A member of the Karenni People Defense Force (KPDF) holds up their weapon as they take part in military training at a camp near Demoso in Kayah state, July 6, 2021. Photo: AFP / Stringer

In his latest hit piece entitled “Fog of stats enshrouds Myanmar’s wars”, David Mathieson takes aim at a recent report from the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security (MIPS) in a dubious attempt to discredit the organization and its founder.

The article willfully jeopardizes the safety and security of MIPS’s staff through its false accusations of association and support for the Myanmar military. Unable to refute data or get his facts straight, Mathieson deliberately distorts the report in question through gross omission and deceptive mischaracterization of the methods and purpose behind conflict monitoring.

Mathieson’s first invention is that MIPS’s decision to confine the data reporting period up to July 2021 is a ploy to “provide a distorted image of the violence” in Myanmar. To contort reality, Mathieson omits that the executive summary contains quantitative descriptions of the security environment through the end of 2021, for example by including the number of improvised explosive device (IED) incidents in major regions. Moreover, he ignores that each chapter offers a qualitative description of dynamics throughout both 2020 and all of 2021.

The author is also incorrect that limiting data analysis primarily to July 2021 provides a skewed picture of the conflict. As Mathieson notes, MIPS compares the nationwide number of armed clashes and IED incidents during the six-month periods before and after the February 2021 coup to demonstrate the expansion of armed conflict that followed the military’s takeover, a trend that was visible by July 2021.

To summarize, these data demonstrate a more than eightfold increase in IED incidents alongside a threefold increase in armed clashes, highlighting how the coup severely destabilized the country. How Mathieson can interpret this presentation of data as favorable to the military is nothing short of perplexing.

As it does each year, MIPS began 2021 with a plan to produce its annual review covering the year prior. Unsurprisingly, the coup incurred significant delays, and by the time MIPS was ready to compile the report it was clear that audience interest had shifted toward post-coup security dynamics.

As a small local organization, MIPS typically requires several months for data cleaning, analysis, writing, and graphic design. Confining the data interval up to July 2021 was a compromise aimed at offering a relevant research product while ensuring data quality, a point clearly stressed in the report.

Rather than contact MIPS for clarification, Mathieson wrongly assumed the report’s limitation and delay as a ruse to deceive readers. As publication neared in November 2021, the military regime’s Bureau of Special Investigation (BSI) launched an investigation into MIPS. The report was further delayed out of concern for the safety of its staff.

Myanmar soldiers patrol during a demonstration against the military coup outside the Central Bank in Yangon, Myanmar on February 15, 2021. Photo: Myat Thu Kyaw / NurPhoto via AFP

Mathieson’s next vacant complaint is that “nowhere in the table of contents is the Myanmar military even mentioned, which is odd because every armed group in the country seems to be fighting the central army.”

Factually, multiple key ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) such as the United Wa State Army (UWSA), National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA), Shan State Progress Party (SSPP), Arakan Army (AA), Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), and other NCA-signatories maintained written or de facto ceasefire with the military even after the coup, a point also clearly expressed in MIPS’s report.

How could an individual with years of experience in Myanmar be so patently incorrect about a basic feature of the conflict? Sadly, the likely explanation is not ignorance but evident bad faith. In March 2021, Mathieson complained that certain EAOs had not taken up arms against the coup. The piece was aptly titled “The rebels who will and won’t fight Myanmar’s coup.”

Suffice to say, Mathieson’s critique of the table of contents is a deliberate attempt to obscure the actual contents of the report which, except for one chapter on inter-EAO fighting, is dedicated entirely to describing conflict with the military as the key actor.

The writer’s next charge is that MIPS failed to address “the increased ferocity of the military offensive and widespread use of arson to destroy villages”. Again, Mathieson’s bizarre vendetta leads him to make clumsy accusations, easily dismissed by a simple reading of the report:

“The Tatmadaw attempted to partially compensate for its weak force posture by retaliating with several demonstrations of devastating force against both the armed opposition and civilian populations supporting the insurgency. This included bombing villages in Kayin State and razing swathes of populated towns in Chin State where clashes occurred.” (p. 86).

In yet another example, Mathieson points to MIPS’s reporting on the killing of junta officials, alleged informers and suspected collaborators. Deceptively, he makes it seem like MIPS simply regurgitated statistics from the State Administration Council (SAC) military junta.

In reality, the report contains original data on targeted killing collected by MIPS and explicitly mentions that it could not verify the SAC’s numbers. Moreover, Mathieson believes that including such data somehow “obscures the rampant slaughter of unarmed civilians by security forces since the coup.” In his fuddled crusade to discredit the organization, Mathieson complains of “selection bias” while also suggesting that MIPS should exclude important and blatant conflict dynamics from its reporting.

