trousers while dragging away a student activist by the neck were splashed across the front pages of local newspapers.
On 5 March, authorities in Rangoon deployed dozens of men in plain clothes to help police carry out a high-profile crackdown on an education reform protest in downtown Rangoon. A day earlier, a garment factory protest in the city’s Shwe Pyi Thar Industrial Zone was also quashed by police and plain-clothes men wearing red armbands with the word “duty”.
The images of the thuggish-looking men forcefully dragging away young protestors incensed the public and word spread that the Swan Arr Shin were back.
Myanmar Now spoke to more than a dozen locals, officials and opposition members in Set Sun and nearby villages, and discovered more about the two men.
The older man, in his mid-forties, runs a riverside alcohol shop on Bayinnaung Street in Set Sun. Local residents said he is a salaried organizer of the USDP and was appointed chief administrator in Set Sun and two other villages in early 2014. They accused him of being involved in violent crimes in the neighborhood for which he was never punished.
The man, who could be seen in some of the crackdown photos, flatly rejected having been involved. “You must be mistaken. I have nothing to do with that,” he said when the reporter called him to ask him about the accusations.
Deploying the Swan Arr Shin
Several villagers said they saw the man take about 30 people, including his son, to the administrative office of Kyimyindaing Township on the afternoon of 5 March.
Soe, an ex-convict who requested not to use his full name for fear of reprisal, was one of them. He remembered how a person at the administrative office issued catapults and sharp iron spikes about eight inches long to the men, though in photos of the crackdown the militiamen were only armed with bamboo clubs.
“Many people with criminal backgrounds like me had to go if we were sent for by the ward officials. If we don’t obey them they can cause us trouble because of our background,” he said.
They were then driven in two buses to Rangoon City Hall where a small student demonstration was underway. It called on the government not to resort to violence in the handling of an ongoing student march from Mandalay to Rangoon.
When Soe arrived, he saw others like him recruited from other townships. “We were instructed to go in front of the police line and stand facing the protesting crowd,” he said. When protesters failed to disperse after a warning, plain-clothes officials ordered the Swan Arr Shin to “wrestle [the protesters] and take them away to the trucks,” Soe recalled.
Photos and videos published by local media showed the vigilantes punching the protesters. A young man with brightly-dyed hair grabbed a young female protestor in a chokehold; another young man, apparently the son of the alcohol shop owner from Set Sun, dragged a male student off by the neck.
Journalists who witnessed events said several dozen of these men were at the scene, but only about 20 of them violently tackled the protesters.
Myanmar Now managed to track down a few more in Set Sun and discovered they included five ward officials, boatmen and porters.
Despite rumors that authorities paid the men between US$5 and $8 for their work, Soe said they were only served free beer and meals later that night.
Recruiting among the poor
Set Sun is one of five villages on the western side of the Hlaing River, situated across from the city’s port in Kyimyindaing Township. The area got electricity for the first time some six years ago; it remains poor, education levels are low and the villages suffer from crime and lawlessness.
Maj. Soe Thin, the police chief in charge of Set Sun and nearby villages, said he has just 36 officers to police some 50,000 people. He said four out of 21 murders in the area last year occurred in Set Sun.
The village men work as porters in Rangoon’s biggest wholesale fish market across the river, or as boatmen or trishaw drivers. “People here are so poor that sometimes they dive into the river and steal materials from ships anchored there at night,” a villager said, pointing at cargo ships and fishing trawlers on the river.
Areas like Set Sun are fertile recruiting grounds for Swan Arr Shin-type men.
Tin Myint is a former ward administrator in the neighboring village of Alatt Chaung who has joined the opposition NLD. He admitted recruiting Swan Arr Shin to break up protests or monitor activities of opposition groups for the junta from 2008 to 2010.
“In this kind of poor neighborhood where many people are trying to eke out a living, people compete with each other for any sort of petty power from authorities,” he said.
In this way, ward- and village-level administrators became influential and some found ways to supplement their meager income through this power. In exchange for such a position, they also have to carry out assignments from higher authorities such as repressing local dissent, he said.
