An Open Letter to the Institute of Economics and Peace

11 May 2022

To the Institute of Economics and Peace:

Dear Steve Killelea, Board of Directors,

As scholars and analysts who specialise in politics and society in Myanmar, we express deep concern over your recent Global Terrorism Index report, in which the Institute of Economics and Peace (IEP) depicts anti-junta resistance in Myanmar as “terrorism”. Indeed, we strongly disagree with your overall depiction of events in Myanmar, which is analytically flawed, morally bankrupt, and politically problematic.

According to your report, the “country with the largest total increases in deaths from terrorism was Myanmar, where the number of people killed rose from 24 in 2020 to 521 in 2021… Anti-junta armed groups were responsible for over half of terrorism deaths in Myanmar in 2021. The majority of deaths occurred during attacks targeting government and military personnel.”

The examples that you cite for what you call “deaths from terrorism” are attacks on military personnel by anti-junta forces, such as:

  • “Gunmen killed 40 soldiers in the Sagaing region. No group had claimed responsibility, but local media said that anti-junta groups were responsible for the attack“
  • or a “bomb targeting a military convoy of eight vehicles killed thirty soldiers in the Magway region. The Yesagyo Peoples’ Defence Force, an anti-junta armed group, claimed responsibility for the attack.”

This is analytically flawed. Defining terrorism as targeting military targets contradicts most academic definitions of terrorism, including your own definition on p.6 of the Global Terrorism Index, where you define terrorism as a ‘the systematic threat or use of violence whether for or in opposition to established authority, with the intention of communicating a political, religious or ideological message to a group larger than the victim group, by generating fear and so altering (or attempting to alter) the behaviour of the larger group. Your report consequently exempts “acts of warfare, either irregular or conventional”.

While there is a lack of definite agreement on the phenomenon of terrorism, most academic literature, indeed, differentiates between “guerrilla” and “terrorist” violence for good reason. Guerrillas seek to effectuate political change by targeting the state and its agents. They commonly do so by means of irregular warfare (precisely as in the above examples provided in your report).

Terrorists, in contrast, intentionally target civilians in order to achieve their goals. The direct targets of terrorism (civilians) serve as “message generators” in the process of “violence-based communication” with the main target of terrorism (e.g., the state or society). Their aim is to spark terror amongst civilian populations. Your report cites no such incidents in Myanmar.

This is also why guerrillas can abide by International Humanitarian Law (IHL). In fact, the IHL regulating non-international armed conflict – by Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, as well as Additional Protocol II – renders armed forces as legitimate military targets (terrorist violence stands, by definition, in contradiction of IHL because of its targeting of civilians).

Attacks on soldiers by non-state resistance forces in Myanmar are thus clearly within the bounds of the laws of war as long as they follow the principles of distinction and proportionality. Nothing in your report suggests that they do not. Even if one included attacks on police forces, the situation in Myanmar remains firmly within these legal boundaries. This is because police forces in Myanmar are under direct control of the military, regularly act in support of military troops, and frequently use battlefield-grade weaponry, such as assault rifles. Anti-junta forces do not target civilians in order to generate fear and alter the behavior of a larger group. They target their state opponent directly.

But presenting non-state armed resistance forces that engage in irregular warfare against legitimate military targets as terrorists is not only analytically flawed. It is also morally bankrupt given a context of state terrorism, i.e., a situation where the state itself uses indiscriminate violence against civilian populations in order to punish and intimidate its opponents. A truthful report of the biggest terrorist attacks in Myanmar in the past year, would thus not be the killing of 40 soldiers in Sagaing or 30 soldiers in Magwai, as cited in your report. 

Instead, the biggest terrorist attacks in the last year were the massacres in Hlaing Tharyar in March 2021 and Bago, where security forces killed more than 65 and 80 unarmed civilians during peaceful protests respectively. And, this is just the tip of the iceberg of state terrorism in Myanmar, where security forces have committed countless atrocities for decades, including genocide, and continue doing so, for instance, through systematically destroying civilian settlements across Myanmar, in what the United Nations special envoy for human rights in Myanmar, rightly describes as “a campaign of terror”.

Notwithstanding these disturbing shortcomings, international think tanks like yours produce “facts” about the world, breaking down complex politics into easily digestible pieces of information for political stakeholders, including policymakers. This is why the distortion of reality in your report ultimately becomes politically problematic. It serves to delegitimize the legitimate and lawful actions of anti-junta guerrillas in Myanmar as unlawful terrorism. In doing so, your report mobilizes the same narrative as the military junta in Myanmar. In effect – and in contradiction to its claim of being non-partisan – the IEP is legitimizing and normalizing a terror regime that has illegally toppled a democratically elected government and couped itself to power.

