Are Myanmar secret agents still playing ‘dirty tricks’?
Al Jazeera investigates whether crushing dissent and monitoring the opposition has continued after military rule.
During half a century of military rule, Myanmar’s feared Special Branch and Military Intelligence agencies were vehicles for monitoring opposition and, where necessary, crushing dissent.
The secret arms of the regime were notorious for their ‘dirty tricks’; infiltrating and manipulating rivals by turning them against each other.
Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit spent several months requesting a former military intelligence officer to be interviewed as part of ‘Genocide Agenda’, a new investigation.
After finally agreeing, he described to Al Jazeera how he and his colleagues blended with ordinary citizens.
Seemingly omnipresent, the former officer says they posed as ice-water sellers, sweepers or street vendors. Some undercover officers even pretended to be, in his words, “lunatics”.
In 2008, Myanmar’s military rulers crafted a new constitution, which allows greater political freedoms and opposition parties to contest three-quarters of seats in the parliament. The remaining quarter are guaranteed to military officers.
Myanmar has been changing fast. The nation’s major cities are now lively. Investment is flowing in while construction and tourism are flourishing. There is a vibrant media.
One topic that remains a mystery is what the secret agencies are up to now.
‘They create conflicts’
Whichever party wins Myanmar’s parliamentary election on November 8, the country’s military will retain control of the secret police and intelligence services – with no meaningful oversight from the political parties.
Only a handful of political prisoners remain in jail after thousands were released in 2011. But is the government still listening to and watching its opponents? Are its secret agents still playing ‘dirty tricks’ in the shadows?
Al Jazeera has obtained documents and eyewitness testimony which suggest that it is still happening.
The military intelligence officer, who retired before 2012, described how the agency used agent provocateurs to provoke problems between Muslims and Buddhists.
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“These people secretly entered Muslim communities. They created problems by insulting Islam, hitting and attacking Muslims,” said the former officer.
Al Jazeera has made several requests for comment to the Myanmar president’s office and government spokespeople but has not received any response.
He says the military still “takes advantage of people’s weaknesses, [their] lack of education and lack of general knowledge”.
His comments are a version of events that this journalist had heard repeatedly in Myanmar from people knowledgeable about the inner-workings of the political system.
Sae Thein Win was a former major in the Myanmar army before he defected.
“They had to distract the people,” he told Al Jazeera. “They make people worry, spread fear, hatred, and create conflicts.”
Using religion to divide
A man who repeatedly appears as a central figure in these accounts of subterfuge and manipulation is Wirathu, a monk known for his anti-Muslim rhetoric.
It is claimed as common knowledge by opposition politicians that Wirathu is working for the military establishment. It is a charge he vehemently denies and for which there is not evidence that could be described as a ‘smoking gun’.
Wirathu is accused of triggering violence in towns in central Myanmar in 2013, when dozens died in communal riots. Wirathu had often visited these towns prior to the violence breaking out.
Again it is a charge that he ridicules as propaganda.
“I’m not the one who set things on fire,” he told Al Jazeera, speaking in the library of his sprawling monastery in Mandalay. “I prevent fire. If there’s a fire, I put it out quickly.”
It is also believed that the Committee for the Protection of Race and Religion – known by its Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha – is supported by the military-backed government. Wirathu is the movement’s spiritual leader.
Al Jazeera’s ‘Genocide Agenda’ investigation includes accounts from monks who led the Saffron Revolution in 2007, who say Wirathu offered them money to join what would become Ma Ba Tha.
The Saffron Revolution was the most serious challenge to the military rulers for two decades.
Again, Wirathu dismisses such accusations as lies, deliberately reported in order to undermine him. He believes that there are plots, often involving the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation or the United Nations, directed at both him and the Burmese nation.
According to the former intelligence officer, the military is scared of transferring meaningful power to democratic institutions.
“These power mongers are afraid of losing their position. They are therefore using religion for their political interest.”