YANGON – After decades in the shadow of the military, Myanmar’s ragtag police force has found itself thrust onto the security frontline — and under fire for failing to stop a wave of religious unrest.
Under the country’s former junta, any sign of unrest was quickly quelled by soldiers. But since a new reformist government took power two years ago, the job of maintaining order has been largely left to police who lack basic equipment and only have about a year of training.
“The police were never well-equipped,” said an officer with 20 years in the force. “Under the military government, nobody cared about the police. Still they don’t care now, but we’re the first to be blamed when something happens even though we tried our best to protect the people.”
The challenges are immense in a society testing the limits of its newfound freedoms, including the right to protest. A botched raid on a protest at a copper mine in November sparked an outpouring of anger after police used phosphorus against protesters in the harshest crackdown since the end of military rule.
The police have also been accused of failing to act, or even of complicity, in several episodes of sectarian violence since last year.
In the western state of Rakhine last year, Human Rights Watch accused the police and other security forces of killings and other abuses against stateless Rohingya Muslims. The New York-based rights watchdog has also urged the government to investigate the failure of police to stop a fresh wave of Buddhist-Muslim violence in Meiktila in central Myanmar that left 43 people dead last month.
The European Union has offered some training programs, drawing on past experience helping forces elsewhere in the world.
“We need nonlethal weapons to control riots in line with international standards,” said a senior Myanmar police officer. “We understand international norms and standards. We want to practice them. But we are just doing what we can within our capabilities.”
President Thein Sein’s government must ensure that the police are well-equipped and organized with a clear mandate and standard operating procedures, said Jim Della-Giacoma at the International Crisis Group think tank.
To win people’s trust will also require the police “to truly shed their authoritarian mindset and become more of a police service rather than a force,” he said.