The Myanmar military’s top judge travelled to northern Rakhine State in 2017 to assist with the destruction of evidence of atrocities against the Rohingya, a defector who says he took part in the offensive has told Myanmar Now.
Aung Lin Dwe, who at the time was the Tatmadaw’s Judge Advocate General, arrived in the village of Mawrawaddy near Maungdaw after the attacks against the minority group began in August 2017, according to Captain Nay Myo Thet.
“The Judge Advocate General came to the No. 4 Border Guard Force office in Mawrawaddy, fabricated incidents as the military wanted… and got rid of the evidence of the acts of terrorism the military committed,” he said. “He also altered the weapons and ammunition inventory records.”
Aung Lin Dwe, who now serves as Secretary of the military’s so-called State Administration Council, issued an order in 2017 for soldiers to delete any record of the attacks they had taken on their phones, Nay Myo Thet said, adding that he himself passed this order down to his own subordinates.
“We were told to check our mobile phone every few days and delete whatever photos or videos we had there,” he said.
Much of what is known about the 2017 attacks, which both UN investigators and the United States have labelled genocide, comes from witness testimony given by Rohingya survivors who fled to Bangladesh in their hundreds of thousands.
The offensive, which followed a similar but smaller round of violence against the Rohingya in 2016, involved mass killings, the rape of women, men and children, and systematic arson to destroy hundreds of villages.
We were told to check our mobile phone every few days and delete whatever photos or videos we had there
Journalists, observers and investigators have been denied access to northern Rakhine ever since, except on tightly controlled media tours, and it has not been possible to gather physical evidence from the sites where atrocities were reported.
Nay Myo Thet abandoned his post in Buthidaung Township in January, taking his wife and five-year-old child with him, to join the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) against Myanmar’s coup regime.
The captain, who is 32, graduated from the 51st batch of the Defence Services Academy and from 2015 until his defection served as a squadron commander of Infantry Battalion 233 under Western Military Command. His unit was in charge of providing logistical support for troops.
His wife, Mar Mar, who he married in 2016, is a former police officer from Rakhine. The family has fled Rakhine.
They used to say: ‘The noose is very far away. Be careful not to put your neck in the noose yourself. Double-check everything. Instruct your underlings to cover their tracks. Get rid of all the evidence’
During the 2017 attacks, higher ranking soldiers had a sense that they were unlikely to be held accountable for their crimes, but nonetheless did not want to make things easy for international prosecutors by leaving behind evidence, Nay Myo Thet said.
“They used to say: ‘The noose is very far away. Be careful not to put your neck in the noose yourself. Double-check everything. Instruct your underlings to cover their tracks. Get rid of all the evidence’,” he said.
The military’s engineering battalion was brought in to help with this, he added.
“They bulldozed the land to get rid of the evidence,” he said. “By evidence, I mean dead bodies and the remains of burned houses.”
The military built border guard police stations on the bulldozed land, he said.
They bulldozed the land to get rid of the evidence. By evidence, I mean dead bodies and the remains of burned houses
Soldiers also poured acid onto the bodies of dead Rohingya in order to prevent them being identified, Nay Myo Thet said.
A 2018 investigation by the Associated Press found that acid had been poured over the bodies of Rohingya buried in mass graves in the village of Gu Dar Pyin, in Buthidaung. Nay Myo Thet told Myanmar Now that he arrived in Gu Dar Pyin after the attacks there and saw the aftermath.
Weapons inventories destroyed
Another way the military erased evidence in Rakhine was by destroying inventory records of weapons and ammunition used in the offensive, said Nay Myo Thet.
He served as a logistics officer during the operations and it was his role to procure food supplies, weapons, and aircraft fuel for the soldiers, he said.
“I was aware of our ammunition inventory because I used to be the supply officer,” he said. “So I know how much and what kind of ammunition the soldiers used. It was, however, off the record, so it meant they were given permission to do whatever they wanted.”
Nay Myo Thet’s battalion was deployed to Maungdaw Township as part of a mission named Zwe Marn Hone, which began in 2016 and continued after August 2017 with the purpose of “clearing” a stretch of land along Myanmar’s western border.
“We destroyed a series of Rohingya villages from Kyi Kan Pyin until Baw Tu Lar,” he said, referring to offensives he took part in in both 2016 and 2017. “It ended after we built a community hall in Baw Tu Lar” in 2017, he added.
A top military official named Lieutenant General Aung Kyaw Zaw, who was later sanctioned for his role in the atrocities, built a pagoda in Baw Tu Lar, which sits at one of Myanmar’s most westerly points, “in order to declare the area as Buddha’s land” Nay Myo Thet said.
During the Zwe Marn Hone mission, Nay Myo Thet said soldiers burned down villages and stripped Rohingya women naked for “searches”.
“The military columns would raid and torch villages and the villages would be burnt to ashes. It all happened before my own eyes,” said the captain, who served in the military for 13 years, seven of which he spent in Rakhine State.
Military authorities gave permission to ground troops to carry out unannounced searches in the villages and to take whatever they liked, the captain said.
“Every time they arrived at a house, they would make the men step outside and the women stand in a line in the house, and then they would strip them naked and ‘search’ them,” he said. “It didn’t matter if the women were old or young. They’d strip all of them naked. Then they would brag about it proudly.”
He added that the soldiers were also allowed to shoot anyone dead if they tried to run during the searches and that no weapons, apart from kitchen knives, were ever found.
“The people did not have any weapons to fight back but the soldiers were justified in killing them even if they found a kitchen knife” he added.
“They would leave a literal trail of dead bodies behind them after they left the villages. The streets would be filled with rotten smells from the bodies. It was very disturbing,” he said.
Rohingya leaders sometimes sought to prevent attacks by bribing army officers at the entrances of their villages with gold, silver, and other valuables, he added: “They would sell the objects given as bribes by the Rohingya people, including motorcycles and cars, among themselves. It was a big market.”
They would leave a literal trail of dead bodies behind them after they left the villages. The streets would be filled with rotten smells from the bodies. It was very disturbing
In 2020, military spokesperson Zaw Min Tun told reporters that three soldiers had been punished for “weakness in following the instructions” during the Gu Dar Pyin attacks, but he declined to name the soldiers or give their ranks.
Nay Myo Thet told Myanmar Now that the three soldiers Zaw Min Tun was referring to reported to a tactical officer named Colonel Naing Oo.
In 2019, Nay Myo Thet said, a lieutenant general named Zaw Myo Win was detained at a jail inside the base of Infantry Battalion 233 in Buthidaung for around six months.
His detention was ostensibly a punishment for his role in the Gu Dar Pyin attacks, Nay Myo Thet said, but it “was just an act”.
“I only know about this because I was there when it happened,” he added. “Everyone thought [he] was jailed for real. However, he was allowed to do whatever he wanted while he was detained. He even got to drink alcohol.”
Zaw Myo Win was commander of ground operations under Light Infantry Division 33, which was responsible for a large share of the 2017 atrocities.
It is unclear if Zaw Myo Win was one of the three soldiers that Zaw Min Tun was referring to in 2020.
There is, Nay Myo Thet said, no desire in the military for any genuine accountability for crimes against the Rohingya.
“The military as a whole thinks that the Rohingya are the source of all the problems,” he said. “They just want the Rohingya people gone. That’s all they want.”