A protester shows a bullet during a protest against military coup and detention of elected government members in Mandalay, Myanmar on March 27, 2021. Stringer / Anadolu Agency via AFP

Violence in Myanmar is spreading across rural and urban spaces like bushfires, with military arson campaigns consuming communities throughout the so-called Dry Zone, bolstered by air strikes and heavy artillery blasts to terrorize civilians in the Southeast.

A relatively new addition to the post-coup terror campaign by the State Administration Council (SAC) is the reported rise of clandestine hit squads who call themselves thway-thout-ah-pwe, or “blood drinkers group.”

These groups have been active around the central city of Mandalay, abducting, torturing and killing members of the ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) since they announced on Telegram the start of “Operation Red” to terrorize members of the political party.

In May, NLD supporters Khin Maung Thein and his wife Kha Kha were dumped on the side of the road reportedly with the “blood drinkers” lanyards draped over their necks. While Khin Maung Thein died, his wife survived but was reportedly severely tortured.

Similar groups are purportedly operational in Yangon and Taunggyi. This represents a potentially terrifying new front in a multi-sided conflict that has already increased tit-for-tat killings and broadened out multiple targets as the anti-SAC People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) increase their assassinations of local SAC officials, members of the pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and suspected informers.

Irregulars, proxies and subversives serve multiple counterinsurgency roles, including collecting local intelligence, bolstering “state” security operations, providing plausible deniability for targeted killings or intimidation, and employing threats of subcontracted violence to ensure local civilian compliance with authoritarian rule.

These patterns of use have appeared in almost all internal armed conflicts in varying degrees, and are not unique to Myanmar.

This isn’t the first time the Myanmar military has deployed auxiliaries, vigilantes, militias or outright death squads to supplement their security apparatus. They have utilized the so-called “People’s Militia system” to fight insurgents since the 1960s, albeit in predominantly long-standing conflict areas such as Shan state.

These systems of local counterinsurgency assistance in terms of local contacts, languages, geography and supplies are a necessity in counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine.

Myanmar counterinsurgency forces often suffer from a lack of intelligence. Image: Facebook

It appears as if pro-military groups known as “Pyusawhti” may be a rural area evolution of that COIN necessity, where local auxiliaries assist the army and police to target PDF positions and are instrumental in identifying local resistance actors, arms caches, tax collectors and support structures.

They have been seen most clearly in Sagaing and Magwe, where they have been directly complicit in abuses against civilians. This has plunged Myanmar into the type of civil war, between fellow Bama Buddhists, not Bama against ethnic nationalities such as the Kachin or Kayin, not seen since the 1950s.

Since at least the 1990s, the Union Solidarity and Development Association (the “social welfare” organization precursor to the USDP) had members who attacked NLD leaders, which led to the Depayin massacre in 2003.

Some believe the thway-thout-ah-pwe had an earlier manifestation, with certain speculation it was involved in the assassination of prominent NLD lawyer Ko Ni at Yangon airport in 2017.

However, like violent adjuncts of pro-state security forces everywhere, the opaque nature of these groups generates more speculation than verifiable facts.

Are they independent and trying to help their allies in the military and USDP, bolstered by members of the former Buddhist ultra-nationalist group the Ma Ba Tha? Are they raised, directed, funded and armed by elements of the security apparatus, or are they actually a special detail of the military murdering perceived opponents of the SAC?

It is impossible to say for sure, but if their targets are local members of the NLD or supporters of the resistance it could indicate localized knowledge that drives targeting choices, as evident in the murders in Mandalay.

The late April announcement by SAC spokesperson Zaw Min Tun of a “Public Security System” may indicate fluid financial and weapon supply support for the system. It could also indicate a return to the former military regime seen in the 2000’s that included the USDA, Myanmar Fire Brigade Auxiliaries, the Myanmar Red Cross Society members and pro-regime civil society groups.

A purported memo from SAC leader and coup-maker Senior General Min Aung Hlaing leaked to independent media group Myanmar Now in early April suggests a partial reprise of this system. It would include the Myanmar Red Cross Society in pro-military roles they had severed in 2016.

