A month ago, the body of a man was found dumped by the side of the road in Myanmar’s central city of Mandalay.
The victim had been stabbed multiple times, and his hands tied behind his back.
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Attached to a lanyard around the neck of National League for Democracy (NLD) member Zaw Gyi the killers had left their calling card: a red circle depicting a warrior holding two swords.
The circle is the symbol of a new pro-military death squad terrorising Myanmar called Thway Thauk Apwe, which roughly translates to the blood-drinking group.
According to an NLD statement, Zaw Gyi was among 14 party members or supporters killed by Thway Thauk or similar groups between April 21 and May 5, including the brother of a party lawmaker and an NLD village administrator. Since then, the violence has continued.
“Those who openly advocated for the NLD before the last general election… are all now living with anxiety and fear because they could be victims of violence at any time,” said a Mandalay-based activist who requested anonymity for safety reasons.
The NLD won a landslide victory in the elections of November 2020, but the military refused to recognise the result, instead seizing power in a coup. When the country erupted in mass protests, the new regime killed hundreds, and opponents of the takeover turned to armed revolt.
The military leadership, which calls itself the State Administration Council, is struggling to assert control over the country and is stretched thin fighting wars on multiple fronts. Amid the chaos, shadowy pro-military groups have begun emerging, like Thway Thauk and paramilitary militias known as the Pyusawhti.
The Mandalay activist said Thway Thauk is believed to be linked to the ultranationalist Buddhist hardline group Ma Ba Tha, which was banned under the NLD, and infamous anti-Muslim monk Wirathu. He said this “poses a great concern to those of other religions, especially the Muslim community”.
Wirathu, a member of Ma Ba Tha, was one of the most vocal supporters of the military’s violent crackdown on the mostly Muslim Rohingya, which has since been labelled a genocide by the United States and some human rights groups. Wirathu was arrested for sedition shortly before the 2020 election, but was released after the military seized power.
While Thway Thauk was launched in Mandalay, it appears to have become operational in Yangon as well, the country’s largest city and former capital. The Burma Human Rights Network (BHRN) said that on May 20, a Muslim girl and her uncle were killed by Thway Thauk “thugs”.
Kyaw Win, executive director of BHRN, said the original target had been the girl’s brother, whom they believed to be a supporter of the National Unity Government, an administration set up by elected lawmakers in defiance of the coup. When the brother escaped, Thway Thauk decided to kill his relatives instead.
Kyaw Win told Al Jazeera he was afraid the groups could “trigger an anti-Muslim situation”.
“We have received confirmation from on the ground teams that yes, these are the same people from Ma Ba Tha who are involved in Thway Thauk and Pyusawhti,” Kyaw Win said.
The military’s spokesman told the local Myanmar Now newspaper in late April that it supported the Pyusawhti militias as part of a “public security system”, but denied any involvement in the Thway Thauk hit groups. Activists are sceptical.
Kyaw Win said he believes members of Thway Thauk have been “recruited” by the military. “They must have some kind of training to be able to use such lethal weapons,” he said.
The Mandalay-based activist agreed.
“We assume there is a flow of money to those groups either directly or indirectly from the SAC, probably through SAC’s stooges,” the activist said, calling the groups “state-sponsored”.
The military government did not respond to a request for comment.
‘A living hell’
Myanmar has the world’s longest running civil war, with decades of violence mostly concentrated in border regions where ethnic armed groups are fighting for political autonomy. But since the coup, violence has spread to the country’s heartland, where anti-coup armed groups known as People’s Defence Forces clash with the military in the regions of Sagaing and Magway.
Here, the military is often supported by the Pyusawhti.
Political analyst David Mathieson said the military relies on groups like the Pyusawhti and Thway Thauk to address a “long-standing weakness” in local intelligence.
He said these groups provide the military with “local contacts, languages, geography and supplies” and are “instrumental in identifying local resistance actors, arms caches, tax collectors and support structures”.
A 26-year-old woman said the Pyusawhti has turned her village in Sagaing’s Kalay Township into a “living hell”.
“I always feel like I am being watched. It’s not only me, but the rest of the villagers who are against the coup and support the revolution,” she said.
The International Crisis Group said the Pyusawhti militias were initially formed organically by pro-military networks that included Buddhist nationalists, members of the military’s proxy political party and army veterans, before they were co-opted by the generals.
In December, Myanmar Now reported that 77 Pyusawhti militias were operating in Sagaing, armed with 2,000 guns supplied by the military.
The villager in Sagaing said Pyusawhti members extort money from villagers and harass women.
“As a woman, we cannot go out and have to be careful about everything during both the day and night. We can’t even ride motorcycles alone at the moment,” she said.
She said the Pyusawhti members also point out houses of PDF fighters or other supporters of the pro-democracy movement, which soldiers then burn. In April, independent research group Data for Myanmar said regime forces had burned down more than 11,000 civilian houses since the coup, around 7,500 of them in the Sagaing Region.
“Whether it is the Pyu Saw Htee burning homes in Sagaing, or Thway Thout Ah Pwe dumping bodies across Mandalay, these are classic terror strategies designed to provoke fear in the population who overwhelmingly support the people’s resistance,” activist coalition Progressive Voice said in a recent statement.
The villager said it was not just people engaged in armed resistance who were targeted, but even those just trying to provide humanitarian assistance.
“If we want to donate to internally displaced people, they don’t consider that we are donating to IDPs, and accuse us of supporting PDFs. So, we could get arrested, or attacked at any time,” she said.
The Kalay PDF declined to comment.
Mathieson said the military’s reliance on proxies like the Pyusawhti and Thway Thauk may reflect “desperation” and also a “calculation that extreme violence will prevail”.
He said some believe these groups existed in a “previous manifestation” and may have been involved in other violent incidents, like the Depayin massacre of 2003, the crackdowns on protesters in 2007, or the assassination of Muslim NLD lawyer Ko Ni in 2017.
In an interview spread on the messaging app Telegram, a supposed spokesperson for Thway Thauk said the group was created to counter a campaign of assassinations by the resistance.
Anti-military groups are believed to have killed hundreds of local regime administrators and military informers, known as dalan. While controversial, the tactic has been effective in preventing the military from setting up local governance administrations in many parts of Myanmar, which have instead been replaced by People’s Administration Teams.
“We really want democracy,” the Thway Thauk spokesperson said, even as he threatened to kill not just PDF members, but also NLD supporters, journalists and their families. “They say we should follow the law, but when there is no rule of law, the jungle law comes alive,” he said.
True to their threats, the group took responsibility for the murder of an elderly man in Yangon in April, whose grandson had joined a PDF.
Mathieson warned such tit-for-tat retaliatory violence was spiralling out of control.
“Revenge becomes the driving factor and is more difficult to control than a hierarchical military force,” he said.
Mathieson said PDFs and ethnic armed groups should commit to “not resort to death squad tactics”, embrace “just war doctrine”, and hold any perpetrators of crimes on their side accountable.
But he also said it was the military that caused the breakdown of rule of law, which created the violent atmosphere in the first place.
“It must be stressed that the ultimate responsibility for all this hell let loose rests entirely with the Myanmar military,” he said.