The army sniper who put Myanmar’s dictatorship in his sights

In April 2019, Zwe Mahn, a lance corporal in the Myanmar army, was fighting in Rakhine State’s Ann Township when a member of his unit was shot during a clash with the Arakan Army (AA).

Through the sight of his sniper rifle, he could see that the fallen soldier was still alive. Although they were separated by a distance of around 300m, Zwe Mahn decided that he couldn’t just leave his comrade there to die, so he put down his rifle and risked his own life to drag him to safety.

When he reached the soldier who had been shot, he discovered that he was a lieutenant colonel; in fact, he was his unit’s second-in-command. 

Both men survived that day, but not before they were shot by AA snipers—Zwe Mahn in the thigh, and his superior officer in the leg.

It was an act of bravery that earned Zwe Mahn the coveted title of “Thura,” bestowed upon Myanmar soldiers who show great courage in battle.

Two and a half years later, this same attribute was on full display again, albeit in a very different way. 

In September, after months of watching the army that he devoted his life to brutalize civilians opposed to the return of military rule, he took another leap into the unknown and defected to the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM).

His fate is now as uncertain as it was in those moments after he decided to put his life on the line for a fellow soldier. This time, however, he is even more convinced that he has done the right thing—not just to save a life, but to save his country. 

Soldiers arrive in the Rakhine State capital Sittwe in October 2012 (EPA)

A soldier’s story

Zwe Mahn was not a typical Myanmar army recruit. The son of a Thai father and a Shan mother, he lived in Thailand from the time he was two months old until he returned to Myanmar at the age of 23. 

Despite his background, he had no trouble communicating in Burmese. More surprisingly, he also felt drawn to Myanmar military life. In 2014, a year after his return to the country of his birth, he was so impressed by the welcome that soldiers received from civilians in Bago that he decided he wanted to join the army. Two years later, at the age of 26, he enlisted.

After completing his basic training in 2017, he was sent to the frontlines. Later, he was among 170 privates selected to receive special training as a sniper. He distinguished himself in this role, winning sharpshooting contests and an award for outstanding performance.

It was as a sniper that he was deployed to northern Rakhine State for four months in 2019. Assigned to a unit tasked with occupying hills, he took part in a total of 10 battles. The last one was at a location designated Point 197, where he was shot while rescuing his wounded second-in-command.

He recalled that it took a full week to gain control of the area, even with air support. His unit had 200 soldiers, facing around 500 on the AA side. As a sniper, he was relatively safe, he said, because he stayed at the rear. But there were heavy casualties among the troops engaging in direct combat.

“Fourteen of our troops died in just one clash. Another 47 were wounded, losing eyes or limbs,” he said.

But fighting on the frontlines was not just dangerous—it also demanded real endurance. Soldiers often had to do without if their supply lines were disrupted. 

“There were days when we didn’t get to eat or even drink. Sometimes we had to live off of banana stems. Some days we had nothing to keep us going but glucose powder,” he said.

Under such circumstances, you almost begin to admire your enemies, he added, noting that the AA had an impressive organizational structure that included many specialists—shooters, grenade throwers, landmine setters, and medics, among others.  

After two years of fierce fighting, the conflict ended in late 2020, just months before the military seized power. The AA wasted no time in reclaiming the hills that Zwe Mahn and his comrades had fought so hard to occupy.

“It makes sense, because they were their hills in the first place. It seems we had to sacrifice our eyes, limbs and even lives for nothing,” he said a year later.

“The military council goes on about how they want to end all these wars, but the solution is very simple: Stop trying to take over other people’s territory. There was absolutely no reason to fight in Rakhine State, and even less reason to have a civil war,” he added.

The road to defection

Zwe Mahn’s disillusionment with the military did not happen all at once. Even after the war in Rakhine, he continued to do his best to fit in with his fellow soldiers, who all lived by a code of obedience to orders.

His loyalty was not based merely on the fact that he had received a title (which came with an award of 800,000 kyat—around $445—and a promotion to corporal, with a salary of 200,000 kyat , or $112, a month).

More than anything, he was influenced by the military’s propaganda, which claimed that the regime’s enemies were terrorists trying to destabilize the country.

I felt like a weight had been lifted from my chest. I once risked my life to save another man’s. But this is to save the lives of millions

He continued to believe this for months after the coup.  Gradually, however, he began to see that the true terrorists were the soldiers and police sent out to do the junta’s bidding. 

It was largely thanks to his wife, Nway Oo, that he came to understand what was really happening.

In an interview aired on November 19, Nway Oo said that her supervisor at a company that she worked for never let her leave his side after the crackdowns began, lest she see the disturbing images of civilians being shot and beaten by junta forces. 

It was only after she went home late at night that she was able to watch videos of these brutal attacks, she said. 

Once she realized what was happening, she started encouraging Zwe Mahn to defect. Through an organization called People’s Soldiers, she learned as much as she could about how he could make a safe escape.

“I told him that if he could just make it out of the army, I would take care of the rest,” said Nway Oo, adding that she even told him to shoot his supervisor if necessary.

For Zwe Mahn, the tipping point came after he witnessed some soldiers beating villagers suspected of having ties to the anti-regime People’s Defence Force (PDF).

“They accused them of contacting the PDF and beat them mercilessly. It broke my heart to see them torturing farmers like that,” he said.

I don’t want to feel like I don’t have any control over my own life anymore

Soon after this incident, he requested leave to receive treatment for his leg. He then walked away from the military, determined never to return as long as the current regime remained in power.

“I felt like a weight had been lifted from my chest. I once risked my life to save another man’s. But this is to save the lives of millions,” he told Myanmar Now from a liberated area.

“I would not be able to forgive myself if I continued serving in the army,” he added.

The PDF sniper

Thura Zwe Mahn said that he is now ready to provide military training to the resistance fighters as well as join the fight himself.

With enough training, he said, the PDF could become a highly effective fighting force, capable of neutralizing its enemy. The fact that the military does so little for its rank-and-file will make this easier, he added.

He also emphasized the need to keep a cool head.

I would not be able to forgive myself if I continued serving in the army

“We can’t get angry seeing the enemy. We have to be calm and collected and shoot only when we are ready. Patience is a virtue. And we can’t get anxious about getting shot every time we hear a gun go off,” he said.

Zwe Mahn said that a military battalion of 180 soldiers is usually armed with 2 MAS-type sniper rifles capable of hitting a target from a distance of 1,300 meters. While these are formidable weapons in the right hands, he said, they are usually used by regular soldiers due to a lack of fully trained snipers.

He explained that the primary aim of a sniper is to kill or wound those in command.

“Our job was to take out the leader, because an organization will fall apart without its leader, and that makes it easier for our troops to attack,” he said.

“Even if we don’t manage to kill the leader—even if we only wound them—at least three of their troops will have to tend to their injuries and carry them back to the base,” he added.

Despite being a trained killer, Zwe Mahn said his greatest desire is to see peace restored as quickly as possible.

“I want Myanmar to be back to the way it was when I first arrived here. I want to be able to go wherever I like, whenever I want to go somewhere. I don’t want to feel like I don’t have any control over my own life anymore,” he said.

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