Myanmar trains controversial 'election police' in Yangon

Special police officers, who have been temporarily recruited for the upcoming general elections, attend a training session in Botahtaung police station at Yangon on Oct 26, 2015.
Special police officers, who have been temporarily recruited for the upcoming general elections, attend a training session in Botahtaung police station at Yangon on Oct 26, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

YANGON (AFP) - In a makeshift classroom in downtown Yangon, rows of uniformed men listened to lessons on election security Monday (Oct 26) as they prepared to join Myanmar's controversial 40,000-strong special polling day police force.

The former junta-ruled nation will hold a highly-anticipated vote on Nov 8 in what many hope could be the freest election in decades.

Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition is expected to make major gains.

But there are concerns unrest could flare in the conflict-prone nation - where religious tensions are simmering - while the use of civilian deputies has sparked unease given the country's long history of military rulers using armed thugs to suppress opposition.

"They need more police and I wanted to help as much as I could," said Aung Swe Oo, a deputy head of the local fire service in Botadaung township who was undergoing training Monday.

"We learned basic military subjects, the laws and principles of the election and police rules. But the priority is how to act during the polls and how to be ready," the 45-year-old told AFP, without elaborating what scenarios they might prepare for.

Some 41 recruits were undergoing lessons at the local police station on Monday - one for each polling station in the township.

They have been kitted out with police uniforms, but with "special election police" red epaulettes on their shoulders.

Last month's announcement that a special force would be created followed a joint statement from countries including the United States and Japan expressing alarm that rising religious tensions could spark conflict around the elections.

A new openness has blossomed in Myanmar since the military stepped back from outright power in 2011.

But reforms under a quasi-civilian government have appeared to backtrack in recent months.

The country has also been shaken by sporadic outbursts of often deadly religious unrest since 2012, with minority Muslims facing increasing political exclusion as the influence of nationalist Buddhist monks grows.

The special police will be unarmed and wield fewer powers than official police, according to officials. They will be paid aroundUS$140 (S$195), the same monthly salary regular officers receive.

Use of civilians by Myanmar authorities as part of crackdowns has a long and controversial history in a nation where the military brutally suppressed dissent during its nearly 50 year rule.

Most recently men believed to be deputised civilians in plain clothes with red armbands were seen beating protesters alongside police at a student protest in March.