In(securing) Frontier Myanmar – Notes from Yangon (Part 2)

Jasnea Sarma speaks to security guards in Yangon about wider insecurities in the city.

This is Part 2 of a 2-part series on surveillance and (in)security in Yangon, Myanmar. Read Part 1 here.

Security Uniforms

I often crossed the municipal Hospital grounds on my walk downtown to the posh Sule Shangri La hotel, whose lobby I liked to exploit for free Burmese language exchange. One day there I woke up U Hla, a uniformed security man lightly napping outside.

‘What is your job here? I asked.

Just to see life every day, people sufferdon’t care or even see who’s going in or out, all suffering here in the hospital, what else?”

A rather graver answer than I had expected from a recently napping security guard.

U Hla and I became friends that summer. He loved to talk, and he also spoke very good Singlish, which he had picked up over years working in construction in Singapore. We chatted every morning, and I learned a few things about his life as a security guard in a city where he was born. He was not from one of the ‘fancy’ (his words) private security companies that we met at the expo in Part 1. He worked for an old company that was now at risk of being taken over by a new firm with better-trained guards, but the hospital had not found the funds for that transition yet. He worried about his job constantly.

‘My son is studying now, but I told him to take a security course so he can join a good security job.’ He meant in one of the many companies that advertise 3-day security installation courses in downtown Yangon. ‘Easy job, nothing to do.

Jasnea Sarma - Part 2 image 1
An advertisement for a CCTV installation course in Pansodan street. ‘Apply for a special short course and directly enter the job market, course duration 10 days, teaches CCTV installation in office, home, shop security and other things linked with CCTV (Photo by Jasnea Sarma, July 2017)

Often, he would give me a tour inside the hospital, with a running commentary on how privacy was not a concept in Yangon, which I thought ironic for someone in the business of delivering ‘security’. ‘I was born here. Yan(ရန်) means danger, gon(ကုန် ) = gone, a city of no dangers, that is what Yangon means. I do Yangon’, he cackled, delighted at his own joke. Despite that, he frequently alluded to how not everything is safe, especially those ‘suffering’ in hospitals he worked in, and especially not during the military regime.

U Hla remembered those times vividly.

Today I wear a uniform’, he said, pointing to his shabby ensemble of a dirty blue shirt and ankle length pants. ‘Yesterday, only they wore uniform. But not all the time they wear dresses, sometimes they like mission impossible, but they have power’, he laughed as he struggled to explain what I believe he meant: a secret or undercover agent. I couldn’t help but wonder whether Harry’s teahouse spies (Part 1) were not so far-fetched after all.

We were all so scared back then. We don’t trust those uniforms.

For Myanmar after decades of civil war and fragmented territorial control, most people outside Yangon, especially in the border regions, are used to seeing a dozen different uniforms, – militias, Border Guard Forces (BGFs), and Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs), along with official government uniforms. I have seen every variety and shade of green in various parts of Kachin state alone – traditional, striped, pixelated, woodland, faded, small, desert camo or whatever was produced in bulk in China. Trust in particular uniforms depends on what and who one associates with.

In Yangon, my friends are most familiar with the oft encountered uniforms, namely the Tatmadaw’s khaki green, the more commonly found Myanmar police in their grey-blue, and the plain-clothed men with communist-style တာဝန် (on duty) armbands. Yangonites easily discern plain-clothed Myanmar police when they see them roaming the streets undercover, picking up people, quelling protests, or making arrests. Even now, visitors to Yangon can see non-uniformed agents, always fit and vigilant, at “VIP spaces” – from Aung San Suu Kyi’s Inya Lake residence to the local government offices and various ministries and MP residences. But everyone knew the Tatmadaw khaki and Police grey were for regime security, not public security. These weren’t trustworthy uniforms. But not as untrustworthy, I am told, as the notorious vigilante/hired thugs known as the Swan Arr Shin (SAS, or loosely translated from the Burmese စွမ်းအားရှင် as ‘masters of force’ or ‘power holders’). Back in the military regime, they almost always came armed with sticks, knives along with their red တာဝန် armbands. These gangs of often unemployed men were frequently hired by the junta (specifically the Union Solidarity and Development Association) with daily wages and a couple of meals. They roamed around, conspicuously terrorising protestors, activist, opposition leaders (including Su Kyi), refugees, and monks, with particular menace and fervour, as people recall, during the Saffron Revolution. They resurfaced causing further havoc during the 2015 elections in Yangon, but simmered down thereafter.

