On May 17, 60-year-old Khin Nyunt Wai and her son Myo Myint were found shot dead in their home in the town of Pakokku in central Myanmar. News pages reported that unknown assailants had come to kill a police officer but instead executed the two, the officer’s mother and brother, when they couldn’t find him. And two months earlier, 58-year-old Pakokku Township education officer Tin Tin Yi was gunned down as she left for work.
Despite being civilians, the three deaths will probably not be counted in the frequently quoted civilian death toll compiled by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP). The AAPP’s meticulous list currently stands at over 1,860 and specifically counts civilians, protesters, and detainees killed by security forces of the State Administration Council (SAC), as Myanmar’s latest junta calls itself.
Crucial as it is, the AAPP’s tally omits two inconvenient categories usually swept beneath the carpet in analyses and international media coverage of Myanmar’s spiraling civil war: collateral civilian deaths and those targeted by the anti-SAC People’s Defense Force (PDF) outfits.
According to the Institute for Strategy and Policy (ISP Myanmar), political violence since the February 2021 coup has killed a staggering 5,650 civilians. This includes the AAPP’s figure plus nearly 700 collateral deaths from attacks and bomb blasts, and 20 killed by a newly formed pro-military death squad.
Topping the list is more than 3,100 people killed for supposed military affiliations. This figure is based on the SAC’s statements and the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, whose chief told the BBC Burmese Service on May 11 that 1,530 party members and supporters have been killed since the coup.
It is this broad category under which people like Khin Nyunt Wai and Tin Tin Yi fall. The group encompasses people accused of being dalans, or informants; alleged military sympathizers or “hardliners”; working civil servants; retired military personnel; employees of military-owned or linked companies; hundreds of ward and village administrators; and family members of individuals belonging to these groups.
It is next to impossible to prove or disprove these numbers due to the SAC’s destruction of Myanmar’s media landscape, internet blackouts, and the hyper-polarized political climate. The SAC’s spokesperson has dismissed both the AAPP and ISP Myanmar death tolls as “baseless.” Nonetheless, the regime has seized upon these civilian killings, such as the reported killings of around 80 teachers and monks, to label the parallel National Unity Government (NUG) and PDFs as “terrorists.”
The “civilian” label is also difficult to qualify at times. Ward and village administrators act as the government’s eyes and ears, and are often used to flush out PDF cells. The military is reportedly mobilizing retirees and sympathizers into paramilitary units to bolster over-stretched forces. Working civil servants, regardless of rank or role, are seen as enabling the SAC to function and are thus hindrances or even “traitors” to the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM). Some are accused of “pressuring” striking civil servants to return to work, or complying with SAC orders. All these acts are seen as meriting death in the eyes of the resistance movement, with PDFs serving in the role of judge, jury, and executioner.
Collateral deaths are a touchy topic. PDFs regularly issue warnings to the public to stay away from public spaces and government offices, or generally not to venture outside. However, these warnings are so frequent, the coverage so broad, and the scope so unrealistic that it is impossible for most people to comply. There is also the matter of bomb attacks on soft targets such as schools, utility offices, vehicle registration offices, and businesses with military ties.
Supporters claim PDF groups thoroughly vet targets and take them out in surgical strikes. According to them, damning collateral damage or wrong civilian deaths are the result of SAC false flag operations carried out by Pyu Saw Htee militias or disinformation designed to discredit the PDFs. False flag operations cannot be ruled out given the military’s long practice of disinformation. However, neat and tidy explanations do not reflect the chaotic fog of war in this messy post-truth conflict.
There have been reported incidents of mistaken identities, family members caught up, and civilians misclassified as military personnel in attacks where PDF groups claim responsibility. At least one case of a PDF group massacring civilians and rival PDF militants after accusing the victims of being dalans has occurred in Sagaing Region, while a Karen National Union unit admitted to killing a road construction crew, also after accusing them of being spies.
Online reactions to these civilian deaths shed light on how polarized Myanmar’s social media landscape has become. Posts reporting assassinations remain very popular on Facebook. Militant anti-junta influencers and news pages also help channel netizens’ emotions towards the assassinations. Embittered by the junta’s atrocities, thousands append “like” and “haha” reactions or celebratory comments to such posts, often praising the killings as giving the SAC a taste of its own terror.
Meanwhile, supporters wash the PDFs’ hands of collateral deaths, claiming victims were to blame for not heeding warnings. They also say no deaths would have occurred if there were no coup, and that raising the issue is tantamount to being a dalan. And in instances where diplomats and independent voices have expressed concern over the spiraling violence, anti-junta netizens counter that the omelet of overthrowing the military is an omelet that cannot be made without breaking some eggs, and that any price is worth paying.
Mostly pushed off Facebook, pro-military platforms now mainly congregate on Telegram to offer different takes on the deaths. Some fan conspiracy theories, such as an alleged Islamist plot rewarding PDFs for assassinations, especially of monks. Others call for harsher crackdowns, heckling what they say is SAC leader Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing’s “soft and indecisive” measures to protect ward administrators and military supporters, and also pushing for legalized gun ownership.
The civilian and collateral death tolls from PDF actions cannot in any way justify or negate the deaths of innocent civilians and peaceful protesters killed by regime forces. According to the NUG’s human rights minister, junta forces have killed at least 170 civilians in five massacres, with a disturbing trend of victims being burnt alive.
There also cannot be any moral equivalency between the Myanmar military and its newest crop of opponents. The military has repeatedly shown its flagrant disregard for basic human rights and its penchant for systematic and sadistic violence against civilians, something which it has regularly dispensed onto ethnic communities like the Karen and Rohingya with impunity for decades.
That said, these other civilian tolls should not be neglected either. As the conflict drags on and the two sides remain determined to eliminate each other, more assassinations and collateral deaths will occur. Sentiments are slowly shifting on the ground as the general public’s bandwidth for constant revolution and insecurity narrows. No matter how noble and justifiable the overall struggle may be, these inconvenient numbers can very well hamper the resistance’s efforts to expand international legitimacy and maintain domestic support.