It was late at night on June 21 when about 20 armed men arrived at a home in a remote part of southern Myanmar. They accused the owner of funding a pro-democracy militia and took her away at gunpoint in an unmarked vehicle. Early the next morning, her family found her body outside her house, bearing marks of torture and a bullet wound to her chest.
“Her mouth was dislocated … her nose was bloodied; her face was covered with dark bruises and both of her hands were covered with blood where they appeared slashed with knife,” a family member told me. “It was unbearable to look at.”
Since the February 1, 2021 military coup in Myanmar, the junta has brutally suppressed widespread opposition. The police and military have arbitrarily detained more than 15,700 people and killed at least 2,300, according to the nongovernmental Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. Human Rights Watch has documented widespread and systematic abuses since the coup, including extrajudicial killings and torture, that amount to crimes against humanity.
Many of the violations are attributed to the state security forces, but some involve pro-junta militias that emerged shortly after the coup. The Phyu Saw Htee, a network of intelligence units and military supporters that have received basic training and even weapons from the military, reinforce the military’s security apparatus and have carried out countless attacks on political activists and other civilians.
In April, the military announced it would form public militias made up of former military personnel, pro-military civilians, soldiers, and police to combat resistance to the junta. The Thway Thout Ah-Pwe, or “Blood Comrades” militia, formed soon after and launched “Operation Red,” targeting members of the ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) party and anti-junta groups.
Within a week of forming, they claimed to have tortured and killed at least eight NLD members. They mark their victims by placing lanyards with the group’s logo over their the bodies and then sharing graphic images on social media, earning themselves the moniker of “death squads.”
Since then, they have killed dozens of people. In October, they reportedly killed another 11 NLD members and supporters in Mandalay. Junta authorities have denied any association with them, but have taken no action to stop them either. Similar pro-junta armed groups have claimed responsibility for killings elsewhere in the country.
Social media posts on platforms such as Telegram suggest that these pro-junta militias have a direct affiliation with the military. Certain channels and groups frequently share propaganda and calls for violence against anti-junta groups. There are various indicators that the military may own, control, and sponsor some of these channels, according to an organization that is researching pro-military activity on Telegram.
The military has a history of using unregulated militias to quash unrest, mainly in parts of the country where ethnic armed groups have engaged in decades-long civil wars. Now, in the ethnic majority Bamar heartland of central Myanmar, the military are equipping these militias with weapons and ammunition for use against popular resistance to the junta.
Anti-junta armed groups have in places put up strong resistance against the military. In cities such as Yangon and Mandalay, they have claimed responsibility for a number of targeted killings of both military personnel and civilians.
On September 20, the military spokesperson, Zaw Min Htun, said during a press conference that acts such as donating to “anti-military groups,” purchasing treasury bonds from the opposition civilian government, called the National Unity Government, or donating to it online would be treated as financing for “terrorism,” punishable by up to seven years in prison under the harsh 2014 Counter Terrorism Law.
He added that violators face sentences of 10 years to life in prison. The junta’s courts are neither independent nor provide due process.
Pro-junta armed groups that have claimed responsibility for extrajudicial killings have faced no consequences. Killings are not always documented, leaving it unclear which militias were involved. After the killing of the homeowner in southern Myanmar, fear of informants, militias, and the military prevented her family from speaking out. The killings are having the desired effect of silencing dissent, and families recognize that the killings will go unpunished.
Accountability for crimes against humanity such as extrajudicial killings by the junta and junta-backed militias will only come if there is concerted pressure from the United Nations Security Council, regional bodies such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and concerned governments.
The United Kingdom recently drafted a U.N. Security Council resolution stressing the need to end impunity for military abuses and calling for a global arms embargo on Myanmar. While China and Russia may use their veto to block it, other governments should be publicly voicing their support for holding Myanmar’s junta responsible and support a referral of Myanmar to the International Criminal Court.