Thus, in the lack of formal ‘security’, informal security was delivered at a community level by ‘uncles’ sitting in sheds outside various urban residential neighbourhoods. There are also the yellow-shirted civilian traffic volunteers, mostly trishaw or taxi drivers, used as a public safety measure to cope with the surging number of newly registered cars on Yangon’s roads. Today, they sit around in residential neighbourhoods and often work with the police. Yangonites remember them as friendly and dependable, usually middle-aged neighbourhood men called upon during festivals, big public examinations, gatherings or other occasions, to volunteer guard services. ‘It works for a city like Yangon’, my friend told me. ‘If something happens to my home, or there is a fire, I trust them first (neighbourhood watch),’ U Hla said.

But isn’t it up for all the security guards to do that? I asked. “Security guards secure business, not people.” He summed up a profound state of affairs quite simply.

U Hla, like the other guards I spoke to in the city, had no doubt what their role as security guards in a frontier city entails. They are after all, first and foremost, residents of the city, living precarious, dealing with ubiquitous lower middle-class insecurities. Many were displaced by rising housing prices. “You know our country; we have big cronies. Now we just have to protect the crony business.’  

Cosmetic Surveillance

Yangon therefore emerges as a brand new ‘security-scape’ of a frontier city, as a confusing labyrinth of security providers and their array of security guards and CCTVs multiply. Since 2015, more apartments downtown have installed security cameras. At the expos, I am told that these sell faster for the ever-growing urban middle class and expats. In Pansodan street, CCTV dealers tell me they prefer giving a one-year maintenance warranty and nothing more, because they know that a season of rain would destroy many of them – modern Singapore style safety downtown Yangon, full of colonial era buildings. I asked the shopkeeper why he started selling CCTVs. ‘CCTVs are pretty good business, also because they know young people or expats wouldn’t consider living in a house with no CCTV, even though the concept did not exist before 2010.’

I notice a flowering of new uniforms in various shades from different companies – white-blue, bottle green, red and white, extreme blacks, pinks or bright yellows, all men. They are stacked into stores and restaurants, placed outside banks and big establishments, or anything that is commercial. One sees them sitting, sleeping,  wandering the downtown core. They’re most visible around the Sule Shangri-La Hotel, the mall, under the pedestrian bridges across from the Sule pagoda, the various new banks, the newly functional stock exchange, the police stations, embassies and downtown streets. Many also ‘secure’ overturned markets and squatter spaces ready to be remade into buildings and malls. But they all, I notice, seem bored, listless, as if securitizing something quite pointless.

I visited the “most Singapore looking part of town” on a friend’s suggestion[1], – a brand new mall near the old Bojoke Aung San market. I watched as smartly dressed guards with tasers and whistles – not quite knowing what their job was, whistled at everything – when a car was going out, coming in, somebody getting out, getting in and so on. What a monotonous, pointless ritual, I thought. Many looked like they simply couldn’t wrap their heads around who should be doing what and for what purpose.

Nor are they all entirely trained. I noticed the company logos on many security guards, companies from the expo who claim rigorous and mandatory training for their staff. I asked a few of them what the training entailed. Some said they got the job with a brief explanation on how to patrol, monitor, take phone calls, deal with a fire, or a few hours of self-defence training.

“We did a big study for 2 days about many kinds of safety.” I recognize the logo on their uniform, one of the companies with the ‘booth babes’ at the expo. One guard said he was just asked to “hang out” with other security guards of a local bank who went through a five-day training class, probably to save costs. ‘Usually for big banks and shopping malls, they go through this ‘crash course’, he says. But smaller properties and businesses employ untrained security guards.