During his days as the administrator of Alatt Chaung village, Tin Myint said he provided each Swan Arr Shin recruited from his area with $3 and a meal per day.
‘Well-intentioned members of the public’
In the wake of the crackdowns in March, which caused a firestorm of public criticism and concerns among the international community, authorities sought to defend the deployment of the thugs, while obscuring who had given the orders to bring them in.
In a phone interview, Htin Kyaw Lin, a former army captain and current administrator of Kyimyindaing Township, whose authority extends to the villages of Set Sun, Auk Yone and Alatt Chaung, said, “The ones we recruited were just well-intentioned members of the public who wanted to restore order. This was not something that happened just in our town, but in other towns in Rangoon as well.”
He declined to comment on who ordered the deployment of the men, but said, “When we were asked to send over members of the public, which was legally allowed, we did not have to check their criminal background.”
Zaw Htay, a spokesman for the President’s Office, in March briefly posted a screenshot on Facebook of Article 128 of the 1898 Code of Criminal Procedure, which allows authorities to raise a civilian force in order to break up an unlawful gathering.
Kyaw Hoe, a Rangoon human rights lawyer, disputed that the British colonial-era law justified the use of vigilantes against student protestors.
“This law can be applied only in cases of breaking up riots, not peaceful assemblies,” he said.
During the days of the military junta, the Swan Arr Shin were deployed as “mass-based” organisations on occasions where the government felt particularly threatened by street protests and opposition activities, according to Human Rights Watch, which researched its operations during the 2007 crackdown on the Saffron Uprising.
Organised by local authorities, the Swan Arr Shin groups provide a way to put a civilian face on repressing dissent and “a means of further dividing Burmese society and undermining a broad social movement,” the rights group said.
A US Embassy cable from 2009, published by Wikileaks, said that Khin Yi, then national police chief, had told UN human rights rapporteur for Myanmar Tomás Ojea Quintana that the government provides training to the militia, which is sometimes allowed to be armed.
A senior police official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the recent use of Swan Arr Shin was “a continuation of the former government’s policy of getting media to fight with media, students with students, the public with public, and the monks with monks.”
The government has sought to placate concerns over the use of civilian thugs, but carefully avoided taking responsibility.
Rangoon Division Chief Minister Myint Swe held a closed-door meeting with the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society, a leading activist group, to discuss the events. President Thein Sein ordered a commission of inquiry to determine whether the crackdown had been in accordance with legal procedures. Its findings were sent to the president on 31 March, but have not been made public.
Threat of election unrest
Opposition politicians and activists said they are concerned over the return of the junta-era tactics such as using vigilantes during the elections, though they reserve their most serious concerns for a potential outbreak of communal violence between Buddhists and the Muslim minority. Such outbreaks have led to dozens of deaths in western and central parts of the country since 2012.
“The military ideology is that the generals never bow to their opponents,” said Myat Ko Ko, a co-founder of Rangoon School of Political Science. He added, however, that the use of the thugs had now tarnished the image of Thein Sein’s government. “The government did not factor in how the use of Swan Arr Shin would dent its public image or its projected reform agenda,” he said.
In July, the government announced that it plans to hire an additional 40,000 police officers on a three-month basis to provide security at polling stations across Burma during the elections. A senior officer told local media that recruits should be “[in] good health, high school graduates aged from age 18 to 60, with a clean record and no connection to a political party.”
The plan has raised concerns with some independent observers, who privately said they fear “Swan Arr Shin-types” will be recruited for the work.
Nyan Win, a NLD spokesman, said it was likely that the election process would run smoothly as it formed part of the army and ruling party’s carefully planned democratic transition. “We don’t anticipate any chaos or violence, but at the same time we don’t rule out anything. We will wait and observe the whole process with caution,” he said.
USDP lawmaker Thar Win said the vigilantes had nothing to do with his party and he sought to assuage concerns over potential disturbances during the elections. “I am positive that the transition will continue as peacefully as it started,” he said.
Report by Swe Win
This article was originally published by Myanmar Now on 6 August 2015.