Soldiers at a protest in Yangon on February 15, 2021 (Frontier)

‘Fear causes more hate’: Beheadings haunt Myanmar’s heartland

The country has seen a grisly surge in beheadings since the coup – with both pro-military and anti-military figures targeted – a pattern observers say reflects the military’s brutality and the subsequent rage of the people it oppresses.


When schoolteacher U Saw Tun Moe received a warning that the Myanmar military was approaching Kyar Thit Kan village on October 17, he told his students to find their parents and “run as far as you can”. His concern was understandable – less than a month earlier helicopter gunships had opened fire on another school, killing at least 12 children.

The 46-year-old, who had been teaching for six years, was from a neighbouring village in Magway Region’s Pauk Township and wasn’t familiar with the local terrain. Saw Tun Moe tried to hide in a field, where he was quickly discovered by soldiers, who took him to another school in a nearby village. 

There, they cut off three of his fingers, commonly used to flash a pro-democracy salute styled after the Hunger Games, before decapitating him and sticking his head on a spike on the school fence.

“I was left totally speechless by that barbaric act,” said Saw Tun Moe’s colleague U Htee Hlaing, who was with him before the raid. Htee Hlaing described the maths and physics teacher as an honest and shy man who often donated to charity.

Saw Tun Moe was targeted by the Myanmar military because of his association with the National Unity Government, a parallel administration appointed by elected lawmakers in defiance of the February 2021 military coup. He had been a private school teacher before the coup, but as armed resistance groups repelled the military from parts of Magway Region, he joined the NUG’s Board of Education in Pauk.

Htee Hlaing said he was identified as an NUG teacher by members of the pro-military Pyusawhti militia that controls two other nearby villages. He theorised that the junta is using such severe tactics to spread fear and quell resistance in Magway, which has emerged as one of the fiercest hotspots of opposition to military rule.

“I think the men from our land do not fear dying from guns. So, they beheaded him to put fear in us,” he said.

The act of beheading is not new to Myanmar – in Swedish journalist Bertil Lintner’s book Outrage, about the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, he wrote that a 24-year-old student from Yangon who joined ethnic armed group the Karen National Union was beheaded by the Tatmadaw “probably as a deterrent to other students”.

But the practice was not limited to the military. Lintner writes that in 1988, executions, which were “mostly beheadings”, of suspected military spies “became an almost daily occurrence” in Yangon. In one incident in South Okkalapa Township, as many as 20 alleged military collaborators were beheaded by residents, as student activists and monks tried to prevent the massacre. 

In another incident in North Okkalapa Township in August 1988, documented in Outrage and elsewhere, police officers were beheaded after their station was overrun and burned down by a mob.

People in Monywa carry coffins of fellow anti-coup protesters killed by security forces in March 2021. The military’s violent crackdowns unleashed a cycle of violence, particularly felt in the Dry Zone. (Handout / AFP)

‘Not the path to victory’

The present-day uprising against the military is no exception.

In August last year, the anti-military Goodhearted Gangster group operating in Myaung Township in Sagaing Region bragged on Facebook that it beheaded a junta-appointed local administrator and “played football with his head”. 

While the Facebook post has since been deleted, the incident was also reported by Mizzima at the time, and the group did not deny the reports when contacted by Frontier in October this year. “Beheading dalans is as easy as eating or drinking for our group,” they said in a message, using a Burmese term for a military informant.

The coup has given birth to hundreds of new anti-military armed groups across the country. While some, known as People’s Defence Forces, operate under the NUG’s chain of command, the parallel administration has limited control over them in practice, and dozens of others operate completely independently.

While the Goodhearted Gangsters were seemingly not under the NUG at the time of the Facebook post, they claimed to have since joined the Ministry of Defence’s Battalion 5 based in Mandalay Region’s Myingyan District. The defence ministry did not respond to requests for comment, but other PDFs under NUG command confirmed that Goodhearted Gangsters are also under the NUG.

The daughter of one local junta administrator allegedly beheaded by Goodhearted Gangsters said her family had warned him many times not to accept the job. “Actually, I didn’t like him and I hated the military coup,” she said, explaining that her father was a retired soldier. “But I don’t think he deserved to be killed that way. It’s like a nightmare for all of us.”

After his execution, she said the entire family moved to Mandalay city out of fear that they could be targeted as well. “I personally don’t hate the PDFs, but after that I honestly fear them a lot,” she said.

The NUG’s human rights ministry condemned such “barbaric acts”.

“Whoever commits it, we can’t tolerate that, we can’t let it happen. We have to stop these ugly things,” NUG human rights minister U Aung Myo Min told Frontier. “It affects not only the victim, but it is very heart-breaking for his family.”

The military is a highly centralised, hierarchical organisation, meaning responsibility for its war crimes go right to the top. The opposition to its rule, conversely, is largely a decentralised, grassroots uprising that is exceptionally difficult to control. The NUG has declared its commitment to human rights and rules of war, occasionally condemning and investigating its own forces, but still struggles to control various armed groups that are formally subordinate to it.

The Sagaing-based Chaung-U PDF, under the NUG’s chain of command, told Frontier it has had problems with the Goodhearted Gangsters, and that some members of the latter group are being investigated by the NUG.

