Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-BURMA: Whiteshirts – Junta&#39s Storm Troopers

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Sep 30 2007 (IPS) - In much the same way that Italy’s Benito Mussolini and Germany’s Adolf Hitler unleashed their respective ‘blackshirts’ and ‘brownshirts’ to terrorise dissenters, Burma’s military regime has deployed its ‘whiteshirts’ against protesting Buddhist monks and civilians.

Despite the junta&#39s brutal crackdown civilian protests continued on the weekend Credit: Myint Oo/Mizzima News

Despite the junta's brutal crackdown civilian protests continued on the weekend Credit: Myint Oo/Mizzima News

At formal events in the South-east Asian country, these storm troopers – members of the pro-government militia the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA)- appear in white, long-sleeved Burmese-style shirts and dark green sarongs.

But at other times, they appear in civilian attire and pass off as members of the public with missions that range from being the eyes and ears of Burma’s brutal military regime to using force to crush dissent. In fact, it was the USDA that the junta first turned to when former university student leaders and opposition party activists took to the streets in mid-August to protest against a sudden 500 percent spike in fuel prices.

‘’The military government used the USDA to break up these protests and to harass, intimidate and attack the unarmed civilians demonstrating against the oil price increase,’’ says Naing Aung, secretary general of the Forum for Democracy in Burma (FDB), a group made up of Burmese political exiles living in Thailand. ‘’They later went to the protestors’ homes and arrested them.’’

Similar acts of terror were on display after the junta ordered its heavily armed troops and the much feared riot police to crush public discontent that had ballooned to a popular uprising by Monday, Sep. 24, led by thousands of Buddhist monks. ‘’The USDA’s members acted like the police in plain clothes to go after the protesters,’’ Naing Aung told IPS. ‘’They worked together with the soldiers and the riot police.’’

When not abusing unarmed civilians on the streets, over the past month, the whiteshirts flexed their muscles in others areas to contain rage against the junta that had broken to the surface after nearly 20 years of silent criticism. One of its tasks was to target media outfits in the country that paint an unflattering picture of Burma, which the ruling junta renamed Myanmar years ago.

Members of the USDA were among those responsible for ‘’at least 24 serious violations of the freedom to report news and information since Aug.19,’’ states a note released by two groups, the Burma Media Association, a body made up of Burmese journalists operating outside the country, and Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF), the global media rights watchdog. The USDA men were part of a raiding party that ‘’confiscated equipment’’ from Burmese journalists working for Japanese news organisations.

Little wonder then the USDA has been on the radar of human rights monitors. A statement released in April by the global lobby Human Rights Watch (HRW) described how some 100 men ‘’carrying clubs and other home-made weapons attacked and beat Myint Naing and Maung Maung Lay, members of Human Rights Defenders and Promoters,’’ in a village 100 km north-west of Rangoon. ‘’The attacks were carried out by members of the USDA.’’

One event that earned this paramilitary group international notoriety was the May 2003 attack on pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and members of her opposition National League for Democracy (NLD). The brutality unleashed by an estimated 2,000 pro-government thugs while Suu Kyi and her party leaders were campaigning in Depayin, upper Burma, led to some 70 deaths and hundreds of injuries.

But, after the ‘’Depayin massacre,’’ as pro-democracy groups describe the violence, it was Nobel Peace laureate Suu Kyi and her colleagues who got arrested while the whiteshirts got away. Suu Kyi has been under house arrest since then, recording a total of 11 years in incarceration over the past 19 years.

Officially, however, the USDA is presented with a lily-white image ever since it was created in 1993 by Burma strongman senior Gen. Than Shwe. The Burmese public has been told that the USDA is a ‘’social welfare organisation’’ with a development mission for the good of all citizens, according to a study released in May 2006 by the Network for Democracy and Development, a group of Burmese political activists living in exile.

‘’The USDA has managed to insert itself into the distribution of aid and assistance by NGOs (non-governmental organisations),’’ adds the study. ‘’The USDA further functions to provide high attendance levels at mass rallies held in support of the (junta’s) policies or in denunciation of the opposition or international community.’’

Burmese citizens within the country that IPS spoke with earlier this year admitted that coercion was often used by local USDA officials to force members to join the paramilitary group. It has an estimated membership of some 23 million across the country has public servants, teachers, local officials and even high school students.

Till the recent bloody crackdown – in which protesters including Buddhist monks, have been killed, beaten and arrested – the junta had set about promoting the USDA as the ‘’political face’’ of the regime.

Its reach and organisational structure, spanning Burma’s villages, townships, divisions and cities, was considered pivotal in the regime’s design to have the USDA serve as the civilian side of the junta. The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), as the junta is officially known, has been under growing international pressure to push through political reforms to create a functioning democracy.

Yet the USDA’s involvement in the crackdown since mid-August may have undermined the official image that the SPDC has projected for this force for Burma’s ‘’public welfare.’’ The USDA’s reputation is at ‘’its lowest,’’ says Zin Linn, information director of the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, the country’s democratically-elected government forced into exile.

‘’The hands of the USDA have been stained with blood since the Depayin massacre,’’ he said in an interview. ‘’The latest assaults by its members have removed all doubts about their role to suppress the people on the junta’s orders. The public is very angry with them.’’

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