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EU not responsible for Letpadan police crackdown, says ambassador

Students, their supporters and bystanders were arrested during the police crackdown on the student protest in Letpadan. (Photo: DVB)

The European Union (EU) ambassador to Burma, Roland Kobia, told journalists in Rangoon on Thursday that the EU regretted the events in which riot police cracked down violently on students’ protests in Letpadan in March, but denied that the EU was responsible.

Speaking at a Europe Day event at the EU office in Rangoon’s Kamayut Township, Ambassador Kobia said the EU only trained some 4,000 of more than 70,000 police personnel in Burma, officially known as Myanmar.

Noting that he anticipated a question from reporters about police brutality, he responded to a DVB reporter, saying, “The first thing I need to say is that the Myanmar police and the Myanmar army are the police and army of Myanmar. It is not the EU army or the EU police … We have been requested, and acting upon [that] request, from your government and from the NLD [opposition party the National League for Democracy], the two of them asked us: ‘Please help us to reform the police, because the police needs to be reformed’. I think everybody agrees with that, including the police – which is a good thing.

“We knew it would be difficult, because security sector reform, not only in Myanmar, but everywhere, is very complex. It’s not a small project like building a bridge or renovating a school.”

Kobia said he found it “strange” that many reports were, in his words, “shooting at the ambulance”, meaning that the EU had come to help and were now being targeted as the villains.

“This was a pilot project, a small project aimed at testing if it was necessary or useful to reform the police sector,” he continued. “But it was a small project; we were not requested to reform the whole police [force]. We have trained a number of policemen – about 4,000, out of about 70,000. So, a very small number.

Kobia went on to draw a distinction between the behaviour of those police officers who were trained by the EU from those who were not.

“What we have seen – notably in the events of March – is that those who have been trained by the EU have behaved very well. We even have pictures of certain policemen taking those who were hitting, and taking them back saying, ‘No, don’t do that. This is not what we have learnt’.

“But those who have not been trained have maybe behaved in a bad manner, and I agree with you that what has happened was bad. And we have expressed … concern that this is not something that we want to see; this is not something we like; this is unacceptable – to start hitting people who are on the ground. This is certainly not what the EU has been teaching; certainly not,” he emphasised.

Kobia noted to reporters that the EU trainers had held an open day where journalists were invited and could see the training techniques.

“I can be loud and clear – what we are teaching to the police is to be respectful of the people and to protect the people,” he reiterated.

He added that the EU had introduced “community policing” and had advocated the use of policemen using bicycles on patrol instead of jeeps. He said that this was the “spirit” of the training, as well as to educate the police to be “more respectful, more friendly” to the public.

“Of course they [the police] have a job to do. If there is a crowd that is aggressive, they need to ensure law and order,” he said. “But they need to do it in the way that we have been teaching.

He said the EU had not equipped Burma’s police with batons and had not offered instruction on how to hit people. “I think they did not need any teaching for that,” he said. “They knew how to do it before [we arrived]. On the contrary, we have said, ‘Listen, you need to use modern techniques of policing’.”

He referred to the violence in March at Letpadan as “unfortunate” and said that the EU regretted it. “Thank God there was nobody who was very seriously hurt or died, so that was good compared to the past; because in the past, people were dying.

“But we need to correct this and we need to work with the police and maybe train more policemen.

“So I ask you,” he said to the DVB reporter, “because there was an accident, should we stop reforming the police and leave the police untrained? Or should we continue training to try to educate them better?

“We should continue,” he concluded.

The EU’s 18-month crowd control training programme for police was launched in 2013 with a 10 million euro (US$11 million) budget.

According to an EU press release in February 2014, the programme aimed to “improve the human rights performance of the Myanmar Police Force and initiate the development of a police service that respects and protect democratic rights of citizens.”