A spokesperson said the Goodhearted Gangsters came into Chaung-U Township, which neighbours Myaung, to assassinate a man known as Ko Min.

“We immediately came and negotiated with the Goodhearted Gangsters because this case was in our [township]. We could confirm that Ko Min was not an informer,” they said, also accusing the Goodhearted Gangsters of stealing money and phones in the area.

The following day, Chaung-U PDF said it arrested five members of the group and reported the thefts and attempted killing to the NUG.

“Some resistance groups become powerful when they get enough guns, but they don’t have a good chain of command or good discipline. They become murderers instead of warriors,” the PDF member said.

He acknowledged that the Chaung-U PDF also kills dalans, saying “informers can be more dangerous than a battalion”, but said they must be carefully investigated first and not killed in a cruel manner.

“We must be aware that we are in a very sensitive state. Killing more people, treating people more brutally, is not the path to victory.”

A village in Sagaing’s Mingin Township, where more than 100 homes were allegedly burned by the military. The military’s violent crackdowns and village burnings have unleashed a cycle of reciprocal violence in Myanmar’s heartland. (Handout / Chin Twin Chit Thu / AFP)

‘The cycle continues’

A review of local media indicates that beheadings have become disturbingly commonplace since the coup. This is particularly so in Myanmar’s central Dry Zone – the heartland of the country’s ethnic majority, the Bamar – which includes parts of Sagaing, Magway and Mandalay regions, although Sagaing has seen the most incidents. 

In July, the International Institute for Strategic Studies wrote that the conflict in the Dry Zone has become “existential”, and the military’s violent campaign has “dissolved the lines between civilian and combatant”.

The report says both PDFs and Pyusawhti militias were largely formed by civilians “from the ground-up” causing severe damage to “long-established social ties”.

While both pro-military and anti-military figures have been beheaded, the tactic seems to have been used far more frequently by military-aligned forces.

Some incidents have been documented in earlier Frontier reports. A resistance leader told Frontier in May that other anti-military forces beheaded a suspected dalan in Sagaing’s Tabayin Township. Sources in Tanintharyi Township, in the southern tip of Myanmar, accused junta forces of beheading two PDF fighters and two civilians after a particularly fierce clash.

Looking to other media outlets, Khit Thit Media reported that ethnic armed group the Shanni Nationalities Army, allegedly collaborating with the Tatmadaw, beheaded prisoners in Sagaing’s Homalin Township in September. In October, a PDF group accused the pro-military Thway Thauk death squad of beheading multiple people in Mandalay’s Natogyi Township. Two members of the Yinmabin PDF were allegedly beheaded by the military in October, while four members of the Monywa PDF, also in Sagaing, reportedly suffered the same fate in November.

On the other side, the Democratic Voice of Burma reported in May last year that a junta-appointed village tract administrator was beheaded in Sagaing’s Khin-U Township, while RFA reported an alleged Pyusawhti member was beheaded in Taze Township, also in Sagaing, in July of that year. 

The act of beheading is usually a religious or ritualistic practice. Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, it has been used regularly by the Abu Sayyaf Islamist group in the Philippines and Islamic insurgents in southern Thailand. In Cambodia, where animist beliefs are widespread, self-proclaimed sorcerers are sometimes decapitated, as some believe the act will thwart their black magic.

Mr Michael Charney, professor of Asian and military history at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, said animist beliefs may be at play in Myanmar beheadings as well.

“Pre-universal salvation religion (animist) communities believed that one’s power or soul-stuff [is] concentrated in the head and this has survived despite Buddhism and other universal salvation religions,” he said via email.

Charney said the history of beheadings in Myanmar goes back far beyond the 1988 uprising. “Burma has historically had headhunting among highland communities,” he said, adding beheadings were also recorded during fighting between the Konbaung and Mon kingdoms in the 1700s. He said the Burmese were also victims of mass beheadings under Britain’s pacification campaign after it conquered the royal capital of Mandalay in 1885.

Bo Min Yaung, a relative of pro-democracy icon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and independence hero General Aung San, was decapitated by British forces during this period, with his head put on display in Magway’s Natmauk Township.

“As a country where war is always raging, beheadings have become more frequent than other countries in the region,” said political analyst and author U Than Soe Naing, who added that it’s a method of control by the authoritarian regime.

“Beheading is a way to show that you are powerful, that you are above the law… It puts the most fear inside. When you look at Myanmar history, the rulers always try to put fear in people. And the fear always works.”

The viciousness of the act also seems emblematic of the strains that the coup and the resulting conflict have placed on the country’s social fabric. 

In April, the International Crisis Group warned that the military’s use of civilian Pyusawhti militias in its crackdowns is leading to “tit for tat killings” that could unleash “long-term cycles of communal violence”. 

“I see it as a part of the explosion of public anger,” Than Soe Naing said, adding that the military’s actions have “forced these unarmed people to do violence”.

“It is not an inherent part of Myanmar society, and it shouldn’t exist or align with our religion,” he said.

One fighter from the Tabayin PDF agreed that beheadings were part of a cycle of hate consuming the Myanmar heartland.

“I think many of the resistance groups started out with knives and swords before they had guns, and it is easy to end a life by cutting their throat,” he told Frontier. “But beheading is different. That comes from hate and a desire to cause fear. But fear causes more hate, and the cycle continues.”

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