Introduced in 2013, Myanmar’s Tourist Police Force has grown to nearly 400 officers, but they can’t be found at some tourist scam hotspots and lack the powers to investigate crime.
By HEIN KO SOE | FRONTIER
YOU MAY have seen them, lurking in the corners of Shwedagon Pagoda or other landmarks. But you probably didn’t, because most of the time they’re not in uniform.
Tourist police were introduced to Myanmar in 2013, with the creation of a Tourist Police Department within the Myanmar Police Force. The department has three aims: to provide security for the country’s growing number of foreign tourists, to ensure they follows the laws and other rules, and to prevent transnational crime.
Unlike other police departments, though, such as Highway Police or Forest Police, the Tourist Police have no powers to investigate.
With 390 members, the department has the resources to staff only the most popular tourism sites.
When Frontier visited the Tourist Police Force head office for Yangon Region, on Pansodan Road, there were no officers present who were authorised to speak to the media. “We can’t answer your questions. The captain might answer, but he’s not here,” we were told.
The Yangon head office has eight police, including two women, one of whom answers the phones. Only one of the eight wears a uniform; the rest are plain clothed.
Unsurprisingly, Shwedagon Pagoda has a relatively large contingent of tourist police, with five officers stationed at the site led by a police second lieutenant.
“We are taking security for tourists all the time,” said one officer at Shwedagon, who asked not to be named. “If there’s a problem we work together with other police departments, but we don’t do the investigation.”
He said there had been few criminal incidents involving tourists. Most of the time the Tourist Police Force help to recover lost property.
The officer was previously based at Tarmwe Township and transferred to the Tourist Police when it was set up. He received English training to help communicate with tourists, but said he still had difficulty conversing with foreigners. “Some officers can do it, they learnt the language easily and can speak to tourists,” he said.
One hotspot for incidents involving tourists is Dala Township, across the river from downtown Yangon. Many visitors take the ferry across the river and then explore the Dala area, which, despite its proximity to the downtown area, feels more rural than urban. It is also home to some famous temples and on the road to Twante, which is renowned for its pottery industry.
Residents are known to take advantage of visiting foreigners, however, by significantly overcharging them for trishaw or motorbike rides, or pressuring them to make expensive “donations”. Some wait at the Dala Ferry Terminal pretending to be “official tour guides”, but are actually touts who scam visitors.
In November 2015, a Myanmar Times journalist recounted being charged K36,000 for a trishaw ride after negotiating a K4,500 fee – after having already having been stung for a “small donation of rice for the poor” that turned out to be a K40,000 bag.
Those who refuse to pay are often threatened. Tourist police said they were aware of the problem, and it was a common source of complaints.
However, they’ve done little about it. When Frontier visited Dala, there was no sign of any Tourist Police Force presence. Resident Ko Soe Soe said disputes over motorbike and trishaw fares were common, but it was also not known for residents to invite foreign visitors into their homes and then demand large sums of money.
“There are so many cheaters living in Dala because this area is the point where five rural townships connect to Yangon,” he said.
He said he’d never seen any Tourist Police in Dala. “I’ve seen so many disputes but there’s nowhere for tourists to go to get help – there’s no Tourist Police office or information centre.”
When Frontier visited, there was no sign of the notorious touts. A fleet of seven trishaws was waiting for a group of package tourists from Malaysia, ready to take them on a short tour of the countryside.
Trishaw driver Ko Tu Tu said he regularly took tourists around Dala but there were rarely any problems.
“Sometimes they go to areas where people who lost their homes in Cyclone Nargis live and then make a donation,” he said. “If there’s a dispute over a fare, we explain to them and the problem is normally easy to solve.”
But tourist police are not just there to keep foreigners safe: they’re also tasked with keeping Myanmar safe from foreign criminals, said Police Captain Hla Myint, who works in the Tourist Police Force office in Mandalay.
“We are here to support the tourism industry by ensuring the security of tourists and public security, too,” he said, adding that Tourist Police officers needed more training to improve their language skills.
U Aung Din, chairman of travel company Nature Lovers, said the issue of security is gaining in importance as tourist arrivals to Myanmar increase.
He said it was important that tourist police know the relevant laws but also do not intimidate tourists.
“We don’t have enough tourist police but at the same time it’s important that they don’t just go following tourists around while in uniform,” he said. “Most tourists don’t like it.”
This article originally appeared as part of Discover Myanmar, Frontier’s special report on the tourism industry. Top photo: Tourist police watch over foreign visitors at Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda. (Theint Mon Soe — J / Frontier)