A Tsunami of Crime Washes Over Post-Coup Myanmar

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A Tsunami of Crime Washes Over Post-Coup Myanmar

There has been a general breakdown of law and order in the two years since the coup, as the military junta prioritizes the pursuit of political opponents.

A Tsunami of Crime Washes Over Post-Coup Myanmar

A street in downtown Yangon, Myanmar.

Credit: Depositphotos

On the evening of October 30, residents of a downtown Yangon apartment broke down the door of one of their units after detecting a foul stench. Inside, they found the bodies of 78-year-old physics professor Myint Wai and his 70-year-old wife Khin San, both with multiple stab wounds inflicted during a robbery. Days later, their murderers were reported caught in a nearby town; one of the perpetrators was a water deliveryman who regularly served the couple’s home.

Bedridden for years, Myint Wai was a multiple award-winning East German-trained popular science author and teacher to aspiring youths applying to overseas universities. He and his wife’s brutal murders put a recognizable face on a tsunami of crime that has hit Myanmar in parallel to the intensification of the country’s civil war. Even in a country ravaged by a regular deluge of despicable atrocities, their brutal murders still shocked Yangon residents.

Both violent and petty crime have soared across post-coup Myanmar. There are now regular reports and footage of muggings, robberies, and home invasions occurring in broad daylight. The polarized political climate and backdrop of conflict mean that some acts are difficult to distinguish from political violence. And reflecting the country’s economic tailspin, criminals are now killing for even a mobile phone or a paltry sum of cash.

Rare before the February 2021 coup, bank robberies have spiked. Jewelry shops and phone stores have also been frequently hit. A library named after independence hero Gen. Aung San had its books stolen while a delivery rider’s phone was stolen and his face splashed with acid. There also was the curious case in which a Yangon inner-city bus hijacking was foiled after a passenger flagged down a passing military patrol with the three-finger protest salute.

Criminals are increasingly operating in groups to cast wider nets. Several gangs were reported beating and robbing victims on Yangon buses while one in Muse on the Chinese border in Shan State robbed an octogenarian couple at gunpoint. This shift to groups means citizens helping to apprehend perpetrators themselves end up being targeted, such as a Yangon trishaw driver who helped catch a pickpocket but was then murdered the next day by the apprehended criminal’s accomplices.

This reflects the general breakdown of law and order since the coup, as the State Administration Council (SAC) junta prioritizes the pursuit of political opponents. The junta has deployed many patrols and checkpoints across major cities and imposed martial law in six Yangon townships but has done little to tackle crime. It ruthlessly hunts down opponents but seems to treat crime as a minor inconvenience.

The police are increasingly militarized but now hunker down in stations and pillboxes, cowering from assassinations, raids, and attacks by anti-junta People’s Defense Force (PDF) militias. Ward administrators used to organize neighborhood watches but they too have bunkered themselves as they often are targets of choice for PDF attacks given how the regime uses these civilians to flush out resistance cells.

Citizens also allege that police take exorbitant bribes to follow through with cases. Furthermore, people are hesitant to interact with law enforcement in the current context as it risks being misconstrued as being an informer (dalan) or getting caught up in armed incidents. The malleable judiciary is now being used by the junta to trample on opponents, draining public trust in the institution and making it the subject of attacks by resistance forces.

Victims of home invasions are terrified to come forward on social media, fearing the perpetrators might return and punish them for speaking out. Meanwhile, buildings with surveillance cameras are somewhat reluctant to venture forth with information, as some resistance groups had warned residents to remove or redirect cameras to foil security forces’ crackdowns on PDF cells.

The parallel National Unity Government (NUG) has established interim People’s Administrations and a judicial system alongside a “People’s Police Force” in areas under its sway but not much is said about dealing with crime. Under-resourced and locked in its own escalating armed struggle against the junta, the NUG appears a long way off from being able to address crime in major towns and cities.

This leaves security more or less in the hands of the populace. Immediately after the coup, many neighborhoods set up volunteer patrols and makeshift roadblocks intended to both block security forces and maintain local security. After some watchmen were killed by soldiers, and local police stations dragged away the roadblocks, communities gave up on the idea.

The political and economic crises as well as pervasive political violence have torn Myanmar’s social fabric to shreds with communal bonds broken due to fears of dalans, or personal vendettas and crimes of opportunity being disguised as resistance or pro-junta acts. Neighbors still look out for each other but there is not much to be done beyond reminding each other to take care, bang pots and pans in case of emergencies, keep dogs if possible, and to lock doors at all times.

Organized crime is happily expanding its turf, exploiting the political and security gray areas that have widened since the coup. Drug use has exploded in the cities while border areas are seeing a surge in the smuggling of goods and weapons, human and drug trafficking, and the illegal wildlife trade, as well as rampant resource extraction and illicit drug production including meth “super labs.” Counterfeit money is being openly sold on Facebook while “casinos” linked to shady Chinese nationals have become fronts for transnational fraud and scam rings. All these developments have growing regional ramifications.