I spoke to U Khun, a young man forced to take a security job quickly because he was pressured to marry his girlfriend by the family, aged just 21 years old. But this was not a job with one of the bigger security firms. He ‘knew someone who knew someone’ who wanted a security guard, and so he got a job. He sat outside a bank opposite a hipster Rangoon teashop, whose tea he has never tasted, and doesn’t wish to. I asked him if security jobs are easy to find. ‘It’s about whether you want to be a security guard or not, if you want, you can get a uniform the next day with some very brief training.’

I also noticed that some of the colonial or junta period buildings are now being opened up as warehouses or renovation sites. There’s always a security guard and CCTV installed in the rubble inside. One particular place caught my attention. Every day, a uniformed guard sat with a walkie-talkie and a transistor radio. Nobody ever came in or went out, but he always sat there talking on his device to someone, guarding nothing but what looked like debris. I asked him on a few occasions, ‘what’s inside?’ And every time he said, nothing.

Many of these guards are so non-obvious and casual about their roles as security guards that they often blend into the city; one hardly notices them- unless on special occasions, such as the Muslim Eid holiday, when I’d see much more than the usual amount of uniformed Myanmar police and private security uniforms as the downtown Yangon streets fill up with the colour and candour of women in sparkly new dresses, and men in their prayer hats making their way to their relatives and friends’ homes.

Only on Eid, you will suddenly see so much security police,’ said my friend Sajid, a Muslim taxi driver. ‘Do you see them at the time of Thingyan?’

Whose (in)security?

In these little encounters, ‘security’ seems a mere façade, a spectacle of a frontier city being secured and readied for business and investments, and a reflection, perhaps, of what’s happening to the country on a wider scale. For one looking at Yangon from the outside, this facade of security justified the proliferation of new firms, more guards, more CCTV, ripe for frontier market investment, ripe for Aung San Suu Kyi’s plea to the investing world in her keynote speech for an investment summit:

As Southeast Asia’s final frontier market – final and best – we offer a world of opportunities. Investment opportunities are everywhere in Myanmar, some are there to see, and others are waiting to be found.’

Which begs the question, whose security is at stake in this ‘frontier’ Myanmar?

I took U Hla out for a taste of air-conditioned mohinga in the hyper-modern Sule Square shopping centre. Security guards seemed to outnumber customers in some parts of the mall. We noticed crony conglomerates with wealth from natural resource concessions “earned” through military connections, legitimizing said wealth through plush hotels, KTVs, restaurants, bars, and a profusion of other businesses serving an emerging elite middle class. ‘It tastes wrong, too cold, too expensive, sorry you bought this’, U Hla frowned.

We spoke about his family. He, like so many other working-class people that I met, said he used to live downtown. Since 2012, they’ve been forced by soaring prices to move. He now travels downtown, four hours round-trip, every single day when the traffic is bad, which is more and more often. Other guards share similar stories like U Hla – a tragic irony, because the rise of security is a symptom of what has displaced their families. ‘I used to live near the Bo Myat Htun,’ he tells me.

That is a large north-south road that intersects with Strand and Merchant, now gentrified, with elite new cafes, restaurants, and bars. A family I know still lives in a big heritage house on that very street. They pay 200 dollars per month for that large house, and rent out single rooms for nothing less than 800 dollars each. It wasn’t clear who exactly they were renting from, I got the impression the home was technically owned by the government or an official with ‘crony’ links. They did admit that while housing prices rise elsewhere, their home would always remain a vestige of old military links, as gifts for the families and friends of generals. As I understood, some downtown homes still retain such links, and nobody from the new NLD government or any public office comes knocking. But for a majority of downtown homes without ‘crony’ links, living downtown was no longer an option, either because it’s too expensive due to ongoing gentrification, or because it’s too lucrative not to profit from the same process, as Izzy Rhoads has found.

What do you think needs to be secured by all these security guards, I asked U Hla?

“Our lives!”

I understand what he meant. Since 2015 property prices have soared alongside exciting market transitions. News reports show residents getting pushed out of old business centres in order to make way for new malls, banks, and apartments (often funded by criminal profits earned on the country’s peripheries and laundered in Yangon’s urban core). Evictions are rampant, both downtown and in the suburbs, as slum dwellers and squatters are displaced in order for construction firms to build high-rise residences.