We thus demand that IEP retracts or corrects the sections of your report related to Myanmar, bringing the depicted empirical reality into compliance with academic definitions of terrorism, including your own. Moreover, we demand a public statement that includes an apology to the anti-junta forces in Myanmar for your wrongful depiction of their legitimate and lawful resistance.


Dr David Brenner, Lecturer, Department of International Relations, University of Sussex

Georg Bauer, PhD candidate, Department of History, University of Vienna

Dr Hans Steinmüller, Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, LSE

Dr Laurence Cox, Associate Professor, National University of Ireland Maynooth

Dr. Charlie Thame, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Political Science, Thammasat University

Dr John Buchanan, Associate, Asia Center, Harvard University

Dr Ronan Lee, Doctoral Prize Fellow, Loughborough University London

Dr. Su Lin Lewis, Associate Professor, University of Bristol

Dr. Jonathan Saha, Associate Professor, University of Durham

Dr Chika Watanabe, Senior Lecturer, University of Manchester

Dr Alexandre Pelletier, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Laval University

Dr Jenny Hedström, Associate Professor, Swedish Defence University

Dr Matthew J Walton, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Toronto

Dr Elisabeth Olivius, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Umeå University

Professor Bridget Anderson, University of Bristol

Associate Professor Anthony Ware, School of Humanities & Social Sciences, Deakin University, Australia

Dr. Gerard McCarthy, Research Fellow, National University of Singapore Asia Research Institute

Htet Min Lwin, PhD student, Department of Humanities, York University, Toronto

Dr Adam Simpson, Senior Lecturer, International Studies, University of South Australia

Dr Morten B. Pedersen, Senior Lecturer, International Politics, University of New South Wales Canberra

Christopher Lamb, Honorary Associate Professor, University of Melbourne; President, Australia Myanmar Institute

Dr Joseph Lo Bianco, Emeritus Professor, Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne

Dr Charlotte Galloway, Honorary Associate Professor, Australian National University, Canberra

Dr Patrick Meehan, Department of Development Studies, SOAS University of London

Kim Jolliffe, independent researcher focused on security and conflict in Myanmar

Dr Kevin Woods, Research Fellow, East-West Center, Hawai’i

Dr Susan Banki, Senior Lecturer, University of Sydney

Dr Nick Cheesman, Associate Professor, Australian National University

Dr Kate Crosby, Professor of Buddhist Studies, King’s College, London

Luke James Corbin, PhD Researcher, Australian National University

Dr Kristina Kironska, Senior Researcher, Palacky University Olomouc

Dr. Mike McGovern, Professor, University of Michigan

Dr. Elliott Prasse-Freeman, Assistant Professor, National University of Singapore 

Kei Nemoto, Professor, Sophia University, Tokyo

Adam Czarnota, Professor, Wroclaw University, Wroclaw & Honorary Associate Professor, UNSW Sydney 

Dr. Leedom Lefferts, Carolina Asia Center, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Prof. Dr. Judith Beyer, Head of the Working Group “Social and Political Anthropology”, University of Konstanz. Germany

Dominique Dillabough-Lefebvre, PhD Candidate, Department of Anthropology, LSE

Chu May Paing, PhD Researcher, University of Colorado Boulder 

Dr. Sai Latt, Research Affiliate, York University, Toronto, Canada, Chiangmai University, Thailand  

Anders Kirstein Moeller, PhD Student, Department of Geography, NUS

Dr. Nicola Tannenbaum, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology, Lehigh University, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, USA

Tharaphi Than, Associate Professor, Northern Illinois University

Dr Tin Mar Oo, MSc Student, Post Graduate School of Politics and Science, University of Edinburgh

Kristian Stokke, Professor, Department of Sociology and Human Geography, University of Oslo

Dr Peter Bjorklund, Independent post-doc Researcher, University of Manchester, United Kingdom

Dr Michael Edwards, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Cambridge

Dr Sharon Bell, Independent Researcher, Aotearoa, New Zealand

Dr Leanne M. Kelly, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Deakin University, Melbourne

Dr Johanna Garnett, Lecturer in Peace Studies, University of New England, Armidale

Dr Bill Vistarini, Australian National University (Retired)

Dr Anne Décobert, Lecturer, School of Social and Political Sciences, The University of Melbourne 

Matt Schissler, Doctoral Candidate, Department of Anthropology, University of Michigan

Godwin Yidana, PhD Researcher in Peace Studies, University of New England, Armidale, Australia.

