The image of Myanmar’s police has sunk to new lows due to brutal crackdowns on protesters, but some insiders have blamed much of the violence on soldiers and paramilitary thugs masquerading as police.
As mass protests fanned across Myanmar in early February, security forces largely showed restraint. Outside of a handful of notorious killings, demonstrations were allowed to swell to hundreds of thousands of participants, move between neighbourhoods and conclude peacefully.
In late February, however, joint teams of police and soldiers began violently dispersing protests at the outset, using battlefield weapons. To date, more than 730 civilians have been killed by security forces. Savage beatings and deaths in custody have also become common, alongside clearly recorded instances of security forces looting shops and vandalising private property.
This increasing brutality, which appears calculated to instil terror, has brought the reputation of the Myanmar Police Force to new lows. Although the army’s record of human rights abuses in the borderlands have excluded it from most forms of international engagement, the police were subject to reform efforts since 2012 that were supported by various donor countries, even though the force remained under the military-run home affairs ministry. This support included training, via the European Union-backed MYPOL project, in more humane methods of policing protests and maintaining public order.
These methods appear to have been quickly forgotten amid the military regime’s determination to crush the protest movement. Although the junta has repeatedly said that its security forces are using standard procedures for dispersing protests – and has spread ill-supported conspiracy theories in attempts to evade blame for the killings – the police quickly dispensed with water cannon and other methods that are less likely to be fatal.
However, members of the police force told Frontier their image is being tarnished by Tatmadaw soldiers and civilian thugs deployed in police clothing, who have showed greater bloodlust than conventional police officers. Sources also admitted that trigger-happy new police recruits are a problem, as well as overstretched police units that have exhausted themselves trying to contain protests week after week.
Ko Pyae Sone, a former police corporal in Mandalay Region, told Frontier that the use of life-threatening force against protesters, including the firing of live rounds, differed sharply from what he was taught under the EU-funded MYPOL project. The 30-million-euro project began in 2016 at the invitation of the civilian government, following a similar EU-supported project begun in 2013. Besides crowd-control training, it involved sessions on community policing, criminal investigations and media outreach.
“It’s not that live rounds should never be used; in an uncontrollable situation we are allowed to shoot,” said the former corporal, who has defected from the force to join the Civil Disobedience Movement against military rule. “But even then, police are trained to aim for low parts of the body. Now, everybody knows that soldiers are using sniper rifles,” he said, referring to the high number of protesters killed as a result of head shots.
Pyae Sone said the MYPOL programme taught a gradually escalating approach to dispersing protests, beginning with water cannon, then tear gas, and finally, rubber bullets. In the event an officer is attacked by protesters armed with deadly weapons, they can respond with lethal force, according to the programme. However, since late February, the security forces have in many cases resorted immediately to lethal force.
Pyae Sone’s account of his training seems to contradict what an un-named EU source told The Guardian: that “Mypol did not provide training in progressive use of force or use of weapons” and included only defensive techniques for dispersing protests.
Frontier sought clarification from MYPOL through several channels but received no response by press time. A notice on the MYPOL website dated February 18 announced that the project had been “put on hold” because the “military take-over of government” meant “conditions are no longer in place for the project to operate and achieve the desired results”. All other information on the website, which included project information, updates and photos, has been removed since the coup.
Pyae Sone and four other members of the force, including a police major, told Frontier that one reason for the apparent deviation from training and humane principles is that many of the people engaged in brutality aren’t actually police officers, despite being badged as such.
They said that in a typical deployment of about 50 police officers at a protest, the number of actual police would often not exceed 20. They said imposters are easy to spot because they are not wearing standard police uniform.
The standard uniform includes a tightly-fitted blue shirt, a jungle hat or black cap with a police badge, a star on the collar, an MPF logo on the sleeve and black leather boots, while riot-control officers wear camouflage helmets. However, the units sent to crush protests include men in the loose shirts worn at police training school and in the uniforms worn by election police, who were temporarily appointed to secure polling stations last November. They have also been seen wearing the jungle boots and dark green helmets with a white star that are commonly worn by soldiers.
The five police officers interviewed by Frontier said more than 40,000 uniforms were specially made for people recruited to serve as election police, some of which have been worn by what they called “fake police” at recent protests throughout Myanmar.
“I served in the police force for nearly 10 years. When I see them, I can easily tell the difference between real and fake police. The way they wear their uniforms and their behaviour reveals who they really are,” said Ko Hein Htet, a low-ranking officer who served in the Border Guard Police at Maungdaw Township in Rakhine State until March 2, when he joined the Civil Disobedience Movement.