In further contradiction to Mathieson’s claims, the report includes a dedicated section on the number of protestors killed by security forces, which between February and July 2021 was 947 (p. 93).

Despite variations in methodology, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) verified a similar 940 killings during the same period. These parallel findings by MIPS and AAPP demonstrate the overall trend while cataloging evidence of widespread killing. Mathieson surely understands the importance of such work, which makes his selective labeling of MIPS’s data as “pro-military” even more unfair and unethical.

Pallbearers carry the coffin of a protester, who died amid a crackdown by security forces on demonstrations against the military coup, during his funeral in Taunggyi in Myanmar’s Shan state on March 29, 2021. Photo: AFP

Consistently unable to dispute monitoring statistics or explain why some data necessitate an alternative explanation, Mathieson attempts to dismiss the entire practice of documenting armed conflict as “pseudo-academic.”

The author could have made an intelligent argument by comparing other statistics or explaining why some data do not reflect the ground situation, but ironically takes hollow swipes at basic research practice instead.

Mathieson also alleges that MIPS describes EAOs as “instigators, stonewallers or spoilers,” an accusation for which he provides no evidence or example. MIPS never once used those words or described EAOs in that way.

Part of the organization’s mission is to monitor and describe, in impartial but accurate terms, different types of violence committed by all parties. Never does this entail justifying the behavior of armed actors. The purpose is solely to help readers understand how and why conflict unfolds as it does.

If genuine about this concern, Mathieson could have offered a corrective using facts and logic. Instead, more than half the article is dedicated to ad hominem attacks on myself, Dr Min Zaw Oo, MIPS’s executive director.

Most egregiously, Mathieson suggests that I reached an “accommodation” with the junta. The sole piece of evidence Mathieson offers for this false claim is that I remain in Yangon, which simply isn’t true; I departed Myanmar nearly two months ago.

Like other counterparts, I left the country shortly after the coup in May 2021. Four months after my return to the United States, the Myanmar Central Bank froze MIPS’s foreign transactions just before the BSI, under the SAC’s Ministry of Home Affairs, launched its investigation into the organization.

As MIPS’s leader, I temporarily returned to Myanmar and attempted to resolve the issue for the sake of the organization’s continuity and the safety of our staff. The SAC’s Ministry of Home Affairs has since suspended MIPS’s registration as a nongovernmental organization (NGO).

Mathieson’s baseless accusations are a gross ethical violation and abuse of his privilege as someone with a long and rich career enabled by Myanmar’s protracted conflicts. Given the ongoing pattern whereby individuals are accused as military collaborators, doxed and killed, it is shocking that an outsider would publish fraudulent accusations against a local researcher and attempt to reveal his whereabouts.

Such behavior must be labeled for what it is: a thinly veiled call for violence against its founder and the staff at MIPS. Already, Mathieson’s falsified account has been translated into Burmese on social media and posted alongside photos of the MIPS office, which the organization, fortunately, has vacated.

MIPS is an independent organization with no association to any military or government entity. Neither MIPS nor I received financial support, protection or any privileges from the military or the successive governments since its founding in 2017. My personal last position in association with the government was as an advisor to the Peace Commission, which was established by the since coup-toppled National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government.

MIPS’s staff hailed from diverse ethnic and political backgrounds. Following the coup, some former staff joined the National Unity Government (NUG) and other opposition groups while one chose to work for the SAC. Their decisions were personal, and MIPS neither influenced nor consulted them ahead of time.

Protesters hold posters in support of the National Unity Government (NUG) during a demonstration against the military coup on ‘Global Myanmar Spring Revolution Day’ in Taunggyi, Shan state, on May 2, 2021. Photo: AFP / Stringer

Mathieson’s insistence that the decision of one former employee exemplifies an institution-wide bias makes little sense if multiple other former staffers went to the opposition. Mathieson’s prejudiced rant is informed by his apparent low esteem for Myanmar analysts, who he evidently views as incapable of independent thought and professional practice.

As an independent research outfit, MIPS communicates with government officials, military officers, security personnel, EAOs, opposition groups, CSOs, political parties, activists, businesspersons and diplomats. It collects and reviews data coming from all sources to minimize selection bias, a ubiquitous problem for most Western analysts who have limited access to sources.

Data for the Township-based Conflict Monitoring System (TCMS) are collected strictly in accordance with a codebook developed in line with widely-accepted research standards. The dataset is shared with international universities and partner institutions that conduct similar quality assurance checks. MIPS stands by its methodology and reporting.

Mathieson ends his mendacious tirade with a predictable attack on MIPS’s funding. Conveniently, he makes no mention of the profound conflict of interest at play, engendered by the high fees he charges for “independent analysis” to some of those same funders. Such an attack raises serious questions over what his true motives really are.

Min Zaw Oo is the founder of the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security established in 2017 as an independent think tank focusing on peace and security issues. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.