BANGKOK The broom-wielding gangs that broke up fuel price protests in Myanmar were taking direct orders from the ruling junta, which now appears to favour them as a way to crush dissent, rights groups and diplomats said on Thursday.
The Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) said it had documents proving military and civilian officials had explicit guidelines on how to mobilise and run the Swan-ar Shin heavies used to quash this month's rare outbreak of protests.
In one of the documents, a mid-ranking military officer even talks of the need for proper record-keeping and training courses to ensure "more effective and systematic use" of the Swan-ar Shin, which roughly translates as "Masters of Force".
"They are describing in some detail how they have organised and used these gangs for the purposes of attacking people," AHRC director Basil Fernando said.
The Swan-ar Shin is merely the latest means the junta employs to control the former Burma's 53 million people.
Throughout most of its 45 years of unbroken rule, the military relied first and foremost on the internal spies of Military Intelligence, or MI, a web of informants built up by Prime Minister Khin Nyunt, who was purged in 2004.
When MI failed to keep a lid on protests, as happened with a mass uprising of monks, students and civil servants in 1988, the generals sent in the army, which killed as many as 3,000 people in a ruthless crackdown.
The mid-1990s saw the emergence of the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), a pro-junta social network claiming an official membership of 23 million, to act as the junta's eyes and ears in the provinces.
However, it was the attack on opposition leader and Nobel laurete Aung San Suu Kyi in fields outside the town of Depayin in 2003 that marked the Swan-ar Shin's entry into the fray.
The junta says four people died in clashes with Suu Kyi supporters at Depayin. Human rights groups say as many as 70 people were killed in a carefully planned night-time ambush by hundreds of men wielding sharpened bamboo staffs.
"Depayin represented the birth of a vigilante force used specifically to beat up and kill peaceful demonstrators," a Western diplomat in Yangon said.
Since then -- and with MI in relative disarray after Khin Nyunt's removal -- it has been called upon more and more to control dissent, especially the sporadic outbreaks of public anger which started last year over declining living standards.
The decision to use civilian gangs rather than police appears to be a deliberate but barely credible tactic to distance the authorities from the clampdown, the diplomat said.
"When they attacked the demonstrators and started dragging them away, they were shouting 'We're doing this for the people', and there were people in the crowd shouting back, 'No you're not. Don't speak for us.'," the diplomat said.