Buddhist monk who ditched robes to fight Myanmar’s junta accused of ordering murders of civilians and resistance fighters

Win Swe, Maung Ni, and Aung Naing Phyo–three adult brothers–were hiding with about a dozen family members outside their village of Chinpone in early March when a group of three men arrived carrying guns.

Just days earlier, junta helicopters had dropped off scores of troops, who rampaged through Chinpone rounding up hostages, burning homes and vehicles, and torturing and killing several people.

By now, the soldiers had left the village, but the brothers were far from safe. The three gunmen took everyone’s phones and told them to lie face down on the floor, then they tied the brothers’ hands behind their backs and began to beat them.

“If anybody looks up we’ll shoot them,” one of the attackers said, according to the sister of the three men, who was among those hiding with them when the gunmen arrived.

Then she heard one of the captors ask: “Are any of your brothers left?” Win Swe, who at 40 was the oldest, said something in reply, but the sister wasn’t sure what. Then everything went silent.

Half an hour later, when she found the courage to open her eyes, her brothers were gone. She went in search of them, and soon came across their mutilated bodies.

“They weren’t even shot,” she told Myanmar Now. “They were repeatedly stabbed in the stomach and cut in the face. Their faces were completely disfigured from the cuts. It is tearing my heart apart.”

On March 2, the same day that the three men were killed, their younger brother Aung Win Phyo was shot dead on the outskirts of Chinpone along with their cousin, Tuu, who like Aung Win Phyo was in his 20s.

Such gruesome murders have become commonplace across Myanmar since the junta launched a campaign of terror last year aimed at crushing opposition to its rule. The brothers’ killers, though, were not junta soldiers or militiamen but members of an armed resistance group founded to oppose the military’s power grab, their sister says.

The Yinmabin People’s Defence Force (PDF) was founded in April last year and is led by Ashin Sopaka, a 40-year-old, recently retired monk with a dedicated core of local followers.

Just over a year ago, a group of his followers in Thapyay Aye village picked up traditional hunting rifles to fight off soldiers who had come to arrest him at his monastery.

Ashin Sopaka, who also goes by the name Thanmani and whose birth name is Tun Oo, earned international renown for his role in peaceful protests against the former junta. He took part in peace marches in Germany, the US and Thailand, and often gave news interviews on activists’ efforts to achieve democracy.

But like many nonviolent activists in the wake of the February 2021 coup, Ashin Sopaka decided that the only way to defeat the junta once and for all was through armed resistance. In February, he quit the monkhood to focus on fighting. “Running around in a monk’s robe is not realistic during battles,” he told Myanmar Now.

Now, he is accused of behaving just as inhumanely as the generals he wants to remove from power.

“The military has been committing massive violations against the people; they have been killing villagers, setting fire to towns, looting property, and destroying food stocks,” said a lecturer from Monywa University who is on strike as part of the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM).

“Meanwhile, we have to fight against the dictatorial acts of the Thapyay Aye Sayadaw,” she said, using another name for the former monk. “He has committed murders when people are against him.”

Ashin Sopaka denies ordering murders. He has suggested that any crimes that were committed happened without his knowledge, but only after initially admitting that his group’s fighters had committed unlawful killings.

Myanmar’s underground National Unity Government (NUG) has said it is investigating.

This is not the first time that resistance fighters in Myanmar have been accused of atrocities; in the early 1990s members of the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front tortured and killed 35 people from among their ranks who they suspected of being regime spies.

The men in Chinpone were the latest among 21 civilians and resistance fighters who have been killed by the Yinmabin PDF’s members since October last year, according to a statement from a coalition of local anti-junta groups called the Union Defense & Liberation Alliance (UDLA).

Aung Win Phyo and Tuu were both resistance fighters, though it is unclear which group they belonged to, while the other three brothers were civilians. The sister said all five men were killed by a Yinmabin PDF battalion commander called Nyunt Win, who also goes by the name Galone and who led the two other assailants.

Ashin Sopaka told Myanmar Now that he was in Chinpone on the day the military helicopters attacked, and that there was another clash nearby in Thapyay Aye the following day that he was also involved in. He therefore did not know if Nyunt Win was responsible for the killings, he said.

“Amidst the chaos, I didn’t manage to find out if it was Galone’s group or another group that killed those brothers,” he said. “However, I was also told that the brothers were military informants. It was without a doubt that the junta helicopters came to Chinpone village because an informant told them; they knew I was going to give a speech at 9:15am.”

The men’s sister, who says she has gone into hiding with her mother in fear of Ashin Sopaka’s group and did not want to be named, denied that her relatives were military informants and said Nyunt Win targeted them because of a financial dispute.