Professor Melissa Crouch, Faculty of Law & Justice, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia

Dr Renaud Egreteau, Associate Professor, Department of Asian and International Studies, City University of Hong Kong

Dorothy Mason, Researcher, Department of Political and Social Change, Australian National University

Dr. Roger Lee Huang, Lecturer in Counterterrorism and Political Violence, Macquarie University

Dr. Wen-Chin Chang, Research Fellow, Academia Sinica

Moe Thuzar, Doctoral Candidate, History Department, National University of Singapore

Dr Yuri Takahashi, Lecturer in Burmese, Australian National University 

Aung Kaung Myat, MPhil Candidate, University of Hong Kong

Peter Suante, PhD Researcher, The Department of Education, The University of Hong Kong

Dr R.J. May, Emeritus Fellow, Australian National University

Dr. Lisa Brooten, Associate Professor, College of Arts and Media, Southern Illinois University Carbondale, USA

Dr Michael Breen, Senior Lecturer in Public Policy, The University of Melbourne

Dr Vicki-Ann Ware, Senior Lecturer, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Deakin University, Australia

Mr. Tual Sawn Khai, PhD researcher in Sociology and Social Policy, School of Graduate Studies, Lingnan University, Hong Kong

Professor Bill Pritchard, Professor in Human Geography, The University of Sydney

Jack Jenkins Hill, PhD candidate, Department of Anthropology, University College London (UCL)

David Scott Mathieson, Independent analyst and author specializing on Burma

Dr Cecile Medail, Visiting Fellow, Department of Political and Social Change, Australian National University

Dr Elisabeth Jean Wood, Co-Director of Agrarian Studies and Professor of Political Science, International and Area Studies, Yale University

Dr. Rosalie Metro, Assistant Teaching Professor, Department of Learning, Teaching, and Curriculum, University of Missouri-Columbia

Dr Tomas Cole, Department of Social Anthropology, Stockholm University  

Dr Dominique Caouette, Professor of Political Science, Université de Montréal

Prof. David I. Steinberg, Distinguished Professor of Asian Studies Emeritus, Georgetown University

James F. Cerretani, Goldsmiths, University of London, Anthropology 

Dr Elin Bjarnegård, Associate Professor, Department of Government, Uppsala University

Martin Smith, author and independent analyst on conflict in Myanmar

Siew Han Yeo, PhD Candidate, University of Toronto

Dr Anna Plunket, Lecturer in International Relations, King’s College London

Dr Jasnea Sarma, Lecturer in Political Geography, University of Zurich 

Minn Tent Bo, London based Independent Consultant focused on human rights, democracy and elections in Myanmar

Leigh Mitchell, London-based Independent Consultant focused on governance, development finance/effectiveness and investment in Myanmar

Samia C. Akhter-Khan, PhD candidate, Department of Health Service & Population Research, King’s College London

Ambassador Kelley Currie (ret.)

Dr Andrew Fagan, Director of Human Rights Centre, at the University of Essex

Nora Wuttke, PhD Researcher, SOAS University of London

Catherine Morris, Independent researcher, and Associate of the Centre for Asia-Pacific Initiatives, University of Victoria

Prof. James C. Scott, Sterling Professor of Political Science and Anthropology, Yale University

Professor Lee Jones, Professor of Political Economy and International Relations, Queen Mary University of London

Dr Liyun Wendy Choo, Professional Teaching Fellow, University of Auckland 

Dr Sally Bamford, Alumni, Australian National University

Dr. Francesco Buscemi, Research Fellow, Einaudi Foundation

Dr Justine Chambers, Postdoctoral Researcher, Danish Institute for International Studies

Professor Kirsten McConnachie, Professor of Socio-Legal Studies, Faculty of Law, University of East Anglia

Professor Martin Krygier AM, Gordon Samuels Professor of Law and Social Theory, University of New South Wales, Sydney

Ponpavi Sangsuradej, PhD Researcher. Faculty of History. SOAS, University of London 

Alex Moodie, PhD Candidate, School of Government and International Affairs, Durham University

Vishnu Prasad, PhD Candidate, Department of Geography & Environment, London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)

Paul Taylor, Technical Adviser and Independent Myanmar Researcher

Dr. Stephen Campbell, Assistant Professor, School of Social Sciences, Nanyang Technological University

Dr. Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung, Professor,  Political Science Department, University of Massachusetts Lowell

Thawng Za Pum, Doctoral student, Institute of Political Science, University of Erlangen–Nuremberg

Francesca Chiu, PhD Researcher, School of International Development, University of East Anglia

Oren Samet, PhD Candidate, Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley

Greg Tyrosvoutis, EdD Candidate, Department of Leadership, Higher and Adult Education, University of Toronto

Richard Roewer, Research Fellow, German Institute for Global and Area Studies, DPhil Student, University of Oxford

Dr Kerstin Duell, Goethe University Frankfurt

Khin Thet San, Research Fellow, South Asia Institute, SOAS, University of London

Dr Stefano Ruzza, Associate Professor, Department of Cultures, Politics and Society, University of Turin