The rise of private security

Combat veterans and retired police officers do not seem like the type to be found regularly inside a classroom, but lessons are a fact of life for staff at security firm Aspect.

The day The Myanmar Times visited Aspect’s Bahan township office last month, 30 mostly middle-aged men were crowded in a basement, seated at desks and listening attentively to the instructor preparing them for their final written exam.

The test covers everything from the process of detaining suspicious persons and reporting faulty office equipment to the correct way to iron and wear a uniform. Those that pass can expect to work for Aspect clients such as the Turkish embassy, Horizon International School and several United Nations offices, or as plainclothes bodyguards for individuals.

The majority of the company’s recruits come from the armed forces, Aspect owner and general manager U Myo Nyein said. As if on cue, the cadets leap from their benches to stand at attention when their boss enters the room.

U Myo Nyein returned from Singapore in 2009 to start the company. He has quickly found himself at the centre of a boom for private security services.

During a tour of the Aspect office and classroom, U Myo Nyein said his organisation is continuously running new training courses but still has to turn away business.

While the UN is its most high profile client, it is among the least lucrative of Aspect’s jobs, having raised its payment per guard only once in five years.

“For UN business, our profits are very small … But it’s ok for us [because] it’s good for our image,” he said.

U Myo Nyein is not the only one taking advantage of the present boom, which is being driven by demand for guards at offices and retail and hospitality sites, such as hotels, banks and INGO offices. Industry sources say there are more than 25 firms in the sector, up from just a handful five years ago.

In the coming years, however, experts forecast that extractive projects and other large-scale industries will drive demand for private guards.

Riding on this growth, exhibition organiser MP Singapore has already begun publicising “Myanmar Security Expo”, scheduled for next October in Yangon.

The company says demand is being driven by the reforms initiated by President U Thein Sein’s government, which have resulted in sanctions being lifted and sections of the economy liberalised. As a result, many international firms have begun to enter the market.

“We see great opportunities and wish to encourage international players to join us to explore this emerging market,” said MP Singapore executive director Jason Ng.

Private security firms are relatively new in Myanmar. Under the military regime, security for large projects was regularly handled by the military, often with disastrous results.

One infamous example was the Yadana gas pipeline, a joint venture between the government and the oil companies Total and Unocal. Construction on the pipeline linking the Yadana field and Thailand began in the early 1990s in Tanintharyi Region.

The project was plagued by widespread reports of military personnel assigned to provide security committing human rights abuses. Eventually, after a lengthy court battle, Unocal – now Chevron – was forced by a United States court to pay damages to a group of villagers in 2005.

Another local example is the Letpadaung copper mine, where police have helped to secure the mine and its workers but also broken up protests and strike camps. On December 22, one woman was killed when police fired on demonstrators who were trying to stop fencing work on disputed land.

Vicky Bowman, director of the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business, said these incidents illustrate why large-scale extractive companies across the world have come to rely on private security firms.

“Generally, companies try to keep public sector [security] providers as far away as possible as it tends to aggravate the situation,” she said.

Beyond potential lawsuits and bad PR, Ms Bowman said US sanctions will make companies even more wary of engaging with the military in any way. “That’s just not an option that any of them are remotely considering.”

However, they have come to terms with the fact that in Myanmar – like many countries – the private security firms they engage will likely be owned and staffed by former members of the military and police force, such as those training at Aspect’s office last month.

Ms Bowman, who advises a number of multinational companies through her work at the centre, said many companies in need of guards are also embracing a local approach, where guards are recruited from communities near their project.

“Generally, when you’re an extractive industry the best possible practice is to hire people from the local community, because it’s a creator of jobs.”

It’s a method that security services firm Scipio, which counts Halliburton as a client, also employs. Managing director Adam Castillo, a former marine, said his company’s recruitment strategy is similar to the methods he used in the US military while serving in Afghanistan: reach out to local communities, win hearts and minds.

Even with imported best-practices, some worry that the growing use of private security firms will lead to legal and human rights-related issues.

Daniel Aguirre, a Yangon-based legal adviser, said much of the country’s wealth of economic resources is located in its most dangerous and volatile areas, where rule of law is weakest.

Holding companies responsible for the actions of private security firms will also be difficult. “The private security companies are hired as sub-contractors by local subsidiaries of the main investors and are difficult to connect legally with the parent company. This reduces the company’s liability.”

Another issue is the lack of regulations specifying the duties and limits on authority of private security companies. Locally, private security firms need only to apply for the same operating licence as any corporation or medium-sized enterprise, and there are no rules or standards for recruitment and training.

But this is not a problem limited to Myanmar, according to Mr Aguirre.

“At the international level there is the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers, based in Geneva,” he said.

“This is a voluntary, non-binding, industry initiative that lacks oversight and has no enforcement mechanisms.”

Aspect security has already gained experience working in volatile situations. Its staff were on the ground in Sittwe in March when mobs of angry Rakhine Buddhists attacked several large aid agencies.

U Myo Nyein said his guards followed the strict crowd-control and de-escalation procedures they had learned in Yangon, and this helped to ensure there was no major damage.

For him, it was proof that no matter how the industry changes, they have the model for success. “We find the old but trusted men, and then we train them, and then we send them [to where they’re needed].”


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