Our siblings have always had each other’s backs and they knew that if they touched one of us, the rest would avenge them. That’s why they decided to kill them all

Win Swe kept charge of funds donated to the armed resistance in Chinpone, and Nyunt Win recently asked him for 10 million kyat (about $5,400), the sister said. At first Win Swe refused, then he gave in and handed over the money. But his initial disobedience made Nyunt Win and his men fear they might be exposed for extortion, she added.

“He ultimately gave them the money but they were worried they would be investigated when the revolution is done,” she said. “That’s why they tried to tie up the loose ends and killed my brother.”

She added: “Our siblings have always had each other’s backs and they knew that if they touched one of us, the rest would avenge them. That’s why they decided to kill them all. I swear this on my life.”

Ashin Sopaka (left) attends a protest in Mandalay in November 2011

Riddled with bullets

Another Yinmabin PDF member accused of commiting murder is Aung Myat Thu, who is the son-in-law of Aung Kyi Nyunt, a top National League for Democracy (NLD) official and a key figure in the movement against the junta.

Aung Myat Thu is married to Aung Kyi Nyunt’s daughter, Yee Mon Thant. The couple are both personal assistants to Ashin Sopaka and help manage the Yinmabin PDF’s battalions, according to the CDM lecturer.

Aung Myat Thu is accused of killing Win Zaw Oo, who was reportedly Ashin Sopaka’s right hand man but left the Yinmabin PDF in August last year amid a dispute and joined another armed group called the Chindwin Yoma Alliance Force.

Win Zaw Oo, 46, was on his way to pick up weapons from the town of Mingin in late January with when his group was stopped by Aung Myat Thu and roughly 30 other Yinmabin PDF members, according to Mone Dine, one of two other Chindwin Yoma Alliance Force members who were travelling with Win Zaw Oo.

Mone Dine said he was waiting with Win Zaw Oo and the third member for a ferry to cross the Chindwin River in the south of Mingin Township on January 27 when Aung Myat Thu’s group arrived.

“They said they had to question us and separated us,” he told Myanmar Now. “They took the two of us to another place and made us lie with our faces down and our arms behind our backs and told us to stay still or else they’d shoot. Just as they were threatening to shoot, they actually did shoot Win Zaw Oo. Six times in total.”

After Aung Myat Thu’s group left, Mone Dine and the other survivor found Win Zaw Oo’s body riddled with bullets.

I would like to say that all of these allegations were meticulously planned to frame me, without any proper evidence – Ashin Sopaka

Bo Nagar, who leads the Myanmar Royal Dragon Army in Sagaing’s Pale Township and goes by a pseudonym, said he worked alongside Win Zaw Oo on several operations. Win Zaw Oo was Ashin Sopaka’s right hand man but quit because he took issue with the ex-monk’s “faults,” Bo Nagar said.

Ashin Sopaka said that Aung Myat Thu had denied committing the murder. He suggested that Win Zaw Oo was involved in illegal timber smuggling and that this is what led to his death. He also denied that Win Zaw Oo had been a close associate of his.

“He wasn’t my right hand; he didn’t even answer to me,” Ashin Sopaka said. “I would like to say that all of these allegations were meticulously planned to frame me, without any proper evidence. Junta personnel might even be involved in this plan to frame me as they’re also desperately looking for me. This might be their last resort to capture me.”

Aung Kyi Nyunt is a central executive committee member of the NLD and chair of the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), a group of anti-junta MPs who were barred from taking their seats on the day of last year’s coup.

He told Myanmar Now he has not had contact with his daughter or son-in-law since 2016, when he fell out with them because they got married without his blessing. Aung Myat Thu should be held accountable if he is guilty of the killing, he added.

“There is no reason to protect anyone while countless youths in our country are sacrificing their lives for the revolution. If the investigation finds him guilty, he’d have to face judgement for his crimes. There is no reason for me to protect him,” he said.

New recruits for the Yinmabin PDF attend a graduation ceremony last year (Supplied)

‘Sent to hell’

Ashin Sopaka’s group was first accused of murdering civilians in October. The victims were four people who were travelling home from the village of Zee Taw in Yinmabin after taking out a 5,000,000 loan.

They included farmer Cho Mar, 47, and her 20-year-old daughter Sandar La Min. With them was Zaw Lin Aung, 41, a government employee who was on strike against the junta. The fourth person has not been identified.

The victims took part in protests against the military, according to the CDM lecturer, but Ashin Sopaka has accused them of being members of the military’s Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and of attending a pro-military rally.

“Four people coming back from a military parade in Yinmabin have been sent to hell,” he wrote on his Facebook page shortly after the killings, according to a photo of the post shared with Myanmar Now by the CDM lecturer. The post has since been deleted.

“They were coming back from taking out a loan,” the lecturer said. “The assailants took all 5,000,000 kyat from them. The jewellery they were wearing was also confiscated by Thanmani’s group. They accused them of coming back from a military parade and said that their money was from the parade.”

