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Counting Myanmar’s Dead: Reported Civilian Casualties since the 2021 Military Coup

June 13th, 2023  •  Author:   Peace Research Institute Oslo  •  6 minute read
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Executive Summary

This study finds that at least 6,337 civilians were reported as killed and 2,614 as wounded for political reasons in Myanmar in the twenty months between the military coup of February 1, 2021, and September 30, 2022. This is a larger number than is normally cited in the media, and yet it is only an estimate, based on reported killings gathered from reliable media reports. The actual total is surely higher since many killings have likely gone unreported.

Our research indicates that even establishing an accurate total for just the reported civilian killings from any single available dataset is essentially impossible, due to selection bias with respect to sources. This is true of the Township-based Conflict Monitoring System (TCMS) dataset, which is maintained by the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security (MIPS) and provides the main basis for this study. We have thus combined several datasets to arrive at an approximate total figure.

This report defines civilians as individuals who are neither combatants nor members of armed organizations, and who do not take part directly in hostile actions. The report does not join the debate over what kinds of violence constitute a violation of international humanitarian law. Our study aims to demonstrate that the total reported number of conflict-driven civilian fatalities is higher than the figures cited in reports compiled by various international actors, including the United Nations. The study briefly discusses the reported killings of individuals alleged to have been members of a Pyu Saw Htee or militia force associated with the Myanmar military. Since we have been unable to ascertain the veracity of these allegations, we have taken them at face value and have not counted these particular individuals as civilians.

The escalation of violence against civilians in Myanmar began shortly after the February 2021 coup, when the new military regime suppressed non-violent protests by means of brutal crackdowns, arrests, torture, and killings. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) identified 884 protest-related killings by the security forces. After the initial phase of repression of the anti-junta protest, political violence continued at a lower level, which then escalated and reached a monthly peak of 492 registered killings in December 2021.

The repression of the non-violent protests led to the formation of local resistance groups, such as Local Defense Forces (LDF) and People’s Defense Forces (PDFs), which acquired arms and training from Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs). These groups launched attacks against military units, police targets, and civil servants who allegedly supported the arrest of protesters by actively supporting the military. The media reports also showed that resistance groups themselves killed some civil servants who did not join the Civil Disobedience Movement. The military responded with raids against villages suspected of harboring PDFs. The retaliatory violence triggered a wave of politically motivated murders by both sides, with the military targeting suspected PDF fighters and supporters, and the PDFs targeting alleged informers and collaborators. The military then responded by arming local militias. Given this dynamic, political violence is likely to escalate further, and perhaps reach catastrophic proportions. The epicenter of the escalated violence has been the Sagaing and Magway regions, which are mainly populated by Myanmar’s ethnic Burman majority population, and which had not experienced armed struggle in decades prior to the coup.

This study finds that politically motivated murders, and not collateral killings in connection with armed clashes, constituted the dominant form of violence against civilians in both urban and rural areas in the 20-month period after the coup. This was especially true in regions populated by the ethnic Burman majority and in the two major cities of Yangon and Mandalay. Sixty-seven percent of the reported civilian fatalities were politically motivated murders. The four regions—Sagaing, Magway, Mandalay, and Yangon—have seen the highest number of civilian deaths due both to the repression in the first six months after the coup and to politically motivated murders in the subsequent months. In contrast to the aftermath of the 1988 military crackdown against the protestors in Yangon and other places, when the main fighting took place in ethnic minority areas, in the period from 2021–2022, the Burman majority population suffered the most from political violence.

A key purpose of this study is to demonstrate that ample multimedia evidence is available to systematically track the number of civilian killings in Myanmar. Much evidence may be found in the social media, where perpetrators often post images, videos, and accounts of their actions. Additionally, traditional media and local news sources have reported a great number of killings, often with a high degree of accuracy. These reports, compiled by local journalists, are available on Facebook, Telegram, and other social media platforms.

While we emphasize that the Myanmar military holds sole responsibility for instigating the trend of violence when it repressed the non-violent protests, our study calls for more research both to understand the large number of politically motivated murders of civilians that occurred afterward and to identify the perpetrators. The study calculates that the Myanmar military (Tatmadaw), police, and affiliated militia were responsible for 3,003 reported civilian deaths (including protestors), between February 1, 2021, and September 30, 2022. In the same 20-month period, anti-coup resistance groups or EAOs killed 2,152 civilians, and unspecified perpetrators killed at least 1,170 civilians. Our study also shows that determining the category to which some of the unspecified perpetrators belong is possible by identifying their victims. (For categories of perpetrators, see Table 8 below.) One objective of this study is to lay a groundwork for investigating each and every incident.

The military regime plans to hold a sham election in August 2023, which the opposition has vowed to disrupt. Even though the election is likely to be delayed, the risk of election-related violence remains high. There have been media reports of election-related violence and explicit threats against the political parties that decided to register their parties with the Union Election Commission (UEC) and civil servants working on behalf of the UEC. The scale, trend, and acceptance of violence against civilians by supporters of both the military regime and the resistance groups are worrying. There is potential for politicide, with large-scale retaliatory killings should the violence escalate.

On the basis of our research, we would like to suggest that the United Nations (UN) create a system to observe and document the murder of civilians in Myanmar, in accordance with Security Council Resolution 2669. This resolution demands the cessation of all violence and encourages restraint and the reduction of tensions. The proposed system should maintain a current tally of civilian deaths, modelled on the one that the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) uses to track civilian deaths in Ukraine. Furthermore, our study urges all participants in the conflict to begin a conversation about safeguarding civilians and halting the continuous killing of civilians in conflict zones and major cities.

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