for not informed readers “The anatomy of thuggery”

When a group of Buddhist monks in Pakokku, upper Burma, a fortnight ago joined public protests against drastic increases in nationwide fuel prices, they were met with shocking violence. At least three suffered injuries; one is rumored to have died.

Afterwards, some decided to go after the ringleaders of the gang responsible for the assault. They knew exactly which shops and houses to visit. There was no secret about who was involved. Like everywhere else in the country, the gang leaders are locally known and established.

Want to get a gang together on short notice in downtown Rangoon? Just call up the nearest township leader. Where? Let’s say Bahan. There it’s U Min Htun, a 45-year-old trader residing in 38th Street. Or try his deputy, U Naing Tint Khaing, who can be reached at his office. How about Mayangone? Ironically, the person in charge there, U Soe Aung, is a law student. Need someone in Hlaing? Kyauktada? Sanchaung? No problem: names, phone numbers and other details are all available on lists that have been compiled and kept by township councils, with orders and training from above.

But while the identities of the people managing and deploying the thugs that have for the last month been photographed and videotaped beating people to the ground before dragging them to waiting Dyna light trucks are not a mystery to anyone in Burma, among foreign correspondents and others abroad there remains some misunderstanding.

The gangs have been variously described as pro-government groups, militias, and paramilitaries. All of these names wrongly attribute some autonomy to the persons both directing and joining them. They are not in any way self-organizing. Rather, they are part of a comprehensive survival strategy devised by the military regime, one that is at least for now putting uniformed soldiers at the rear, rather than frontline, of defense.

The authorities in Burma have been experimenting with mob violence for some time. In 1994 the supreme commander, Senior General Than Shwe, admitted that his government had set up the Union Solidarity and Development Association the year before with a view to preventing popular uprisings of the sort that occurred in 1988. The army has been training the group’s members since at least 1996, when thugs first emerged to assail a motorcade of political party leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, smashing car windows and waving iron rods under the watch of police and soldiers.

In 2003, around 5,000 men attacked another convoy carrying the Nobel peace prize laureate at Depayin, in upper Burma, killing at least four persons and injuring dozens. The regime described the violence as a fracas between two groups of civilians, and blamed the latter. continue

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