Bo Nagar, the Myanmar Royal Dragon Army leader, said there was no pro-military parade in Yinmabin or the surrounding area in October. “They took the money and got rid of the evidence. There was no military parade at all during that period,” he said.

“This damages the image of the revolution,” he added.

Ashin Sopaka told Myanmar Now that a Yinmabin PDF member was “in charge” of the area where the four were killed. “I was told some USDP members were taken on their way to a military parade and that they were ultimately killed.”

But later in the same interview, he said: “I didn’t hear anything about them getting executed. I was just told that they went missing. I don’t know what happened next.”

This damages the image of the revolution – Bo Nagar, leader of the Myanmar Royal Dragon Army

Asked if he had any evidence that the four were members of the USDP, he said: “One of our members is in charge of that area. That member told me about the four people who were captured on their way back from a military parade. That’s all I was told.”

The bodies of the four victims, like many of those reportedly killed by the Yinmabin PDF, have not been recovered.

Trial via Zoom

As with many armed groups operating under the banner of the PDF, the Yinmabin PDF’s exact relationship with the NUG is unclear. Some PDF groups operate directly under the command of the administration’s armed wing, while others are self-organising.

NUG’s defence department has said it is investigating Ashin Sopaka and his group, but has yet to clarify whether the group operates directly under its command.

Ashin Sopaka, however, has said his group answers only to the NUG, and that it has the responsibility of redistributing weapons supplied by the NUG to other PDF groups. He also said he has attended online conferences with NUG officials.

Naing Htoo Aung, secretary of the NUG’s defence department, told Myanmar Now that Ashin Sopaka was among 20 people who were “on trial” via Zoom meetings for alleged murders. The victims of the killings, he said, were falsely accused of being military informants or coup supporters.

“Some of the defendants haven’t shown up yet although we have already sent them summons,” he said. “If they don’t show up after we send the summons for the last time… we are going to announce the results only according to the available data.”

“The spirit of the revolution is to end the reign of the dictatorship and to protect civilians. We will not be tolerating any action that would threaten civilians or teammates,” he said, using a term for resistance fighters.

Contentious meeting

Ashin Sopaka entered the monkhood as a young child. In September 1999, as a 22-year-old student of Buddhism in Yangon, he joined protests against the Than Shwe regime that came to be known as the 9999 People’s Movement.

He avoided arrest for his role in the protests, but in 2001 he moved to Thailand and was eventually granted asylum in Germany. When the 2007 Saffron Revolution began, he returned to Thailand and took part in a solidarity march from Bangkok to the border town of Mae Sot. He was detained by Thai authorities and sent back to Germany.

While in exile he attended protests against the Myanmar regime in Europe and America. After the reformist government of Thein Sein came to power in 2010, he returned to Myanmar, where he continued his political activities, including an anti-military protest in Mandalay in November 2011. He later went to Yinmabin, where he led the Thapyay Aye monastery until last year’s coup.

The tensions between Ashin Sopaka and Yinmabin locals first came to the fore at a meeting with village leaders and anti-coup activists in Indaw village on August 3 last year. Ashin Sopaka, thanks to his local and international connections, had already been put in charge of distributing weapons and cash donations to other groups on behalf of the NUG, said Ven. Vayama, of the anti-coup Spring Revolution Monks Network.

But many at the meeting felt Ashin Sopaka had neglected certain groups. “The feuds started when people complained that he was distributing the cash unfairly, and some also complained about not getting any support from him at all,” Vayama said. “Some of his underlings had also become arrogant during meetings after getting weapons, so other organisations didn’t want to work with them anymore.”

The CDM lecturer was present at the meeting. “I said that Thanmani had seized control over all the funds for the entire area, that he had not kept his promise to distribute them fairly, and that the community was very tired of fundraising for them,” she recalled.

The meeting was so contentious that just a few days later, several people left the Yinmabin PDF and formed their own groups, including the North Yamar People Defence Force, the Chindwin Yoma Alliance Force and the Hero Tiger Force.

The leader of the Hero Tiger Force, whose pseudonym–Kyar Gyi–is the Burmese word for tiger, told Myanmar Now that a few days after forming the new group a bomb went off at his house in the village of Kone, as well as the house of his brother-in-law nearby.

No one was injured in the explosions, which Kyar Gyi saw as a threat from Ashin Sopaka in retaliation for forming a splinter group.

Failed rescue

Late last year, ten men were abducted in western Yinmabin by members of Ashin Sopaka’s group. They have not been heard from since and are presumed dead.

At around 10am on November 26, a man named Aung Naing Lin phoned his parents to tell them he had been detained by a group of fighters led by Teik Kaung, a Yinmabin PDF member who, locals say, reports directly to Ashin Sopaka.

