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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

'Blood Comrades' Issue Threats to Myanmar Media

By Liam Scott June 09, 2022

To cement their loyalty to one another in 1941, the founders of Myanmar's colonial-era independence movement — known as the Thirty Comrades — drank from a silver bowl filled with each member's blood.

The dramatic show of allegiance, borrowed from a centuries-old cultural tradition, is said to have inspired the name of a pro-junta militia in the city of Mandalay: the Thway Thauk, or Blood Comrades.

In threats shared by its supporters on Telegram and other platforms, the militia has warned it will kill journalists — and their families — over coverage deemed critical of the military.

The public threats — the most violent of which are removed from social media — add to an already fraught environment.

"It is really dangerous for my friends who are still inside of the country or also for those who are outside of the country but their family members remain inside," exiled freelance journalist Aung Naing Soe wrote in a message to VOA.

In late April, posts from pro-military Telegram accounts said the Blood Comrades were launching "Operation Red" against members of the National League for Democracy, or NLD party, and its supporters. The junta ousted the NLD, which headed the civilian government before the coup, and jailed its senior leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi.

The Blood Comrades also claimed responsibility for killing at least eight people, in some cases leaving a badge with their insignia — a warrior holding two swords — as a calling card. The victims were members or supporters of the NLD, Radio Free Asia reported.

Targeting members and supporters of the National Unity Government (NUG) and the NLD is "a form of fear tactic," Htin Linn Aung, the NUG minister of communications, information and technology, told VOA.

The NUG is a parallel government formed by ousted elected officials and some ethnic leaders in opposition to the military.

Htin Linn Aung and analysts with whom VOA spoke said that Telegram posts attributed to the militia have called for journalists at outlets including The Irrawaddy, Mizzima and Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) to be killed. Their purported reason: content deemed "destructive of the state."

Splinter groups

The existence of pro-junta militias in Myanmar is not new, and dozens are believed to be operating across the country — some sanctioned by the military.

Analysts who spoke with VOA say they believe the Blood Comrades are almost certainly linked to the junta.

Military spokesperson General Zaw Min Tun denied that is the case, telling VOA the military has nothing to do with "the so-called Thway Thauk," which he described as "a fabrication."

In some regions, the military set up trained militias to assist in enforcing rule of law, he said, adding that locals have to request that help.

Zaw Min Tun blamed the opposition civilian militia People's Defense Forces, or PDFs, for some killings, saying the groups are "supported and funded" from abroad.

Some media and rights groups have reported on killings attributed to PDFs.

Oliver Spencer, an adviser at Free Expression Myanmar (FEM), believes the junta encourages the militia activities as a way to shield the military from accountability.

"The military is trying to basically distance itself from the most extreme forms of violence toward journalists, civil society, political activists, in some kind of long-term attempt to pretend like the military is trying to reestablish the rule of law and public order," Spencer said.

Threatening environment

Militias like the Blood Comrades add to a slate of threats against Myanmar's remaining reporters and instill fear.

Relatively few journalists still work in Myanmar, and those who do keep a low profile to avoid attracting the military's attention, said Spencer.

His nongovernmental organization was forced to close its Yangon office following the coup.

So far, the Blood Comrades have not attacked media workers. But journalists do not take the threats lightly.

"The group has already proved their capacity in killing activists and politicians and their family members," wrote Aung Naing Soe, who has friends still reporting in Myanmar. "It is really dangerous for the country and its press freedom situation."

A journalist still in Myanmar, who requested anonymity for reasons of safety, told VOA that local media "working in the country are not secure after this group emerged."

Phil Thornton, a Thailand-based journalist and adviser to the International Federation of Journalists, believes the militia's threats are part of efforts to block reporting.

"It's meant to terrorize people and make people fearful, and in the case of journalists, make them not want to report," Thornton told VOA.

Reporters have played an important role in Myanmar over the past 16 months, documenting violence that the U.N. Human Rights Office has said likely constitutes war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The military has killed more than 1,900 people and detained more than 10,900, according to the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

Another group, Reporting ASEAN, has documented more than 120 media arrests since February 1, 2021, and says 48 journalists are still in custody.

"Anyone against the Myanmar military — they are all enemies. Doesn't matter where you live, your ethnicity or anything like that. They don't see it anymore. They don't see children as children. They see them as enemies," a human rights researcher in Myanmar told VOA. She requested anonymity for safety reasons.

Despite the threat from the Blood Comrades, media outlets keep reporting.

"Their threat proved [to] us that what we are doing is so important for people in Burma," said Aye Chan Naing, executive director and founder of DVB. "We know the risk we are taking."

DVB, one of Myanmar's largest independent outlets, no longer has full-time reporters in the country.

But even reporters still on the ground say threats from militias or the military won't stop them.

The Blood Comrades "can't make me report differently," said the local reporter who asked to remain anonymous.

Any journalist covering the military "might be detained," the journalist added. "I don't know exactly the date and time, but they might come and knock [on] my door sometime."

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