By WAI MOE
The Irrawaddy News
After a welcome absence from the public scene in the past few months, the ugly thugs of Burma’s two pro-government militia movements, the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) and its sister group, Swan Ah Shin (“Masters of Force”), are back on the streets.
They turned out in force on Thursday for a birthday party—pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was 63. They were in no mood to celebrate, however. Their aim was to break up any display of popular support for a courageous woman caged by the regime in her own home.
The thugs attacked a rally by Suu Kyi’s supporters outside the Rangoon office of her National League for Democracy, detaining more than a dozen.
Although it’s not clear whether the unprovoked and brutal attack was launched on government orders, the regime’s hand can be seen behind most of the criminal activities of the USDA and Swan Ah Shin.
In a report to the UN Human Rights Council last December, the former UN special rapporteur on Burma, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, said the “violent actions” of the USDA and Swan Ah Shin are taken “with government acquiescence or approval.” The report accused the regime of complicity in the groups’ abuses and of negligence in failing to prevent them and punish those responsible.
Suu Kyi’s current term of house arrest began after members of the group ambushed a convoy of her supporters in May 2003, killing many of them. The groups were also active in helping to suppress the popular demonstrations last August and September.
“The USDA and Swan Ah Shin have played an increasingly important role in suppressing civilian dissent”, Donald M Seekins, Professor of Southeast Asian Studies at Meio University in Japan, wrote in a report. He accused the two movements of involvement in the attacks on Suu Kyi and her supporters in May 2003 and the suppression of last year’s demonstrations.
The regime often attempts to define the USDA and Swan Ah Shin as two distinctly separate groups.
“After the September demonstrations, the authorities often explained during meetings with businesspeople that the two groups are not same, saying the USDA is a civic organization and Swan Ah Shin are people who have the responsibility to prevent unrest,” said a Rangoon businessman who has ties to the USDA.
He said Swan Ah Shin was answerable to both local authorities and the USDA, relying on them for financing.
The two groups recruit their members from different social strata. While USDA members tend to be civil servants, teachers, students and businesspeople, Swan Ah Shin attracts a criminal class of membership.
Members of Swan Ah Shin were paid between 2,000 kyat and 3,000 kyat (US $1.5 and $2.3) to help break up last year’s demonstrations.
Members of both groups receive basic military training and instruction in crowd control from the army and police.
When demonstrations and popular protests arise, thugs from the two movements are rapidly on the scene. But, like the Burmese army, they were conspicuous by their absence when a real crisis, Cyclone Nargis, hit the country.
"Last time [in August and September, 2007], they came here, just like ants, from where I don't know," a Rangoon resident told Reuters in early May. "Now I can't see any."