Myanmar supporters of the National Unity Government the junta regime has declared a 'terrorist' organization. Image: Maxime Gruss / Hans Lucas via AFP

Myanmar’s military regime has taken a significant symbolic step to discredit the emerging parallel ‘unity’ government that has formed to challenge and topple its coup: it has formally designated them as terrorists.

On Saturday, the Anti-Terrorism Central Committee under the Ministry of Home Affairs declared the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), the National Unity Government (NUG) and newly formed People’s Defense Force (PDF) as terrorist organizations under Section 3 (b) and Subsection 13 of the 2014 Counter-Terrorism Law.

The formal notification asserts that “(m)any riots occurred in many places of the country due to their incitements. They perpetrated bombing, arson, manslaughter, and intimidation to disrupt the state administrative machinery due to the influence of the leaders of CRPH and NUG.” There is a cruel irony in the designation given the mass violence perpetrated by the military, or Tatmadaw, since it seized power on February 1 and formed the State Administration Council.

Section 3(b) of the law covers 18 specific acts of terrorism against hijacking planes and ships, taking hostages, targeting nuclear facilities, and other points directly pursuant to the international treaty framework covering terrorism over the past 50 years. Subsection 13 of the law more broadly claiming “acts which cause death or serious injury to a civilian or any other person not participating at hostilities in the situation of armed conflict with the intent to cause fear in the public, to force Government or any internal and international organization to do unlawful act or to refrain from doing lawful act.”

The 2014 Counter-Terrorism Law was drafted and passed through the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, or parliament, with much of the same opacity and secrecy that attends the legislative process in Myanmar. The law was drafted in consultation with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) during 2013-2014, although the level of consultation and technical assistance is difficult to confirm.

UNODC was recently criticized for engaging with the SAC: The coup-appointed Deputy Minister for Home Affairs Lieutenant General Than Hlaing attended the online 64th Session of the UN Commission on Narcotics Drugs (CND). The ostensible position of the UN is to confer no recognition of the SAC, and yet here was a senior security official responsible for murderous repression being treated as usual.

Myanmar’s soldiers march in a formation during a parade to mark the country’s 74th Armed Forces Day in Naypyidaw on March 27, 2019. Photo: AFP/Thet Aung

The former Thein Sein administration’s intention to draft a counter-terrorism law was first announced in October 2013 after a series of small bombings around the country including in Mandalay, Sagaing, Taungoo and Nangkam in Shan state, killing two people and injuring several others, and included a small bomb blast at the Traders Hotel in downtown Yangon in which an American tourist was injured. State media referred to these bombings, whose links with each other could not be established, as “mere terrorist act(s).”

The then-deputy minister for home affairs Major General Kyaw Kyaw Tun told reporters outside the national parliament in Naypyidaw that the government would draft counter-terrorist legislation, “(a)s this issue is related to the international community, we are going to create this law in accordance with suggestions from the international community. Several international organizations have given us suggestions on drafting a law to halt terrorism.”

The draft bill was introduced in the Pyithu Hluttaw in January 2014 and passed with several amendments, which according to the secretary of the then Lower House Bills Committee Saw Hla Tun, was “to meet with international standardisations (sic), conform to agreements and conventions Burma (Myanmar) has signed or ratified as well as resolutions by the United Nations Security Council.” The bill was signed into law in June 2014.

Legal scholar Melissa Crouch was among those to criticize the legislation. On the one hand being what the United Nations calls a “model law” because it drew on the existing count-terrorist framework of treaties, almost all of which Myanmar has signed and ratified, the law contained overly vague provisions, the Anti-Terrorism Central Committee is the purview of the Ministry of Home Affairs, essentially under control of the Tatmadaw, and legal punishments for violations include the death penalty.

Crouch wrote in 2017, “There are also blanket immunity clauses for the military and for Committee members. Committee members cannot be prosecuted for any wrongdoing.” This is only the third time the law has been publically used to designate groups, although many individuals have been charged and prosecuted under the law.

The first group designated was the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on August 25, 2017, hours after the group attacked security forces in northern Rakhine state. What followed was a campaign of mass ethnic cleansing with several thousand civilians murdered, mass arson and sexual violence driving over 700,000 people into Bangladesh.

Ten Rohingya Muslim men with their hands bound kneel in Inn Din village, Rakhine state, where a military massacre took place in September 2017. Photo: Handout

The Tatmadaw, and the National League for Democracy (NLD) government of Aung San Suu Kyi, maintained they acted to stop terrorism, but instead perpetrated crimes against humanity and war crimes.

ARSA remains formerly classified a terrorist organization, despite its militant activity for over four years to be occasional cross-border ambushes or suspected bomb attacks. Compared to multiple other armed conflicts in Myanmar, ARSA’s activities were negligible.

The second organization designated was the United League of Arakan (ULA)/Arakan Army (AA), which was listed on March 23, 2020. The formal listing came in the midst of a violent conflict in Rakhine state between the AA and Tatmadaw and police that had been ongoing for several years, but intensified in late 2018 and only decreased in November 2020 following surprise negotiations between AA and Tatmadaw leaders.

These negotiations, which the AA leader Major General Tun Mrat Naing has refused to elaborate on, have referenced the aim of establishing an autonomous ethnic Rakhine homeland as the ultimate objective. The conflict had been Myanmar’s most deadly in years, with likely thousands of combatants killed, over 300 civilians murdered and over 200,000 internally displaced.

The AA’s tactics veered dangerously close to acts commonly associated with terrorists. Civilians in Chin state were abducted and kept hostage, so too were government employees, Indian engineers (one of whom died in captivity), and three NLD party candidates ahead of the November 2020 elections. The Tatmadaw responded by arresting multiple supporters of the AA, including Tun Mrat Naing’s brother and sister, and charging them with offenses under the counter-terrorism law.

Apparently as part of the negotiations, the AA was removed from the Tatmadaw’s list of terrorists on March 11. This demonstrates starkly the politicized malleability of not just the counter-terrorism law, but also Myanmar’s entire legal system.

It is likely that some of Myanmar’s ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), including those now in league with the CRPH and NUG, have been designated as terrorist groups without being notified. A day before signing the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement in October 2015, EAO leaders read in state media that their organization had been removed from both the terrorist and unlawful associations list: it came as a surprise to many.

Designating the CRPH, NUG and PDF as terrorists is a crude label that the Tatmadaw has often cast at EAOs over the years. But it does provide another blunt instrument in the legal toolbox of the SAC to repress its opponents and could potentially have international impacts on the movement of officials of these organizations, or drive those in exile into hiding for fear of arrest and deportation if the SAC convinces cautious governments they are harboring “terrorists.”

Protesters wearing signs in support of the People’s Defence Force (PDF) during a demonstration against the military coup in Dawei, May 10, 2021. Photo: Handout/Dawei Watch/AFP

It is doubtful the wider international community will acknowledge or abide by the terrorism designation. Indeed, the democratic thing to do is engage with the CRPH and NUG, as well as the various strike committees, ethnic political parties and diverse Myanmar civil society groups who by association may now be tarred with the SAC’s same loaded label.

The SAC is clearly worried by the fast formation a credible parallel government with an armed wing and widespread popular support, a consolidation of power that will help to sustain public fury and resistance against the Tatmadaw and what a majority in Myanmar view as its illegitimate and illegal coup.

After 100 days of state carnage with nearly 800 civilians murdered, thousands injured, over 3,000 arrested, air raids launched against civilian areas and the destruction and looting of private property, it’s clear for most to see who the real terrorists are in Myanmar.

David Scott Mathieson is an independent analyst working on peace, conflict and human rights issues on Myanmar.