Security Force Monitor supports rights groups, researchers and journalists to pinpoint those responsible for specific human rights abuses and secure evidence needed for prosecutions, using cutting edge online research and analysis techniques. We also run WhoWasinCommand.com a free, searchable public database of security force units and their organizational structure, command personnel and areas of operation. We are a project of the Columbia Law Human Rights Institute.

We have supported a range of investigations by journalists and civil society groups around the world: We have supported investigations into a wide range of contexts: a joint-investigation with The Washington Post that exposed for the first time the individual units of the Saudi-led Coalition in Yemen and the most detailed look at U.S. support for the coalition airstrike campaign, an NGO submission to the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court on potential crimes against humanity committed by the Mexican Army, video analysis and reporting by The New York Times into killings of protestors by the Nigerian Army, investigative reporting on killings by the Philippine National Police published in The Atlantic, a Global Witness investigation into the military’s control of gemstone mining in Myanmar and reporters investigating linkages between European Union training and abusive units of the Malian armed forces.

Scope of Research

As noted elsewhere, this research focused on specific alleged violations (disappearance, rape, killing or torture) allegedly committed by specific units of the Myanmar Army between 30 March 2011 and 30 March 2023. It does not include alleged violations where no specific unit was accused of being the perpetrator. Incident counts should not be used to make claims about trends in alleged abuses, nor should they be considered as the entire human rights record for any given commander or area.

A Note About Allegations, Geography, and Terminology

An allegation is a public claim made by a civil society organization, an international organization, a government, or another source that a violation of human rights was perpetrated by the defense and security forces of a country.

The Security Force Monitor does not make allegations against defense and security forces. Nothing in the Monitor’s work should be taken as the Monitor making an allegation against a unit or person. In our work we treat all claims of human rights violations as “alleged violations” to indicate that these are claims made by other organizations.

We rely on official terminology for state security forces and geographies of countries it covers. This adoption of official terminology is not meant to imply an endorsement of any particular government, group or political affiliation.

Building the Chain of Command

When researching the security forces of a country, our goal is to understand and document the branches of the security forces in their entirety. For Myanmar, our research objective was to document the chain of command and identify the commanders of the entire army and then explore what linkages may exist to allegations of human rights abuses. Our research starts from the "top" and builds "down" the chain of command, rather than starting with a particular incident and building "up" the chain of command. Additionally, we start our research by collecting information well before the time-period of particular concern.

We adopt this approach in our research in order to be able to cross reference any particular claim made by a source against claims made by other sources. So for example any claim about a particular battalion under a specific light infantry division can be weighed against claims about the other battalions in that light infantry division, as well as battalions more generally. Or as another example, claims about a commander with the rank of Major General can be weighed against claims about every other commander with the rank of Major General.

To build the overall chain of command of the military and the specific chains of command for individual units we relied on a mix of scholarly, media and civil society reporting. Linking claims made in sources across time is the primary way that SFM builds its research and establishes the chains of command across time. The primary sources establishing the general outline of the structure are as follows -

Combined these sources establish the main concepts of how different units relate to one another through the chain of command, the most important concept being Regional Military Commands control units in their areas of operation. These units could be regularly based in these areas, or they could be part of the mobile formations which are deployed by high level commanders and once in a Regional Military Command’s area fall under their day-to-day command.

De-duplicating the Myanmar Army

There are many common challenges when researching security forces, chief among them is the danger of "duplication" of units through variations on naming and numbering of units. We first became concerned during our research when public sources had battalions with the same number in their name (for example the 118 Light Infantry Battalion and 118 Infantry Battalion) operating in the same area, based in the same location or under the command of the same unit. We have found from researching armies in other countries that when two units with the same number in their names overlap in place or command structure it usually means one of them is a non-existent duplicate created accidentally by a typo or other mistake.

This concern became more urgent when we compared the number of infantry/light infantry battalions referenced in sources at different points in time, with generalized counts of battalions from scholarly and other sources.

  • 1988 - 168 (Building the Tatmadaw, page 77); 17 light/infantry battalions referenced in all sources combined to date
  • 2002 - 437 (Burma’s armed forces, page 298); 577 light/infantry battalions referenced in all sources combined to date
  • 2007 - 504 (Building the Tatmadaw, page 77); 795 light/infantry battalions referenced in all sources combined to date
  • 2011 - 517 (Myanma Economic Holdings Limited report); 857 light/infantry battalions referenced in all sources combined to date
  • 2023 - 522 (Myanmar’s Military Is Smaller Than Commonly Thought — and Shrinking Fast); 933 light/infantry battalions referenced in all sources combined to date

These estimates of battalions highlighted the scale of the problem, and the challenges of how to determine which battalions existed and then decide on the true or “canonical” name of the battalion. There was no guidance on if a battalion should be considered an infantry battalion and not a light infantry battalion, or vice versa. Finally a solution presented itself in an unlikely source, a shareholder report of a military linked company.

Cross-referencing and Deduplicating

Justice for Myanmar published a confidential shareholder report from Myanma Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL), a company owned by the Myanmar military, which contains a breakdown of the shares owned by each infantry/light infantry battalion as of 3 June 2011. MEHL listed 517 battalions which was supported by cross-referencing this with the count of battalions as of 2007 as well as reports that the Myanmar Army had greatly expanded in size in the early 2000s before reaching a new plateau.

This list became a central point to establishing the canonical names of battalions for the Myanmar Army. It also contains important, non-explicit information on the army’s structure which helped frame research.

First, the list helped establish that there could indeed be infantry and light infantry battalions with the same number in their name. According to the MEHL report there were 54 cases where a light infantry battalion and infantry battalion shared the same number. As the list organized the military units listed under the different and in all but one case these battalions only shared a number in their name, they were located far away from one another and also did not share any superior unit. Only the 5 Infantry Battalion and 5 Light Infantry Battalion were in the same region of Myanmar and generally under the same chain of command.

Combining all of this information together we ground our analysis in three areas.

  1. Historical continuity - As the number of battalions has grown through time it would make more sense for the Myanmar Army to maintain a battalion rather than create a battalion with a certain number, disband it, and then recreate it in another version. In fact, no sources we reviewed in the course of our research ever stated that infantry battalions were ever transformed into light infantry battalions, or vice versa.
  2. Separation of battalions - Similar numbered battalions generally operate in different areas and under different chains of command. Any overlap in areas of operation, locations or chains of command should be investigated as they are likely misidentifying the battalion.
  3. Cross-reference – when building the entire dataset of the army, other elements of the structure of battalions became evident. One of the most important elements of tracking battalions across time and having an overall dataset of battalions was exposing the sequential numbering logic of the Myanmar military. The military sequential numbering meant that the most recent battalions, the 151 and 152 Infantry Battalions were created in order. The military did not “skip” numbers such as creating a 153 Infantry Battalion with no 151 or 152 Infantry Battalion being created first. This informed the research as in some cases a battalion was referenced with a number which, to be correct, would carry the implication that many other battalions would have had to exist. In these cases where we were unable to find any sources referencing these other battalions, and only a single source referencing the apparently errant battalion, we determined that the battalion in question did not actually exist.

The sequential numbering also exposed another approach by the military – while they would number Infantry and Light Infantry Battalions such as 601, 602, 603, they did not create units with a “double 0” in their name. So there is no 100, 200, 300, 400, 500, 600 or 700 Infantry/Light Infantry Battalion, even though there are 101-109, 201-209, etc battalions.