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Brutal police crackdowns on student protestors in Rangoon and Letpadan last month were aided by civilian thugs, dressed in white shirts and sporting red arm bands emblazoned with the Burmese word dar-win, meaning “duty”.
The men, young and seemingly from underprivileged backgrounds, recalled the image of the Swan Arr Shin— paramilitaries once formed ad-hoc to serve as the junkyard dogs of the former military regime.
On this week’s episode of DVB Debate, panellists are asked whether the March violence and intimidation is in keeping with the current Burmese government’s promise of reform. Was the heavy-handed response by police and their civilian supporters lawful?
Poet Mhu Thit believes that whether lawful or not, the use of violence cannot be justified. “This is inhumane violence,” he began. “If this [is] lawful, then it is a big problem for the country.”
In Rangoon on 5 March, five students and three members of the 88 Generation were arrested and trucked away by police, after officers and organised civilian vigilantes had bludgeoned and harried the young education reform demonstrators and their supporters. One of the arrestees, released the following day, was women’s rights activist Nilar Thein. DVB footage shows the ’88 Generation student receiving baton blows as she attempts to protect others.
At Letpadan five days later, 127 activists were arrested. Seventy remain in Tharawaddy prison, facing charges including unlawful assembly, ignoring an instruction to disperse, and causing offense to the state or public tranquillity.
DVB Debate panellist Dr Nyo Nyo Thein, an elected representative in Rangoon’s divisional parliament, believes the action debunks the Naypyidaw’s stated commitment to democracy.“The students have the democratic attitude,” she said. “But the so-called democratically elected government does not think the same.”
In the aftermath of the violence, the office of President Thein Sein was quick to point out that the use of civilians to aid police operations is grounded in law. The government referred to Articles 127 and 128 of The Code of Criminal Procedures, a colonial era document, which warrant the use of a “civilian force” to disperse an assembly.
Attorney Aung Soe Oo acknowledged the articles, but argued that they did not provide legal grounds for the police conduct at Rangoon or Letpadan. The lawyer stated that if the use of civilian crowd-controllers was legitimate, the decision to use them would have had to be made on the spot. “To control the riot, any unarmed man could be called on for assistance. But that must be an on-the-spot condition,” he said.
The jailings have taken the wind out the sails of students’ and reformers’ attempts to force a democratisation of the national education system. Burma’s schools are tragically underfunded and hamstrung by politically motivated rulings, such as an absence of ethnic languages being taught during class hours.
The National Education Law, widely seen to further entrench centralised control over learning, was passed by parliament in 2014. Immediately, student groups pushed hard for the law to be amended. Student unions began organising protests late last year, with the demonstrations blooming into a nationwide push for reform. An 11-point dossier was compiled by the students and supporters including the National Network for Education Reform. Demands included an increase in education spending up to 20 percent of the national budget, legal recognition of the right to form unions, and the teaching of ethnic languages in schools.
All points were agreed upon to some extent after education ministry officials agreed to meet students and reformers in Naypyidaw in February. Yet when a watered-down amendment bill was presented to Burma’s upper house, students reignited their protest.
Writer Ko Zaw suggested that the students may have been better served by containing their demonstrations. “The students placed too much focus on coming to Yangon [Rangoon],” he said. “Why did they want to gather more people after they achieved their demands?”
Theini Oo, of civil society organisation the Forum Coordination Committee, had an answer.
“The government broke the agreement that four stakeholders signed,” said Theini Oo. “So, it was the government that changed the direction.”
DVB Debate extended an invitation for government representatives to join this week’s panel, which was refused.