Myanmar military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing salutes during military exercises in the Ayeyarwaddy delta region in February 2018. Photo: AFP/Pool/STR
Myanmar military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing salutes during military exercises in the Ayeyarwaddy delta region in February 2018. Photo: AFP / Pool / Stringer

Add to this the passing of the Myanmar Police Act in March, which requires the police to take more “frontline” pacification duties to combat “terrorists” – although this has been long-standing practice between the military and police, the latter of which has been seen as an inferior and under-resourced adjunct for many years.

Yet official laws and strategies indicate a long-standing weakness in the military’s tactical-level counterinsurgency responses: a dearth of human intelligence capacities.

This partly explains their institutionalized brutality against civilians in conflict areas. Another explanation is that atrocities are a form of recreation and punishment against people of different ethnic, linguistic or religious groups, who are objectified in the military’s culture of pacification.

Similar forms of objectification are seen in how the SAC’s security apparatus views any resistance, even in Bama-Buddhist “heartland” spaces such as the Yaw Valley. 

A recent bombing in the commercial capital of Yangon at a bus stop on Anawratha Road and 35th Street seriously injured several people and killed one bystander. Was it a PDF attack, or a premature detonation of a PDF attack, or a secretive SAC false flag operation?

A statement from the National Unity Government’s shadow Ministry of Defense claimed, “(t)hroughout history, the terrorist SAC has committed violent attacks and terrorist acts against civilians through extremist groups such as the Pyu Saw Htee and the so-called ‘blood drinkers.’ And they have sought to place blame on ethnic resistance groups and revolutionary forces in similar incidents in the past.”

This potentially risks a subterranean security dilemma of wars within wars, in which direct targeting of opposing supporters becomes a form of vendetta or blood feud, resulting in a spiral of retaliation where what constitutes a “legitimate target” becomes elastic and opaque, such as the recent killing of Myo Win Htut in Mawlamyine in Mon state.

Myo Win Htut was a driver with the World Health Organization (WHO) and his killing was condemned by senior United Nations officials. Local resistance networks claim he was the cousin of SAC secretary Lieutenant General Aung Lin Dwe, and had been involved in intimidating anti-SAC activists in the area.

Meanwhile, the recent SAC death sentences handed down to resistance leaders Ko Jimmy and Phyo Zeyar Thaw, captured separately last year with weapons caches in Yangon, were justified by a regime press release that said “they were proved to be masterminds of orchestrating full-scale terrorist attacks against innocent civilians to instill fear and disrupt peace and stability.”

Karenni People Defense Force (KPDF) fighters taking part in military training at their camp near Demoso in Kayah state in July 2021. Photo: AFP / Stringer

A regime that pursues extra-judicial and judicial executions is a retrograde dictatorship. There is currently no legitimate rule of law in Myanmar, rather just an arbitrary system now under the SAC’s complete whim.

There are better-functioning rule of law and accountability systems in places of ethnic armed organization (EAO) control, albeit highly uneven. The NUG would do itself a legitimizing favor by demonstrating its moral superiority to the SAC by committing to international humanitarian law (IHL) and embracing just war doctrine, including pledges of accountability for all crimes perpetrated by its aligned PDF forces.

Ensuring that PDFs and EAOs do not resort to death squad tactics like the military would also demonstrate a clear distinction between the SAC and the resistance. While EAOs are by no means immune to excesses and breaches of the laws of war, they have rarely resorted to death squad tactics such as those the Myanmar military appears to be supporting.

If the SAC is raising extremist shadowy auxiliaries to conduct targeted assassinations, it must be seen in the context of its increasing desperation and an all-encompassing drive to maintain military rule, a necessity for which it is entirely to blame and is traced back not just to the 2021 coup but the extreme violence used thereafter to consolidate its widely opposed seizure of power.

The army is creating multiple Frankenstein-like monsters to fight their post-coup wars against the people of Myanmar. These groups shouldn’t, however, be looked at in isolation or compartmentalized. The Myanmar military is itself an engorged death squad, and its latest offshoots are a reflection of Min Aung Hlaing’s own inner monster.

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