Myanmar's government still watching activists, despite promising freedom

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.

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 spoke 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.

Presidential spokesman Ye Htut insisted those days are over: "Special Branch is no longer monitoring on journalists." Asked to comment further, he said the story is "based on false assumptions," so he could not.

Human Rights Watch says intelligence gathering services tortured prisoners and detainees during military rule by using sleep deprivation or kicking and beating some of them until they lost consciousness. During another failed uprising, the 2007 monk-led Saffron Revolution, Special Branch officers videotaped and photographed protests, and then used the images to identify and detain thousands of people.

There are still reports of arrest, detention and sometimes torture, said David Mathieson, an expert on Myanmar for New York-based Human Rights Watch, but the number of incidents has fallen sharply, in part because activist groups and media report them when they happen.

State intelligence is still tracking targets out of "habit and continued paranoia," he said. "The secret police are often the last people to embrace a transition, especially when so many of their past victims and opponents, such as former political prisoners and activists, are a central component of the transition and reform process."

Land rights activist Win Cho has his own way of dealing with the problem: He informs on himself.

"I just tell them everything I'm going to do," he said. He often travels outside the city of Yangon to advocate for farmers who are fighting against land grabs by the rich and powerful. "If we're having a protest, I call the Special Branch and tell them where, when and how. Then they don't bother following me. They know everything already."

Earlier this year, an obligatory three-man escort from the police anti-drug division, the Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control, tagged along when an AP team travelled with the UN drug agency through the rugged mountains of eastern Shan state.

They said they were there for the journalists' safety in a region where an ethnic insurgency has thrived for decades. But they also filmed the journalists extensively during interviews with villagers. Every night, the police faxed a multipage handwritten report to their headquarters in the capital, Naypyitaw.

Asked why, the chief minder, police Maj. Zaw Min Oo, said: "We like to keep a record of what you do, whom you talk to, what you eat ... you are our guests."