When a group of Buddhist monks in Pakokku, upper Burma, a fortnight ago joined public protests against drastic increases in nationwide fuel prices, they were met with shocking violence. At least three suffered injuries; one is rumored to have died.
Afterwards, some decided to go after the ringleaders of the gang responsible for the assault. They knew exactly which shops and houses to visit. There was no secret about who was involved. Like everywhere else in the country, the gang leaders are locally known and established.
Want to get a gang together on short notice in downtown Rangoon? Just call up the nearest township leader. Where? Let’s say Bahan. There it’s U Min Htun, a 45-year-old trader residing in 38th Street. Or try his deputy, U Naing Tint Khaing, who can be reached at his office. How about Mayangone? Ironically, the person in charge there, U Soe Aung, is a law student. Need someone in Hlaing? Kyauktada? Sanchaung? No problem: names, phone numbers and other details are all available on lists that have been compiled and kept by township councils, with orders and training from above.
But while the identities of the people managing and deploying the thugs that have for the last month been photographed and videotaped beating people to the ground before dragging them to waiting Dyna light trucks are not a mystery to anyone in Burma, among foreign correspondents and others abroad there remains some misunderstanding.
The gangs have been variously described as pro-government groups, militias, and paramilitaries. All of these names wrongly attribute some autonomy to the persons both directing and joining them. They are not in any way self-organizing. Rather, they are part of a comprehensive survival strategy devised by the military regime, one that is at least for now putting uniformed soldiers at the rear, rather than frontline, of defense.
The authorities in Burma have been experimenting with mob violence for some time. In 1994 the supreme commander, Senior General Than Shwe, admitted that his government had set up the Union Solidarity and Development Association the year before with a view to preventing popular uprisings of the sort that occurred in 1988. The army has been training the group’s members since at least 1996, when thugs first emerged to assail a motorcade of political party leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, smashing car windows and waving iron rods under the watch of police and soldiers.
In 2003, around 5,000 men attacked another convoy carrying the Nobel peace prize laureate at Depayin, in upper Burma, killing at least four persons and injuring dozens. The regime described the violence as a fracas between two groups of civilians, and blamed the latter.
In the months leading up to this August, the gangs took on more explicit and regular duties, breaking up small protests against rising commodity prices, illegally detaining participants, and harassing and assaulting persons holding prayer vigils. They even protested outside Western embassies to show that they “had lost patience with alien instigation.” In each case the state media disingenuously referred to them as “concerned members of the public.”
The thugs have also been given a name, “swan-ar-shin.” Loosely translating as “masters of force,” it carries the same fascist overtones as the titles of other organized attack squads throughout world history: from the Nazi storm troopers of Kristallnacht, to the Interhamwe in Rwanda, and the Red Gaurs and other army-sponsored vigilantes that slaughtered hundreds on Oct. 6, 1976 at the heart of Bangkok.
When officials use proxies to remove themselves from direct responsibility for the harassment and butchery of their own people, they touch off profound and lasting effects.
The hundreds of thousands of lives lost during the 1965-66 mass killings in Indonesia weigh heavily upon its society today. The notion of the state as monopolizing legitimate violence was lost from that time onward, as the New Order administration routinely co-opted civilian groups to serve its political and military objectives.
When it collapsed, the army continued to use them for its dirty work, but with less control over their behavior. They have since proliferated with or without its endorsement: the product of four decades’ unrelenting bloodshed and impunity.
In the northern Indian state of Gujarat, the government oversaw a February 2002 pogrom against the Muslim minority. Carefully designed and instigated, it obliged the involvement or at least tacit approval of bureaucrats, police, firemen, doctors and lawyers, among others. Hundreds were publicly tortured and killed; thousands were wounded and raped; tens of thousands were forcibly displaced. The chief minister who presided over the savagery held a self-congratulatory parade across the worst-affected areas: he was promptly reelected; India went into denial.
Years of arbitrary violence and uncertainty in Burma have already deeply scarred millions. “The vulnerability produced by a breakdown in institutional integrity has become routine,” anthropologist Monique Skidmore has written. “Just another exigency of everyday life.”
Insecurity in turn generates mistrust, not only of institutions but of others. It pervades the most mundane exchanges, and slowly eats at the decency and simple humanity that people ordinarily bring to their day-to-day affairs.
Whatever else happens, the psychological damage caused by the calling of thugs onto Burma’s streets in the place of men in uniform will only compound the malaise already deeply felt throughout the entire country. The very least that everyone else must do — especially those interpreting and reporting the details of these events to the world — is understand properly what is happening and call the gangs for what they are, rather than how the military regime might have others see them. The monks at Pakokku had no illusions about who was responsible for the attack on their counterparts; nor should anyone else.
The Depayin massacre, article 2, vol. 2, no. 6, December 2003: http://www.article2.org/pdf/v02n06.pdf
Preliminary report of the Ad Hoc Commission on the Depayin Massacre, 4 July 2003: http://www.ibiblio.org/obl/docs/Depayin_Massacre.pdf
The white shirts: How the USDA will become the new face of Burma’s dictatorship, May 2006: http://www.ibiblio.org/obl/docs3/USDAFinal1.pdf