Myanmar coup
Local neighborhood watch group detains two men after shaving their heads in Yangon on Feb. 13. Photo: Vice World News

Myanmar Coup: Neighborhood Vigilantes Patrol Streets As Military Tightens Grip

Tensions are running high more than two weeks after the power grab.

Armed with wooden clubs, PVC pipes and hair clippers to shave the heads of suspected military-planted thugs, residents of Myanmar’s biggest city have formed nighttime street patrols as fears of arrest and violent crime intensify two weeks after the coup.

The patrols come as demonstrations rock the country following the Feb. 1 arrests of civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her cabinet. Hundreds of thousands have protested, while the public has maintained a nightly campaign of beating pots and pans to “drive out evil.”  Mass strikes of government workers, including police officers, civil servants, bank employees and railway workers, have crippled national infrastructure.

Advertisement

As the pushback grows, security forces have arrested dissidents, moved tanks onto Yangon’s streets over the weekend, and temporarily shut down the internet for the third time since the overthrow of the democratically-elected government.

The military has swiftly reinstated draconian laws to quash dissent. On Feb. 9, it put forward draft cybersecurity legislation that would allow it to ban content, restrict internet providers and intercept data, and on Feb. 14, it suspended laws which constrain authorities from detaining people or searching private property without a warrant. It also reinstated provisions which require citizens to report overnight guests to authorities.

Amid rapidly escalating distrust toward police, neighborhood street patrols sprang up. A key aim of the patrols is to stop nighttime arrests which have been increasing during the hours of a military-imposed nationwide curfew. At first, residents would bang pots and pans to signal the presence of authorities or suspicious individuals, and form human barriers shielding people from arrest and other dangers. This approach has successfully fended off detentions in several cases across the country.

Advertisement
myanmar1.jpg

Yangon residents patrol their street with bats and wooden clubs. Photo: Vice World News

But tensions rose after Feb. 12, when the junta freed more than 23,000 prisoners, in what it described as a bid toward “establishing a new democratic state with peace, development and discipline.”

Although prisoner amnesties of this scale happen annually in Myanmar in February and April, unverified rumors rapidly circulated that authorities had dispatched thugs, some of them high on drugs, in cities across the country in order to sow chaos. The military used this tactic in 1988 amid mass pro-democracy uprisings, and some vigilante groups publicly executed people accused of being spies and arsonists. 

After the recent prisoner amnesty on Feb. 12, sticks, clubs and bats increasingly replaced pots and pans, as residents detained or chased down suspicious characters, in some cases shaving their heads to “mark” them as outside agitators.

IMG_9058.JPG

With some holding rods and sticks, members of an impromptu neighborhood watch crowd a Yangon street. Photo: Vice World News

According to local media outlet The Irrawaddy, in the past two days, some “thuggish strangers” rounded up by neighborhood residents had large amounts of cash or were under the influence of drugs, and most could not give a clear explanation for their late-night excursions.

Advertisement

A photographer working with VICE World News witnessed a citizen patrol at work in their own neighborhood near downtown Yangon on the night of Feb. 13. At around 9:30 PM, there was a clamor as the local patrol group chased down a man they spotted ducking into an alleyway.

myanmar2.jpg

Neighborhood watch patrols duck into an alley to chase suspicious outsiders. Photo: Vice World News

The patrol caught three unknown men who were independently present in the neighborhood. They tied their hands and detained them in a shack. They beat up one of the men.

myanmar3.jpg

One of the detained men has his hands tied. Photo: Vice World News

Patrol leaders fended off angry crowds threatening more violence against the men. “The more crowded it got, the more people urged aggressive actions,” one of the leaders told VICE World News. He said he aimed to handle the situation without using violence.

IMG_9111 (1).jpg

Patrol members look on at the detained men. Photo: Vice World News

The captives were questioned about their backgrounds and purpose in the neighborhood. One said he was a university student who had missed the last bus home after protesting against the coup; the patrol group exonerated him.

Another man said he had run away from home. When he could not explain why he was covered in a tar-like substance, he was pushed around by the crowd. 

IMG_9116 (1).jpg

Two of the men are interrogated after being roughed up. Photo: Vice World News

The third detained man did not respond to questions. He said he was from an ethnic state and could not speak Burmese well.

Interrogators noticed a mark on his body and accused him of being high. After analyzing the mark further, they decided it was just a scratch.

After more than an hour, the local patrol group took out hair clippers and decided to shave parts of the detained men’s eyebrows and heads so they could be easily identified by the public in the future. This tactic helped to calm down angry crowd members who wanted to beat the men. 

Advertisement
IMG_9176.JPG

Patrol members shave a detainee's head. Photo: Vice World News

Shaving hair has also been deployed in other neighborhoods, and some see it as a way of avoiding violence as the men will be deterred from coming out into the nighttime streets or easily identified if they do.

IMG_9154 (1).jpg

Another detainee has his eyebrow shaven. Photo: Vice World News

Rather than turning over the captives to the police, where they could face an uncertain future, the neighborhood patrol group loaded the men onto a pickup truck and took them to a community-run COVID-19 center, where they questioned the men the next morning and released them after it was determined they did not pose a danger to residents.

IMG_9188 (1).jpg

The detainees are moved to a pick up truck and transferred to a local COVID-19 center. Photo: Vice World News

After the chaotic night, the community patrol is now trying to develop a standard response to identify and manage suspected intruders or nefarious individuals at night. On Feb. 14, they collected funds from every household to put up CCTV cameras, and assigned residents mandatory duty to patrol the streets on a rotating schedule.