Myanmar’s internal spy network lives on

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Todd Pitman

MANDALAY (Myanmar): It's been two years since Myanmar's new government promised its people a more open way of life, but still they come, plainclothes state intelligence officers asking where former student activist Mya Aye is and when he'll be back.

Politicians, journalists, writers, diplomats, too, find themselves being watched: Men on motorcycles tailing closely. The occasional phone call. The same, familiar faces at crowded street cafes.

“It's not as bad as it used to be,” said Mya Aye, who devotes much of his time today campaigning for citizens' rights, “but it's really annoying. They act like we're criminals, harassing us, our families. It's disrespectful and intimidating. It shouldn't be this way anymore.''

Mya Aye was one of the student leaders of a failed uprising in 1988 against the repressive military junta that ruled for nearly five decades and employed a colossal network of intelligence agents to crack down on dissent.

In years past, he and thousands of other dissidents were hauled off to jail, instilling widespread fear in the hearts of a downtrodden population to ensure that nobody spoke out. The level of oppression has eased markedly since President Thein Sein, a former army general, took office in 2011 after an opposition-boycotted election. But while many political prisoners have been released, newspapers are no longer censored and freedom of speech has largely become a reality, the government has not ceased spying on its own people. ''Old habits die hard,” said lawmaker Win Htein of the opposition National League for Democracy party, who spent nearly 20 years in prison during the military rule. He told by telephone in a conversation he feared was being tapped by police. Every day, six to eight officers from various security departments can be seen at a tea shop across the street from the opposition party headquarters, jotting down who comes and goes and snapping the occasional picture.

It is unknown how many intelligence agents are active nationwide, but at least two major information gathering services are still operating: the Office of Military Affairs Security and the notorious Special Branch police, which reports to the Ministry of Home Affairs.

A well-connected middle-ranking officer, speaking on condition he not be named because he didn't have authorisation to talk to the media, said there are no top-down orders these days to follow a particular individual. Young, often-inexperienced agents instead are told to keep tabs on new faces or unusual movement in their “patch,” and then inform their bosses.

And so they do, often in crude or comic fashion, with little or no effort to be discreet. When journalists went to the city of Meikhtila to inspect a neighbourhood destroyed by sectarian violence earlier this year, the watchers were everywhere, two men trailing close behind on motorcycles.

Yet more waited outside the hotel in Mandalay as the reporting team tried to find ways to lose them — finally entering a crowded temple and then slipping out the back — so they could interview massacre survivors so worried of being harassed by authorities that they would not even speak in their own homes.—AP
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