In the past 12 months Burma's military regime, the State Peace and Development Council (SP DC), has been under intense international scrutiny. In September 2007, the world witnessed the brutal repression of protesting monks on the streets of Rangoon.
In March this year, Cyclone Nargis put Burma back in the news as it ripped a path of destruction through the Irrawaddy Delta, killing tens of thousands of people. Again, the international community was distressed by the regime's heartless attitude to the Burmese people. While villagers starved and waterways were clogged with decaying corpses, the generals refused to let international donations of food, shelter and expert assistance into the disaster areas.
Ignoring worldwide condemnation and the plight of millions of homeless Burmese, the SPDC continued on its path to securing long-term power, pushing through a national referendum vote to endorse its equally flawed constitution.
The SP DC is planning to hold a national election in 2010, and endorsement of its self-drafted constitution is a key step in what the regime calls its "Seven Step Roadmap to Democracy".
The constitution effectively enables the military to continue its repressive regime, with Opposition Leader Aung San Suu Kyi sidelined by a special clause that excludes anyone married to a foreigner from running for office.
With international and independent election observers banned, the regime announced the referendum result: an overwhelming "yes". Apart from commandeering the constitution, the regime is busy shoring up power through civilian-based political organisations. Khun Myint Tun is an exiled Burmese Member of
Parliament. Speaking to The Diplomat on the Thai-Burma border, he says the SPDC sponsors a number of civilian groups. The largest of these is the Union Solidarity and Development Association (US DA), with an estimated 24 million members out of a total population of 55 million.
"Many of their members are forced to join. Civil servants and teachers have to join, if they value their job and want promotions. The real function of the US DA is to be a 'legitimate political front' for the regime and to fool the world into thinking they are a genuine political party of the people."
In a 2008 report on Burma, Human Rights Watch (HRW) summarised the way the USDA operates. "At local levels, the USDA and its abusive militia, the Swan Arr Shin (Masters of Force), directly monitor the activity of all persons in their area, and deal violently with anyone believed to be a threat to the SPDC."
Khun Myint Tun concurs with HRW's account. "Swan Arr Shin [following USDA orders] are militia thugs, sponsored by the regime; they intimidate, harass and beat political opponents as they did in the Depayin Massacre [in 2003] and last year's monk and civilian protests in Rangoon. The TV footage showed truckloads of them arriving to beat and drag away bloodied protesters." Aung Tin is a construction worker and a US DA hard man. Joining in 2000, he was trained for six weeks at an unmarked army facility. He was shown how to collect information, set up informer networks and use karate, bamboo sticks and catapults to break up crowds.
Cracking his work-scarred knuckles during an interview with The Diplomat, Aung Tin explained why he joined the USDA, and how he and other US DA members keep his local Rangoon ward under control.
"They gave me the chance to do business in the ward, and they gave me respect. I got a badge, card and a book of rules I have never read. I get special privileges. I don't have to work or pay taxes. I only have to show my card … it's easy to get train or bus tickets. "We learn how to look like protestors and how to crush them. We make it look like it's civilian against civilian."
Aung Tin says he works closely with police, military intelligence and local government [known as Ya Ya Ka] to identify activists. "We go around the ward together, meet in teahouses, organise people to attend [pro-government] rallies and take money from card players to let them play. We carry rubber sticks. If we suspect people of being against the government, we get the police to take them to the Ya Ya Ka office and we beat them. We let people in the ward know about it, it keeps them scared."
Aung Tin says his gang is more lenient towards women suspected of belonging to opposition groups.
"We call the Myanmar Women's Affairs Federation and they come and beat them. Many of the women are scared when we take them for questioning. Those not afraid are hand slapped and if still defiant a stick is used." Through its vast civilian surveillance network the US DA blocks activists, political events and political opponents by using threats, beatings, intimidation and arrests. Aung Tin says National League of Democracy members are the easiest to target.
"We know who they are. We make them resign. We took one guy to jail. We beat and pushed him. We told him he would face many problems if he didn't resign. We accused him of being a thief, a drunk and [said] he'd lose his job. We told him we'd give him many troubles."
The SPDC's repressive regime and its use of civilian organisations have created a culture of paranoia and fear. Khum Myint Tun has experienced just what it is like to be on the wrong end of the SPDC's repressive regime. After three years of phone taps and threats, he was eventually jailed for seven and a half years for possessing a copy of a Gene Sharp booklet about non-violent struggle.
For his "crime" Khun Myint Tun was subjected to torture, beatings and humiliations in some of Burma's most brutal jails, including the notorious Insein Prison. He was denied food and water, locked for months in solitary confinement, kept in a dark room for 70 days and repeatedly tortured.
"For five nights and days I was made to sit hooded on a backless stool while military intelligence officers interrogated me. My hood was only removed at meal times and toilet breaks. I was not allowed to sleep."
To punish, humiliate and de-humanise him further, Khun Myint Tun's jailers deprived him of human contact. "Even my guards, when I tried to speak to them, would only respond to me by gesticulation. I was having difficulty talking, so every day I would practise speaking to my mother, father, brothers and sisters. I would call out to them. I would be sad and happy, laugh and cry at my spoken words, it helped keep me sane."
Though Khun Myint Tun spent most of his sentence in solitary confinement, he was not alone. Burmese jails are filled with more than 2100 political prisoners.
A Burmese journalist interviewed for this story says it is difficult to know who to trust. "Someone disappears, we don't know if they have been arrested or are in detention. If we are chatting in a teahouse and someone we don't know enters, we stop talking. If people are outside my house, I keep going. When I work, I worry that people I interview will inform on me. I'm scared about what they know and what they say about me. The trouble is I don't know who can be trusted. This is my life. How can I write the truth?"
Burma's economy is a basket case. The high cost of living and low wages mean bribery is rife, and the attraction of joining an organisation such as the US DA is, as Aung Tin's story illustrates, tragically clear.
Meanwhile, in its attempt to keep the international community off its back and the UN Security Council on its leash, the regime continues its lie that it is sincere about moving the country towards democracy citing its "Road Map" as proof that there will be "free" multi-party national elections in 2010. Elections that will, says Khun Myint Tun, be the regime's final step in hijacking Burma's democratic process for its own ends.