The junta and different armed groups make grand pantomimes depicting crackdowns on organized crime and eagerly pointing the finger at opponents. However, the reality is that the landscape is too lucrative and all groups too desperate to actually resist. The spiraling civil war means armed actors of all stripes have had to ramp up their war economies to fund the conflict. Community and religious leaders in porous border areas have long complained of unchecked resource extraction by these armed groups. They now say that the post-coup conflict in these areas is about politics as much as competition over who gets to profit from illicit ventures.

The SAC stands accused of allowing allied ethnic militias to revive or scale up various money-making operations in exchange for loyalty. This is especially the case in heavily contested areas in Kachin, Shan, and Karen states, where different armed groups exercised checkered territorial control long before the coup, and the Tatmadaw had sweetened ceasefire deals with economic privileges.

Corruption is also a major enabler of organized crime. Businessmen familiar with the Thai-Burmese border trade allege that junta checkpoints turn a blind eye to any cargo for the right price, even weapons destined for PDF outfits. Thus, while junta mouthpieces incessantly cover seizures of contraband substances and put up a show of cracking down on illegal trade, merchants allege that security checkpoints up and down major routes are making handsome profits from smugglers and criminal enterprises.

Various groups opposing the SAC are also turning to criminal networks to procure much-needed weapons and finance their ever-growing expenses in countering the regime. Cross-border merchants say it was illegal jade and rare-earth transporters from northern Myanmar that first descended onto the Thai-Burmese border to smuggle arms for the then-nascent armed resistance movement. Resistance supporters now complain that the gunrunners are capitalizing on the situation by severely inflating prices, hampering the armed struggle. Businesses and travelers in northwestern and southeastern Myanmar quietly share that groups claiming to be PDF cells have started demanding protection money. Sometimes these are bona fide resistance outfits; at other times they are criminal groups seeking to profit from the fog of war.

As expected, the junta, its opponents and their respective supporters are hawking politically expedient explanations for the surge in crime. The post-truth nature of Myanmar’s spiraling civil war, in which both camps have embraced disinformation as a primary weapon, has created more gray areas on which criminals big and small can capitalize. For example, the recent robbery of a private bank’s cash transport was blamed on PDFs and regime paramilitary Pyusawhtis, depending on the source. Similarly, the two sides have blamed each other for armed gangs setting up toll gates along the Mandalay-Monywa highway, a hotbed for resistance activities and protests.

For the resistance movement and its supporters, the spike in violent crime is seen as a reflection of the SAC’s illegitimacy and its moral bankruptcy. Sympathetic netizens claim armed criminals are in fact soldiers, police, or Pyusawhtis in disguise, manufacturing crime to hoodwink the citizens into turning to the junta for law enforcement, instigate the population to justify repression, or fill the junta’s empty coffers.

Aiming to show the police’s effectiveness, the SAC has at times made fanfare at the “quick arrest” of supposed bank robbers, leading to accusations that either innocent bystanders were forced to confess or that the entire episode was staged. A recent spate of child kidnappings and disappearances have been dismissed as red herrings designed to distract people from politics.

The regime’s mass prisoner amnesties, where tens of thousands of petty and hardened criminals were released as a supposed gesture of magnanimity, are also seen as a major driver of violent crime. In the weeks following the junta’s first mass amnesty, there were widespread fears of former prisoners allegedly drugged by security forces and sent to hurl firebombs and spread mayhem. The crime tsunami also helps to lay blame on segments of society for being self-serving and not fully on board with the revolution. It explains why the NUG’s repeated promises of imminent victory remain elusive to date.

The SAC and its supporters counter by insinuating that PDF cells dabble in crime to fund armed resistance or their “hedonistic lifestyles,” and that young resistance members were showing their true stripes as glorified bandits. They also allege that the current crime epidemic embodies the erosion of “traditional values” under the ousted civilian government, and that the resistance is dominated by communists and Islamists bent on thoroughly destroying every aspect of “Burmeseness.” Lastly, there is a distrust of the police as having been infiltrated by “watermelon” turn-coats, and a claim that the unchecked crime spree is an attempt to undermine the SAC’s consolidation of power.

As the de facto government, the SAC bears all the responsibility for failing to address the surge in crime.  Law and order are often low-hanging fruit for authoritarian regimes and an easy way to win hearts and minds, but it appears the junta has either not bothered with or cannot turn its attention to this matter. If the junta can’t or won’t even deliver a basic level of security to citizens in the main cities, it for sure won’t be able to achieve whatever other goals it is promising, such as pacifying the country or holding elections in 2023.

The NUG, meanwhile, has prioritized its armed struggle, vowing to overthrow the SAC in the coming year. The populace is still inclined to forgive the NUG for not being able to address these sorts of issues, but there will also be a limit to how long people will keep their hopes up. With both camps distracted by their own political and military machinations, the tsunami of crime will continue to wash over Myanmar for a long time to come.