Myanmar unrest pushes hapless police into firing line

Ill-equipped and poorly trained officers face growing fury after botched raid on copper mine protesters and religious riots that left 43 dead

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 April, 2013, 2:02am


After decades in the shadow of the military, Myanmar's ragtag police force has found itself thrust onto the security frontline and under fire for failing to stop a wave of religious unrest.

Under the former junta that ruled the country for almost half a century, any sign of unrest was quickly quelled by soldiers.

But since a new reformist government took power two years ago, the job of maintaining order has been largely left to police who lack basic equipment and only have about a year of training.

"The police were never well-equipped," said an officer with 20 years in the force who did not want to be named.

"Under the military government, nobody cared about the police," the officer said. "Still they don't care now, but we're the first to be blamed when something happens even though we tried our best to protect the people."

They don't care now, but we're the first to be blamed when something happens even though we tried our best to protect the people

The challenges are immense in a society testing the limits of its new-found freedoms, including the right to protest.

A botched raid on a demonstration at a copper mine in November sparked an outpouring of anger after police used phosphorus against protesters in the harshest crackdown since the end of military rule.

Dozens of monks and villagers were injured in the incident at the Chinese-backed Letpadaung mine - a disastrous outcome that analysts blame mainly on incompetence.

"They had no equipment or training for appropriate riot control, took what they thought were harmless smoke grenades from some military arsenal, and learned the hard way that they contained phosphorus," said Jim Della-Giacoma, a Myanmar expert at the International Crisis Group think-tank.

When police also used water cannon, the phosphorus turned into phosphoric acid, causing severe burns. The police have also been accused of failing to act - or even complicity - in several episodes of sectarian violence since last year.

In the western state of Rakhine last year, Human Rights Watch accused the police and other security forces of killings and other abuses against stateless Rohingya Muslims.

The New York-based rights watchdog has also urged the government to investigate the failure of police to stop a fresh wave of Buddhist-Muslim violence in Meiktila, central Myanmar, that left 43 people dead last month.

The police "just stood and watched", said local opposition MP Win Htein. "I don't know whether the police didn't do anything because they didn't receive any order from above or if they were slow to respond because they were blamed for the crackdown at the Letpadaung copper mine," he said.

In both Rakhine and Meiktila, the government later declared a state of emergency for the affected areas and sent in government troops after police and other local security forces failed to stem the bloodshed.

"Most of the police forces in the local towns are not trained as a riot police," President Thein Sein's spokesman Ye Htut said.

"When a mob is coming in five or six places at the same time they can't control the situation."

The European Union has offered training programmes, drawing on past experience helping forces elsewhere in the world.

Former general Thein Sein is credited with a string of dramatic political reforms including the release of political prisoners and welcoming the opposition into mainstream politics.

Now his government must also ensure that the police are well equipped and organised with a clear mandate and standard operating procedures, said Della-Giacoma.

To win people's trust will also require the police "to truly shed their authoritarian mindset and become more of a police service rather than a force", he said.