The mustard seeds: Considering the role of dissenting security officers breaking ranks

As the brutality of the coup unfolds, the obedience – and disobedience – of Myanmar security personnel is intensely at stake. What makes Myanmar men and women in uniform shoot and brutally attack unarmed protesters in the street and subject them to indignity and cruelty in detention? And what makes them desist such actions, disobey direct orders, oppose entrenched professional sub-cultures of violence and break ranks to join the civil disobedience movement?

Photocredit: Benjamin Small

Tomas Max Martin

“Report Back”, my close researcher colleague, Win, whispered to me, when I asked him to translate a sign reading Pyan Leh Ta Din Phoh Ba. The sign was hanging over the head of a senior prison officer, who we were interviewing inside one of Myanmar’s biggest high security prisons. The officer was originally from the army, manifesting what is referred to as ‘celestial drop’, whereby military officers are dropped into the highest managerial positions in the police and prison services. Police and prison officers, who have come up through the ranks, must grudgingly accept being stuck as middle managers, while inexperienced soldiers – probably after having mismanaged their more prestigious army careers – are brought in to manage prisons and police stations.

Win and I were trying to learn more about prison staff’s perception of infrastructural reforms in their workplace that is to get staff’s point of view on how the introduction of new prison buildings and new security and welfare technologies affected everyday prison life. The sign was a small, but vivid reminder of the obvious paradox that our basic questioning propelled us towards. Prison staff are not supposed to have a point of view. They are supposed to report back. The martial rationality only allows for superior orders to go downwards and subordinate information – not perspectives! – to go upwards in the chain of command. “Report Back” was not an invitation to share, but a menacing instruction to obey.

As the brutality of the coup unfolds, the obedience – and disobedience – of Myanmar security personnel is intensely at stake. What makes Myanmar men and women in uniform shoot and brutally attack unarmed protesters in the street and subject them to indignity and cruelty in detention? And what makes them desist such actions, disobey direct orders, oppose entrenched professional sub-cultures of violence and break ranks to join the civil disobedience movement? 

I have spent many hours with prison staff in Uganda and India and I have talked to quite a few prison officers in Myanmar at headquarter level in Nay Pyi Taw and during short field visits to two prisons. I have tried to understand what prison officers think about their job and the violence it entails to lock people up, to control prisoners against their will and to punish them. In this process, I have come to learn that the violence prison staff commit is intricately linked to the violence they themselves feel subject to by their superiors’ draconian power to demote, extort, and prosecute them, and the threats they claim to feel from prisoners, who may harm them. The prison staff that I have talked to generally lament the use of physical violence. It is dangerous. It can backfire if they become scared or too aggressive or indifferent and beat or kill the wrong people in the wrong way. And the violence also bleeds into their lives and makes them stressed, alcoholic, and abusive at home. Yet, they also insist on their right to be violent when necessary and reasonable as the only effective means to maintain order at their disposal. They typically present their mandate to use violence using two interlinked arguments: firstly, the public do not know the dangers that prison staff face and do not appreciate the protection that their violent practices afford society; and secondly, their violent practices are circumscribed by martial discipline. They are trained, tasked and equipped, they claim, to wield batons, guns, and instruments of torture with cool-headed restraint, rationally and lawfully (when the law is not too soft or unimplementable that is) and without cruelty. 

The squaring of this circle is evidently prone to both deceit and excess. Gruesome images of Myanmar police officers beating defenseless people to death bears witness to the demonic core of security personnel’s fantasies about the necessity and reasonableness of violence. Yet, other images are also popping up. Senior police officers proclaiming allegiance to the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) from rooftops, rank and file jumping barricades, and numerous security officials putting statements of resignation on Facebook or displaying the three-finger salute in uniform.

This tension was – among many other wildly disturbing images – evident in the globally circulated photo of Sister Ann Rose Nu Tawng, who pleaded with armed police not to shoot peaceful protesters in Myitkyina in early March. To me, the Barthesian ‘punctum’ in that photo is not Sister Rose, but the kneeling police officers in front of her. Roland Barthes defines a photograph’s ‘punctum’ as the “element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me (…) A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)”. Why did the two police officers kneel? An embodied impulse? A moment of resonance? Of disobedience? If so, it was fleeting. News reported that Sister Rose’s plea was unheard as the police started shooting over her head, killing at least two protesters there and then.