A police lieutenant in Mandalay Region, who asked not to be named, said that at a demonstration in the first week of March, “Right before my eyes, I saw a group of men wearing police uniforms who were advancing towards protesters. But they were not police at all; they were soldiers.”
He added that, besides members of the army, he had also seen recruits of a pro-military paramilitary force known as Swan Arr Shin (“Masters of Force”) – who rose to notoriety for their violent attacks on the monk-led protests in 2007 – wearing police uniforms in recent confrontations with protesters.
The police lieutenant said the soldiers and paramilitary thugs had been mobilised in police dress because the military regime did not fully trust the police to be brutal enough. “There might be some [real] police doing such things, but they are few,” he said.
The police who are guilty of brutality are often new recruits who lack frontline experience and “want to use their guns”, Hein Htet said.
Pyae Sone said this inexperience was sometimes compounded by fatigue and impatience when confronted with defiant protesters week after week. He said even senior police officers complain of being “exhausted” and think they can “rest and live normally if there are no protesters anymore” – an expectation that might push them to use greater force.
Pyae Sone said the same sentiment motivated the brutal police crackdown on a cross-country march for education reform that was halted at Letpadan in Bago Region in March 2015. Pyae Sone, who was among the police at Letpadan, said his commanding officer had declared exhaustion before ordering the assault on peaceful student demonstrators.
A Yangon Region police officer who requested anonymity said understaffing contributed greatly to the exhaustion felt by police deployed at protests, and also led to the deployment of personnel who are not properly trained for the role. “Because there are not enough officers to disperse the protesters, they had to use railway and tourist police. Even then, the strength was not enough,” he said.
The United Nations recommends a ratio of one police officer for every 450 people. The Myanmar force is estimated to be between 80,000 and 90,000 strong, though Frontier was unable to confirm a figure. The upper limit of this estimate would entail one police officer for every 600 people among Myanmar’s population of 54 million, but the ratio is higher in urban areas. The Yangon officer said the regional force has nearly 10,000 personnel, including railways and airport police – a ratio of one officer for every 700 residents.
A retired information officer for the police, who asked not to be named, said some police might also be motivated to brutal violence by indoctrination. He said that propaganda on state and military-owned media is aimed at security force members at least as much as the general public. Police and soldiers, he claimed, were ordered to watch the 8pm news on regime-controlled outlets every day without fail.
He added that the current nationwide shutdown of mobile internet and public Wi-Fi services is largely motivated by a desire to keep lower-ranking soldiers and police officers in the dark about what is happening in the country.
“You think the military council wants to keep the general public from using the internet?” he said. “That’s wrong. They switched off mobile internet and Wi-Fi to prevent a mutiny among the troops when they learn the truth.”
The police inspector from Mandalay Region said officers who took pride in their profession should expose the “fake police” who are giving the force a bad name.
The retired police information officer claimed that outrage over these imposters had helped to motivate officers to join the Civil Disobedience Movement, although many were chiefly driven by a reluctance to follow orders to use lethal force against protesters, or a desire to relieve themselves and their families of the stigma now attached to the police.
He said that by mid-April, more than 2,900 members of the force had broken ranks and joined the CDM, although Frontier couldn’t verify this figure and other estimates are far lower.
One major deterrent to breaking ranks is the Myanmar Police Force Maintenance of Discipline Law, under which any member who deserts and joins the resistance would be liable for a maximum penalty of three years’ imprisonment. Although the law was formally revoked on March 7 by the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, which represents the ousted civilian government, the group is currently unable to protect defecting officers.
Some also suspect a worse fate than a few years’ imprisonment if caught by the junta. Two officers who have joined the CDM and are now in hiding told Frontier they would join the Karen National Union, an ethnic armed group based along the southeastern border with Thailand, if they felt their lives were in danger.
Hein Htet, who is one of those officers, said potential defectors need to carefully consider where they are based, because it may determine the possibility of a safe escape. The closer a defector is to an international border or a territory controlled by a non-state armed group, the easier it is to safely defect, he said. Although he had made his way overland to Mandalay after deserting his post in northern Rakhine, he said four police officers who left with him were caught in the state capital Sittwe. Another officer in the group is now in KNU territory.
“If the revolution fails, I will never return to the police force,” Hein Htet said. “But I believe the people will win soon.”