A frontier economy has boosted gentrification and demands for heritage structures: new start-ups refurbish them as offices and Airbnb rentals. This gentrification makes families like U Hla’s, who lived downtown for decades, unable to afford their homes. But some welcome these efforts, including middle to upper-middle class Burmese homeowners who have petitioned the YHT (Yangon Heritage Trust) for renovations. I spoke to a few: they have taken the quick money to move out while they can, because they believe they may simply be expelled by the city authorities at some later date. Meanwhile, some ‘frontier’ investors I spoke to, have suggested (to my shock) that, if Myanmar is to develop, many of these old ‘heritage’ landscapes must go.

This facade of security breaks down further when we see Yangon’s road and drainage conditions as poignantly described here on the Tea Circle by Aung Khant. While the city and its commercial interests are made ‘safe’ with CCTV and private security, pedestrians are endangered every single day by damaged sidewalks, unsafe construction sites, or simply the next speeding car, as well as open drainage ditches and lidless potholes, much like various urban street in my own country. Clogged drains flood streets, and pedestrians cross flooded streets with great apprehension during the rainy seasons. Just walking down the Strand road, one observes how precarity engulfs the downtown pedestrian as they look up to see massive blocks of cement, suspended dangerously from construction sites on top of crowded streets where men, women, children, and street animals rest under tea house sheds. If you look up in concern for too long, you risk stumbling into massive manholes potholes below. Stepping to the side risks being hit by a car, and stepping to the other side, you might hit some of the poshest places in town where few can afford a meal.

In the thrall and buzz of rapid development, street life in downtown Yangon portrays all the remnants of an old world mixed with sights from a city coming of age amidst frontier commercialization. Workers there still take afternoon naps or laze around under the street awnings heritage buildings and big banks when business is slow at midday. The streets are always lively, bustling with human activity. Old library and archive books about revolution, poetry, communism, and British administrative records find their way into the street vendors’ stalls where they remain largely unread, except perhaps by occasional foreign visitors. Youngsters reclaim previously unused spaces in the city, beautifying and making it their own. The underpass of the Dagon flyover is one example, previously unnoticeable, now starkly graffitied, enlivened by hip hop dancers practising as an appreciative evening audience gather around drinking tea.

Outside the hospital, where I chat with U Hla, security guards sit outside drinking tea us usual as well.

I promise to bring U Hla ဖန်စီလက်ဖက်ရည် (fancy tea) from Rangoon Tea House: he refuses. ‘The best tea is here,’ he says. He takes me to a stall at the back end of the hospital, giving me a tour of the children’s ward along the way. We watch as people flock into corridors and sit on the streets outside, waiting for an available bed. Fifteen tiny beds crammed into one room, all tied to bottles of saline and oxygen masks. We watch as a father carries a child on one arm, a saline bottle on the other. Relatives hover around, massaging their legs, chasing away mosquitos, flies, dogs and cats wandering into the units. Nurses run sweating from one bed to the next, in rooms lacking fans or ACs. Sick children sleep, delirious, as TVs and families make noise around them. Definitely not the health system one would expect in a ‘secured’ capital city ready for the ongoing Covid19 crisis.

Anyone can come here from anywhere here”, U Hla says, spitting blood-red betel pulp on the hospital wall as I dodge for cover. Sure enough, no one ever stopped me.

(Images courtesy of Jasnea Sarma)

[1] Thanks to Courtney Wittekind for this tip.
1. Conversations /interviews used here were conducted in Yangon by the author in various visits between 2015-2019. Most were recorded, always with the speaker’s consent. When not in English, quotes have been translated to retain the original meaning/tone in the best way possible. All names are pseudonyms.
2. She thanks Kim Roberts, Minn Tent Bo, Su Htwe Aung, James Sidaway, and Tea Circle editors Izzy Rhoads and Bobby Anderson for thoughtful feedback.

Jasnea Sarma ( is from neighbouring Assam, India, and is a Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. Her research is on the makings of resource and infrastructural frontiers in Myanmar’s borderlands with India and China. These two-part essays are built on a co-written and recently published article, however, all opinions expressed here are her own.