On June 15 a man in upper Burma emerged from a crowd to smash another in the face with knuckledusters. Then he ran off and hid in the office of an organization under the patronage of the country’s senior army commander.
The identity of the assailant remains unknown. Police officers called to the scene were denied entry to the office, even though they have the right to search any premises in pursuit of an alleged criminal.
The victim was 70-year-old U Than Lwin (above right), a parliamentarian from the 1990 annulled general election. He had just led a small group of local residents in prayer, as part of a peaceable nationwide campaign for the release of political prisoners.
Than Lwin and his colleagues had informed the trustees of pagodas in Mettaya that they would come that morning, and they had not been refused access. So they were apparently taken by surprise at the crowds of thugs hanging around the entrances to each compound. Hoping to avoid a disturbance, they instead went to a nearby monastery. Only after praying did they see that the gangs had come to wait there too, where Than Lwin had his nose and cheek busted.
The assault on Than Lwin speaks to how the military government is itself systematically undermining the law and order that it claims ad nauseam to uphold, and upon which it has based its mandate since assuming power almost two decades ago.
That the mobs were not there by coincidence is obvious. The regime has used them in the past: notably for the murderous attack on a convoy carrying the Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters at Depayin in 2003. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that these groups are being incorporated into the routine surveillance and day-to-day intimidating of people throughout the country.
In a statement issued this week, the Asian Human Rights Commission said that it has documentary evidence of how the gangs, referred to as “swan-ar-shin” are being mobilized through township councils and government-backed groups. Members are being recruited in local markets, where store holders are obliged to stay on good terms with the councils that issue them trading permits. Their collective name speaks explicitly to their purpose: “swan-ar” is physical strength or force; “-shin” indicates someone who has mastered a quality or thing.
There is a big difference between the use of persons in uniform and those in plain clothes to assault and detain citizens. In the former case, there is at least acknowledgement of the state’s role, and some necessity to justify it; in the latter there is only its denial. In the former, the state is asserting its prerogative, rightly or wrongly, as the sole proprietor of legitimate violence; in the latter it is inviting unidentified others to share in it. In the former there is a minimum degree of certainty about accepted and proscribed actions and their consequences; in the latter there is only inconstancy.
The organizing of thugs to do the work of police and soldiers thus poses a grave threat to a society, and not least of all one that is already tightly restricted, where targets of attacks have little if any means of defense or subsequent recourse. It opens the door to the worst types of atrocities, and presages further wearing away of the rudiments of criminal procedure.
The generals have enough soldiers, police, firemen, municipal officers, militias and other assorted security forces together with a miscellany of laws and regulations to manifest their continued control; they need the gangs to confuse and exhaust people, to provoke anxiety and doubt, and to co-opt more ordinary citizens into their own debasement.
But no matter what the army does, it will always encounter resistance. Even in the darkest hours under the most oppressive dictatorships some persons fight to preserve their own dignity, and with it, give cause for hope to others. After almost twenty years Than Lwin and his friends have not given up their struggle. Behind them, this regime must know, are thousands more who could be motivated to defy its will if the chances of success appear to outweigh the risks.
The unidentified assailant in Mettaya was not just a tough with a steel fist; he was the specter of arbitrary violence conjured up behind some 50 million people, to keep them in their places. Whereas the regime’s central concern could at one time have been properly described as adherence to order, with or without law, this no longer holds true. Through knuckledusters it is indicating its preparedness to depart from even this limited notion of legality where it serves its topmost objective: the retaining of power in one form or another, no matter the consequences.
AHRC AS-125-2007: BURMA: Worrying resurgence of government-backed goon squads