RANGOON, Burma — As a mob of angry young men approached a platoon of fresh-faced police recruits on the dusty outskirts of Rangoon one recent day, the officers kept their cool. Even as the crowd started hurling water bottles, commander Thein Toe Zaw attempted to negotiate over a loudspeaker. His men calmly pushed the crowd back until it dispersed — no batons drawn or beatings delivered.
Of course, this wasn’t exactly real life. It was a training exercise at Police Battalion Camp No. 8, financed by the European Union, held under the watchful eye of Burmese police brass and European trainers. It was part of an effort to overhaul a police force that was employed by Burma’s powerful military to keep rebels and dissenters in check during years of authoritarian rule.
Those days ended in 2011, when a military junta gave way to a civilian-led government. But while the country has moved toward democracy, the transition has been awkward for the police. With the military now in the background, Burma’s citizens enjoying more freedom to protest and religious clashes rising, the shifting dynamics have left the ill-equipped and underfunded police force seemingly unsure of its role and ambivalent in its strategies — sometimes using too much force and sometimes not enough.
Police Brig. Gen. Thura Bo Ni noted that the E.U. training is designed to help his officers avoid those problems.
“If we use this standard operating procedure properly, there might be no issues like that any more,” he said as he stood on the sidelines of the training.
A 35-year army veteran who was made a top police official two years ago, he speaks of Burma’s police becoming a “truly modern police force that can protect the human rights of all.”
Those are the kinds of words Western governments want to hear as they ramp up their training work with Burma’s police, eager to push the country toward a more professional “protect-and-serve” ethos.
But it’s a tall order, say Burmese and foreign experts. The force is saddled with a reputation for brutality and corruption, and is poorly trained in the basic tasks of a modern police force, such as collecting and maintaining evidence.
“We need to be realistic. It’s going to take 10 to 15 years to significantly and sustainably change the police,” said Jason Eligh, who heads the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime in Burma and is working with the police on a long-term reform plan. The goal, Eligh said, is “the development of a police service aligned with international principles of policing. We’re some way away from that right now.”
And the Western efforts face competition from neighboring China, which has different ideas about policing and signed a law enforcement cooperation agreement last year with Burma.
The U.S. government, which works with Burma’s police to combat the country’s huge opium and methamphetamine trade, is moving more cautiously than the E.U. That’s in large part because of skepticism on Capitol Hill — even as economic sanctions ease — about engaging too closely with Burma’s security forces amid allegations that they have committed human rights abuses, such as torture.
William Brownfield, U.S. assistant secretary of state for counternarcotics and law enforcement, visited Burma — which the former junta renamed Myanmar — in September to discuss possible next steps. In an interview, he described his approach as “crawl, walk, run.”
Brownfield said he expects that the United States could eventually assist Burma on issues such as its recruiting process and “how you actually do policing as part of a community as opposed to an outsider coming in.”
Some Burmese police have attended U.S. counternarcotics training courses at the International Law Enforcement Academy in neighboring Thailand, a U.S.-funded center run jointly with the Thai government. Participants have to undergo a State Department vetting process to verify that they have not been involved in human rights abuses.
A U.S. official with the academy said it is looking into hiring Burmese interpreters in anticipation of opening up its other courses, such as those on crime scene investigation techniques, to Burmese police. “Before the doors were open, there was some concern about how competent they were,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under government ground rules. But “they were like sponges — they just wanted more and more and more knowledge.”
Efforts to overhaul the force have taken on a new urgency in recent years.
In late 2012, the police were forced to apologize after cracking down violently on civilians and Buddhist monks protesting at the Chinese-run Letpadaung copper mine in northwestern Burma.
And the nonprofit International Crisis Group has singled out police conduct as a major problem in recent anti-Muslim violence in Burma. Indeed, when rampaging mobs killed scores of people — mostly Muslims — during riots last year in the central Burmese town of Meiktila, police stood by, unable or unwilling to intervene. The police response was a striking reversal for observers used to seeing Burma’s security forces respond with an iron fist. Reformist President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi called for training on proper crowd control, which led to the E.U. program.
Aung Tun Thet, a top policy adviser to Thein Sein, said the role of the police, established during British colonial times, needs to change as the country becomes more democratic. “It’s a different type of policing,” he said.
But experts say police handling of crowds and riots is only a symptom of broader problems. Part of it is resources. Police pay is low, and officers are given little with which to do their jobs — a recipe for continued corruption in the ranks.
Religious and ethnic minorities have little representation, and equipping the police — who lack tools such as water cannons and have substandard shields — is also a point of controversy, with critics wary of giving the Burmese police equipment that might simply make them better at cracking down.
And while both sides say the recent training efforts have already paid off, the psychological shift will take time. Ensuring that police leaders are trained and invested in the changes is critical, trainers say.
“The mind-set change was a big challenge,” Patrick Gistelinck, a longtime Belgian police officer involved in the E.U. effort, said as he led reporters around training stations focused on negotiating and peacefully removing protesters. That the police opened their doors to the news media was remarkable in itself.
But convincing the people of Burma that the police are now focused on public service might be a bigger hurdle. For many in Burma, interactions with the police remain largely unchanged.
And Burma’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, maintains a pervasive influence in the police. Even now, most top police officials — like most of the elected officials in the ruling party, for that matter — are former army commanders.
The police force has gotten “slightly better” with the end of military rule, said Ko Ko Gyi, a prominent democracy activist who spent 18 years in prison under the former military junta. But he notes that all of Burma’s security sectors, from the police to the fire brigade to immigration authorities, are still “deeply penetrated” by the army.
“Those old guys,” he said, “are just very reluctant to change.”