Guest Column

When Think-Tanks Get Terrorism Wrong: The IEP and Myanmar

By Georg Bauer 16 June 2022

“Providing new conceptual frameworks to define peacefulness” is one of the goals of the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), a (in their own words) well-regarded nonprofit organization with headquarters in Sydney. One of IEP’s reports to achieve this goal is its “Global Terrorism Index” (GTI), “a comprehensive study analyzing the impact of terrorism for 163 countries”.

And, indeed, the 2021 edition of the GTI, released at the end of April this year, lived up to the promise of offering “new conceptual frameworks”, albeit not in the way the IEP presumably intended. In its (now redacted) discussion and presentation of Myanmar in the GTI, the IEP presented the country as one of the “10 countries most impacted by terrorism”, alleging a “2,071 per cent increase” in deaths “as a result of terrorism” in 2021 compared to 2020. Armed anti-junta groups were identified as the main culprit. This depiction of the situation in Myanmar is highly questionable, problematic and even harmful for several reasons.

A deeply flawed report

To begin with, it is analytical nonsense. The IEP seemingly applied a definition of terrorism to Myanmar that contradicts most common definitions (there is no universally agreed version as such), including their own: terrorism is “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 behavior of the larger group” (emphasis added). Importantly, the IEP excludes “acts of warfare, either irregular or conventional” from falling under this definition.

Such a reassessment of Myanmar must include a look at the military as its conduct much more fits the IEP’s own terrorism definition.

Neither of these elements applies to the armed resistance in Myanmar: the resistance forces’ attacks are not intended to strike fear in the general public (on the contrary, there is very strong support for them) and their attacks are legitimate acts of warfare. At the very least since last September, but arguably already since early summer 2021, the situation in Myanmar constitutes a Non-International Armed Conflict (NIAC) regulated by International Humanitarian Law (IHL), specifically Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, as well as Additional Protocol II. For the Ethnic Resistance Organizations (EROs) cited in the report, this has been the case for decades. In such NIACs, attacking a convoy of junta soldiers is a legitimate attack under IHL. Yet, the IEP cites one such attack that killed 40 junta troops (but zero civilians) as the “most devastating [terrorist] attack of 2021” in Myanmar. The only conclusion we can thus draw is that the IEP applied a different definition of terrorism than they claim to do, one which sees non-state actors as “terrorists”, but never state actors, irrespective of the actual conduct and acts.

Such a definition would completely overhaul our understanding and international regulation of internal armed conflicts. IHL exists so that (especially civilian) suffering during a war is somewhat limited by defining rules that every actor in a war has to follow. If we were to call every non-state armed actor “terrorist” irrespective of their actual conduct, the incentive for such groups to adhere to IHL would be much lower and civilians would suffer even more. Similarly, state actors would be even more ruthless as they would be seen as fighting “terrorists”. IHL would thus become almost obsolete in NIACs. Unfortunately, it is impossible to find out in detail how the IEP came to its conclusions on Myanmar, as the database they use—Terrorism Tracker by risk intelligence and data company Dragonfly—is not publicly accessible, making the GTI very non-transparent. Previous editions of the GTI used the Global Terrorism Database (GTD), which is publicly accessible.

What’s actually happening

Besides these general analytical flaws, the GTI presented an incredible lack of understanding of the specific situation in Myanmar. It talked about the “declaration of a state of emergency” instead of a military coup; claimed that it was “political instability” following the February 2021 elections (which actually took place in November 2020) that has led to violent clashes and not the military’s deadly clampdowns on peaceful protests; and called the junta the “new military government” (something not even China has done explicitly) while referring to the former civilian government as the “former regime”.

The IEP thereby inadvertently took over the junta’s narrative and framing of the situation—and this is where the whole issue becomes even more harmful. The people of Myanmar are in an open battle, a revolution against the generals and their coup. They have shown immense resilience and willpower in this battle and have made substantial gains, both politically and militarily. However, they have so far received close to zero concrete support from other countries. Most foreign policymakers already have a very low understanding of Myanmar. If a reputable institution, like the IEP, essentially parrots the junta’s narrative and depicts the resistance as “terrorists”, they are even less likely to receive the support they deserve and desperately need. It is thus commendable that the IEP has redacted the section on Myanmar from the GTI after receiving criticism. However, its reaction to the criticism is still unsatisfying. In its responses, the IEP failed to properly address the issues raised in an open letter signed by over 100 Myanmar experts. Responsibility is essentially shifted onto the data providers at Terrorism Tracker, and the IEP’s “non-partisan status” is used as an excuse to not question that data, thereby ironically ending up partisan on the junta’s side, intentionally or not. 

The only error admitted so far is the misdating of the election; unsurprisingly, an apology to the Myanmar resistance seems out of the question for the IEP. Rather, the IEP seems more concerned about its own reputation and complains about the signatories of the open letter, claiming to be open to “constructive dialogue” while still not properly addressing the issues raised. It also remains unclear whether the IEP will reassess the situation in Myanmar, or how it will approach it in its next GTI. Such a reassessment of Myanmar must include a look at the military as its conduct much more fits the IEP’s own terrorism definition. In its entire history, but especially since Feb. 1, 2021, the military in Myanmar has been using acts of terror. It shoots peaceful protesters, executes prisoners of war, tortures and murders political prisoners, and burns thousands of civilian homes to strike fear into the general public to break its opposition and impose its own rule and political, ideological and religious vision of the country. 

Unfortunately, this seems out of the question for the IEP, as they have made clear in their answer that “state-sponsored terror” has always been excluded from the GTI. This also shows a general problem with reports like the GTI: quantitative data is used to systematically compare different parts of the world and track developments. However, this comes at the expense of including case-specific aspects in the analysis, leading to gross misrepresentations. Especially when it comes to politically sensitive topics like terrorism, this can be very harmful, as the example at hand shows. We can thus only hope that the IEP finally apologizes to the resistance in Myanmar, properly and transparently addresses the issues raised, and reassesses its overall methodology in the GTI. After all, “we should surely all be working towards the same goal around these issues, and seeking to create meaningful change in the world,” as the IEP put it.

Georg Bauer is a university assistant and PhD candidate in the history of human rights and democracy at the Department of History at the University of Vienna, where he teaches and researches nationalisms and historical narratives in the Union of Myanmar. He lived in Myanmar from 2018 to 2020, working on human rights issues and the civil war for the EU Delegation and later the Australian Embassy. 

This article first appeared at All views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent that of the platform.

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