Aung Naing Lin, who was 25 and also went by the name Pho Ae, was the brother of a resistance fighter from the Hero Tiger Force, one of the groups that had broken away from Ashin Sopaka months earlier following the meeting at Indaw village.

Aung Naing Lin was among four people detained by Teik Kaung and his men that morning near the village of La Boet. The other detainees were Thet Paing Tun, a 25-year-old firefighter, his 23-year-old colleague Soe Ko Ko, and Kaung Khant Kyaw, who was 18 and whose father was the head of the local fire department.

After Aung Naing Lin and the other detainees had phoned their families, Teik Kaung made a phone call to a battalion commander in the Hero Tiger Force named Hteik Maung. Hteik Maung comes from La Boet, so Teik Kaung asked if he could vouch for the four men and said that if he could they would be released.

Hteik Maung responded that he could vouch for Aung Naing Lin because he was the brother of a resistance fighter from the Hero Tiger Force named Win Min Thet. The two men made an appointment to meet in a village at midday to secure the release of Aung Naing Lin. (Teik Kaung refused to release the others on the grounds that two of them were employed by the junta-controlled fire department and had not gone on strike as part of the CDM).

Hteik Maung arrived at the village of Min Taing Pin as agreed with five other Hero Tiger Force members, but the detainees were not there. One of Ashin Sopaka’s men told his group that they would now have to go to another village called Mauk Loke.

At 1:30pm, Hteik Maung phoned someone from the Hero Tiger Force to tell them he was in Mauk Loke. That was the last that was heard from him, his five comrades, or the four men who were initially detained.

“We heard they were killed a little later,” said the CDM lecturer.

Kyar Gyi, the Hero Tiger Force leader, tried along with Bo Nagar to find Hteik Maung’s group. They said they made an appointment to meet with Ashin Sopaka to negotiate the men’s release, but Ashin Sopaka never appeared.

Kyar Gyi says he could have understood if Ashin Sopaka’s group had wanted to take some kind of nonviolent action against the members of the group who had failed to go on strike from the fire department, but that “Pho Ae was innocent.”

The spirit of the revolution is to end the reign of the dictatorship and to protect civilians. We will not be tolerating any action that would threaten civilians – Naing Htoo Aung, secretary of the NUG’s defence department

In an interview with The Irrawaddy before he spoke to Myanmar Now, Ashin Sopaka admitted that his fighters had murdered people. He said that six of those detained on November 26 were killed by his men because they had attacked resistance fighters with explosives in the past.

“Our PDF members got angry as they questioned them about the attacks. When they finally admitted committing mine attacks, our members killed them out of anger,” he told the outlet.

But when questioned about the incident by Myanmar Now, Ashin Sopaka changed his story, saying that he did not “know exactly which group” detained the men.

“I think the two groups were holding grudges against each other,” he said. “I was told that the victims confessed that they, in fact, attacked the other group with explosives, right before they were executed. I don’t know the details yet.”

‘As innocent as Buddha’

Ashin Sopaka’s men are also accused of killing Kyaw Myint Aung, who was known to have raised money for the armed resistance. He was taken from his home in Sone Chaung village by masked men one night in December and never seen again. Ashin Sopaka denies the allegation.

“A complaint was filed to me regarding that matter. Kyaw Myint’s son filed the complaint himself,” Ashin Sopaka said. “The accusation that it was my group couldn’t be more wrong. It’s just a group of masked assailants. If the victim was a supporter of the PDF, the perpetrators could just as well be junta personnel. Sone Chaung village is located very close to a junta base.”

Another resistance fighter, who requested anonymity, told Myanmar Now that he had helped move nine people to safe places after they received death threats from Ashin Sopaka’s group.

“People are very afraid of them now,” the resistance fighter said. “A third of the population of Yinmabin Township is afraid of them, but can’t do anything because they have a lot of power and authority.”

In September, and then again the following month, Ashin Sopaka was summoned and reprimanded by the Spring Revolution Monks Network, which along with the NUG had received several complaints about his group.

“He said that he guaranteed that it wouldn’t happen again and that he was told about the murders and that he was looking into those cases. He stopped replying after that,” said Vayama, the monk from the network.

Vayama said that the NUG was not doing enough to intervene in the case. “It could easily be solved if only they would get more involved,” he said. “The NUG’s working rate is very slow. We’ve been sending complaints about this for months now.”

Despite initially admitting his forces had committed murders, Ashin Sopaka now maintains his total innocence.

“Even Buddha was accused of impregnating a woman by the woman herself,” he said. “It was only revealed that he was innocent when Indra, the king of Devas, transformed himself into a rat and bit off the slab of wood that the woman was wearing on her stomach to fake her pregnancy.”

“This is the same as that tale,” he added. “The truth will come out very soon.”

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