Perpetration studies that dissect the dynamics of genocide and other forms of perpetration note that perpetrators are not either simple cogs in the killing machine nor an ensemble of voluntary sadists. Motivations to obey orders are complex and fluid and identification, coercion, money, group expectations etc. reinforce or contradict each other in practice. Organisations of state terror like the Myanmar army do not necessarily have to care so much about why junior officers obey as long as the killing is done. They rather need to generalize their goals to encompass all the complex motivations of the rank and file. A key goal for the junta must be to produce an enemy “in need” of the violence that the army can provide. The generals must forcefully cultivate a situation where any alternatives to escalating state terror appear more threatening to the uniformed men and women and their families than the visceral damage it causes to burn, not only the dehumanized frontier, but the Bamar heartland to the ground.

The culture of dependency, insularity, exclusivity, conspiracy, siege, and confinement that forms the basis of the army’s enmity towards the civilian population is not easily dismantled. And the army’s often absurd, who-are-you-fooling-propaganda does not signify incompetence. It is a concerted effort to fuel this narrative of enmity in a menacing play to the gallery of uneasy subordinates and their families, who may begin to question their superiors’ orders to perpetrate or perish. It is even suggested that the internet blackouts do not only target the CDM and the media, but also serve to keep the rank and file in the dark, and thereby both docile and deadly. In a few recent reports in international media soldiers, who themselves abhor the unfolding atrocities they participate in, thus find it unlikely that the army will split or implode. Yet, pioneering ethnographic research on police officers’ and their families’ ambiguous position between the army, which they fear, and the protesting public, who they often support, suggests that many uniformed people in Myanmar are opposed to the coup and want to find a viable way to stop shooting, beating and arresting people for an illegitimate junta.

Thus, the incidents and stories of soldiers, police officers and prison staff who desert or publicly desist appear significant, even hopeful for the potential of the army’s collapse from within. Could the martial fist risk clenching so hard on itself that it breaks? At least 600 police officers have reportedly broken ranks. A group of more than thirty police officers, who fled to Mizoram, claim to have refused direct orders to shoot peaceful protesters with live bullets. Police officers who disobey orders face three years of imprisonment and potentially also put their families residing in the barracks in harm’s way. They are also in the somewhat precarious situation of being potential key witnesses in future judicial proceedings against their superiors. The photos of the police officers in Mizoram display a melancholic ambience of uncertainty and displacement but images of other uniformed officers, who have joined CDM, circulate on social media with an energetic thrust: “I am willing to make any sacrifice” police officer Win Than Tun strongly states in a post on Twitter (by the activist group Three Fingers) “I no longer fear, because I don’t take their orders. I feel free. I feel alive”.

The motivation to disobey may be as muddled as the motivation to obey and the fact that a small percentage of soldiers, police and prison officers’ dissent does not in any way exonerate the rest or the violent core of the security apparatus. Yet, the few uniformed men and women who refuse to simply ‘report back’ are exercising their right under international law to not follow unlawful orders amounting to crimes against humanity. 

The public recognition of people like Win Than Tun is significant in Myanmar but there have been no statements of solidarity from the global or regional union movement towards dissenting uniformed personnel. Unlike other civil servants, defecting security officers have no access to any international strike funding or other forms of peer support. Police and prison staff are unsurprisingly not unionized in Myanmar. Yet, the formation of police and prison staff unions could be an important element in a new blueprint for sovereign power in Myanmar, which puts the state’s monopoly on violence under civilian control. An embryonic union-like organization could also begin to gather and offer support and help to build a new law enforcement culture in Myanmar outside the heavy martial shadow.

A smaller group of prison staff have also publicly shown support for the CDM on Facebook. Four prison staff from Pathein Prison announced their intention to join the CDM according to the Ayeyarwaddy Times. “We loved and respected our department before”, the officers were quoted as saying, “But now, we do not wish to serve the department under the junta and keep innocent people in the prison”. In a Facebook post another prison staff expressed his support for CDM. He was not influenced or intimidated by anyone, he emphasized, but acted on his conscience, because he could not tolerate the injustices that he has seen. The last line in his post reads: “I know that a single mustard seed cannot be turned into oil. But I want to be a mustard seed [among the many] that produce oil”. The well-known Biblical parable of the mustard seed denotes the aspirational, if not utopian, potential of a tiny seed becoming a big plant. I somehow find more real promise and true grit in this prison officer’s alignment with the little seed. He acknowledges the limits of his contribution, but he wants to be on the right side of history and risk the grinding experience of being among the many seeds it takes to make a difference.

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