Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Myanmar's Police Forces: Coercion, Continuity and Change

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Myanmar's Police Forces: Coercion, Continuity and Change

Article excerpt

The Police department has always been and will always be one of the most important branches of administration of Burma.

   Daw Mya Sein
   The Administration of Burma (1938)

For more than half a century, whenever reference has been made to Myanmar's coercive state apparatus, it has been the armed forces (or Tatmadaw) which have immediately sprung to mind. (2) This is hardly surprising. After all, the country boasts the world's most durable military dictatorship. There is another institution, however, that was once even more important and, arguably, is starting to recover its former role in Myanmar's internal affairs. This is the country's national police, currently organized as the Myanmar Police Force (MPF).

Since the coup d'etat in 1962 that brought General Ne Win to power, the armed forces have come to dominate almost every aspect of Myanmar society. In addition, over the past twenty years the Tatmadaw has been expanded and modernized. Estimates of its current size vary greatly, from less than 300,000 to more than 500,000. (3) Whatever figure is used, however, it is probably still the second largest armed force in Southeast Asia, after that of Vietnam. For fifty years, it has been the primary coercive arm of Myanmar's central government. Its troops have been deployed not only to combat armed insurgents and narcotics warlords in the countryside, but also to enforce the regime's edicts and crush civil unrest in urban centres. Continued military rule has also been made possible by a powerful intelligence system. Notwithstanding a new constitution in 2008 and the "election" of an apparently reform-minded government in 2010, the armed forces remain the ultimate arbiters of power in Myanmar. (4)

Throughout this period, the police have received little publicity. From time to time, there have been references in Myanmar's state-controlled news media to police campaigns against crime in the cities and police involvement in rural anti-narcotics operations. There have been occasional reports in the local press of police corruption and abuses. Rarely, however, has the force itself excited much attention, either in Myanmar or further afield. There have been a few passing mentions in the academic literature but descriptions in reference books have generally been out of date or inaccurate. (5) Similarly, estimates of the MPF's size have failed to keep pace with its growth. (6) International human rights groups have highlighted the activities of the force's paramilitary units and the role of Special Branch, which have played a part in the detention and interrogation of dissidents. Even then, however, little attention has been paid to the police force as a national institution.

That situation is now changing. Myanmar's police force is gradually being recognized as a large, increasingly powerful and influential organization that is likely to become a key instrument of reform and control under the hybrid civilian-military government that was formally inaugurated in Naypyidaw in March 2011.

Development and Roles

Over the past 180 years, the size, structure and effectiveness of Myanmar's police forces have varied greatly. Whether they have been under British, Japanese or Myanmar control, however, they have always played an important role in the country's administration and national security.

During the colonial period, the police were essential for British rule. The conquest of Myanmar (then known as Burma) in three wars between 1826 and 1885 was carried out by regular soldiers of the East India Company, British India and the United Kingdom itself. (7) The army also assisted in the "pacification" of Myanmar after the fall of Mandalay, and was called upon to help crush the so-called Saya San rebellion in the 1930s. Yet, it was the province's police forces that were responsible for day-to-day enforcement of colonial rule, maintenance of law and order--as defined by various officials in Rangoon, Calcutta and London--for supporting the civil administration, and protecting the commercial ventures which soon established themselves in Britain's rich new possession. …

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