By Ed Cropley
BANGKOK, Aug 28 (Reuters) - Rather than stir up memories of their bloody 1988 crackdown by putting troops on the streets, Myanmar's junta is relying on gangs of paid thugs and criminals armed with brooms and spades to crush a rare outbreak of dissent.
Accurately predicting public anger at this month's shock fuel price rises, the rulers of the former Burma released hundreds -- maybe thousands -- of prisoners to clear the decks for mass arrests, diplomats and exiled dissidents said on Tuesday.
Happily for the generals, those booted out of Yangon's fetid cells also made perfect recruits for the shadowy Swan Aah Shin, or "capable strong person", organisation which has emerged as the junta's main weapon against protesters.
"It's an underground organisation and I don't know who would admit to it existing, but it exists and it exists in force, and it has been evident over the last week," said one diplomat who watched the Swan Aah Shin in action on the streets of Yangon.
A Reuters reporter at the scene of what was probably a Swan Aah Shin gang detaining 30 members of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) last week was ordered not to take photographs and then chased away.
"Basically, they are junta-backed thugs. They come from anywhere, and are the unemployed underclass. And they've been really effective -- they are threatening," the diplomat said.
"Everywhere you go, there are groups and truckloads of grubby-looking men looking bored and looking for a fight."
In 1988, by contrast, the junta sent in the troops to crush a nationwide uprising of students, monks and civil servants. As many as 3,000 are thought to have been killed in a bloodbath still etched deep in people's memories.
A Home (Interior) Ministry source said the Swan Aah Shin took orders from the junta's feared Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), a social network claiming official membership of 23 million -- or nearly half the population.
Whereas the Swan Aah Shin operate mainly in Yangon, a city of 5 million people, the USDA and its network of activists and informants are the generals' eyes and ears in the provinces, analysts say.
The pictures in state media of USDA officials doing daily good deeds, and its stated aim to "uplift the morale and morality of the entire nation", lead many to think it is being groomed as the army's political party should elections ever be held.
The junta allowed elections in 1990 in a bid to shore up its authority after the 1988 uprising, but the plan backfired when the NLD won a massive landslide under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of independence hero Aung San.
The generals ignored the results, and Suu Kyi -- subsequently awarded the Nobel peace prize -- has spent most of the last 17 years in jail or under house arrest.
Amid international criticism of the latest crackdown, in which about 60 people have been detained, human rights groups have singled out the use of civilian militias as evidence of a more sophisticated approach to stifling dissent.
The Democratic Voice of Burma, a dissident news service based in Norway, played dramatic secretly filmed footage of a gang dragging away social activist Htin Kyaw and a colleague after their attempt to stage a protest at a bus stop.
"Had the authorities wished, they could have sent uniformed police officers to make an arrest," the Asian Human Rights Commission said of the footage.
Instead, they chose to order an unknown gang to "grab and drag off their quarry in the manner of criminals", the Hong Kong-based group added.