In 2011, Burma's hybrid civilian-military government launched an ambitious reform program that, among other things, envisaged the transfer of responsibility for Burma's internal security from the armed forces to the national police.

Given Naypyidaw's firm and public commitment to this policy, it was surprising last month to see civilian 'vigilante' groups being used by authorities to help quell civil unrest.

Scene from student protest in Latpantann in March. (Flickr/Burma Democratic Concern.)

In Burma, the use of such groups to 'assist' in the resolution of political disputes has a long history. In the 1950s, for example, political bosses employed gangs of enforcers. During the Ne Win era (1962-1988), the Burma Socialist Programme Party was used to help monitor the mood of the civilian population, generate support for the government and in various ways encourage compliance with the regime's laws and regulations. 

After the armed forces took back direct political control of the country in 1988, 'unofficial' civilian groups played a more direct role, including in the security arena.

In 1993, Burma's ruling military council created the Union Solidarity Development Association (USDA). Its purpose was mainly to mobilise the population in support of the regime's policies. Not long after its formation, there were reports of a USDA-sponsored 'militia' designed to provide paramilitary, intelligence and law enforcement services to the regime. The militia's structure was believed broadly to mirror that of the civil administration, but it had no legal status.

One part of this militia was later identified as the Swan Ah Shin (SAS; literally 'Masters of Force'). This was essentially a loose collection of civilians attached to local councils that included members of the fire brigades, first aid organisations, women's organisations and the USDA, as well as criminals released from jail, members of local gangs, the unemployed and very poor. At different times, reports put SAS groups under the command of the civil authorities, intelligence agencies, army and police.

These organisations first prompted international scrutiny in 1996, when Aung San Suu Kyi's car was attacked in Rangoon by about 200 USDA supporters. In 2003, her motorcade was set upon by a much larger mob at Depayin in Upper Burma. These 'government-affiliated forces' (as they were described by the State Department) appear to have been organised in an effort to intimidate (or, in the latter incident, possibly even assassinate) the popular opposition leader. At Depayin, dozens of her followers were killed and many more injured. 

The SAS also played a part in the suppression of the so-called 'Saffron Revolution' in 2007. Up to 600 criminals were said to have been released from jail and given basic training in crowd control. They were initially used to intimidate protesters but, after the anti-government demonstrations grew in size and scope, SAS members acted in concert with the police and army. The state-run New Light of Myanmar described them as 'peace-loving people' preventing 'instigators from trying to cause instability and unrest'. Aung San Suu Kyi has called them Burma's Brown Shirts.

Since 2007, there have been claims that shadowy groups like the SAS have been involved in other outbreaks of civil unrest. For example, several commentators and activist groups have suggested that the Buddhist extremists active in 2012 and 2013 had official sanction, accounting for the apparent reluctance of the police and army to prevent the anti-Muslim violence that occurred in those years. No firm evidence of such sponsorship, however, has yet been produced.

Indeed, it was hoped that, with the advent of a new and reformist government in 2011, the use of groups like the SAS would cease. Naypyidaw emphasised the management of internal security through an expanded and modernised civil police force which publicly embraced modern doctrines such as community policing. The role of the armed forces was reduced and greater emphasis given to 'the rule of law'. 

Such hopes, however, have been dashed.

Last month, 100 or so civilian 'auxiliaries' were used to break up the remnants of a garment workers' strike in the Shwepyithar Industrial Zone. Auxiliaries were also deployed outside Rangoon Town Hall during a protest against the National Education Law. Wearing red armbands stating that they were 'on duty', they assaulted the protesters and helped police to detain eight of them.

These 'vigilantes' were recruited by ward officials at the order of the Chief Minister of Rangoon Region. Most seem to have been unemployed men who were offered meals and modest daily payments to 'assist' the authorities maintain law and order. Some were only teenagers. They were untrained, ill-disciplined and, as far as can be determined, poorly led. During the Rangoon protest they appear to have ignored or exceeded police orders.

Strictly speaking, the popular label 'vigilante' is a misnomer. These auxiliaries were not self-appointed. Nor were they acting without legal authority. As both regional and national officials have pointed out, according to Article 128 of the Burmese Code of Criminal Procedure (which dates from 1898), magistrates and police station chiefs have the right to recruit civilians to assist in the breaking up of protests and to help make arrests. 

On 10 March, President Thein Sein ordered an investigation into whether or not the security forces acted properly in Rangoon, and if the authorities acted in accordance with the law. The commission's report was due on 30 March but has not been released. It is unlikely to find the authorities at fault, but it may help answer some of the questions surrounding the use of deputised civilians.

Whether or not the recruitment of such groups is found to be legal, the thinking behind their use is hard to fathom. The Shwepyithar and Rangoon protests were quite small and could easily have been handled by police security battalions. Even if the auxiliaries did not behave badly, they had no legitimacy in the eyes of the public. Their use thus undercut the authority of the national police. Indeed, to many police officers they threaten a key goal of the force's reform program, which is to win back the respect of the population through higher standards and better community relations.

There has been an outcry in Burma and abroad against what many have seen as a return to the 'bad old days' of 'officially sponsored thugs' being used to crush popular dissent. The use of such tactics has added to growing scepticism about the November elections and the Government's willingness to permit criticism of its policies in the lead-up to the poll. Some commentators have even cited the recent use of 'vigilantes' to raise doubts over the entire reform process. 

This is drawing rather a long bow, but after last month's events Naypyidaw certainly has some serious questions to answer.