Leaked intelligence reports have confirmed that Myanmar’s former military junta was directly responsible for one of the most notorious episodes in the country’s political history.
The Depayin massacre, which saw the killing of dozens of National League for Democracy (NLD) supporters in Sagaing Region’s Depayin Township on May 30, 2003, was deliberately orchestrated by the regime, the reports show.
At the time, the junta claimed that the attack on a motorcade led by the NLD’s general secretary Aung San Suu Kyi and party vice-president Tin Oo was merely the result of a “disturbance” between supporters and opponents of the NLD.
However, the reports, which were filed by military intelligence agents monitoring the progress of the motorcade, reveal that the perpetrators of the violence were actually members of the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA)—a “mass organisation” created by former dictator Than Shwe—and Swan Arr Shin, a thuggish outfit that targeted junta critics.
Leaked to Myanmar Now ahead of the 20th anniversary of the attack, the reports detail how the deadly assault on the NLD leaders and their entourage was carried out according to a carefully laid plan.
One report, for instance, reveals that on May 29, five vehicles full of USDA members arrived in Saing Pyin Gyi, the village that was the scene of the attack, and received food and 500 kyat each from local junta authorities.
The next day, this same group told their victims that they had been sent “to kill all of you,” the report said, adding that the assailants also took wristwatches, jewellery, and other valuables and tore off the clothes of women who had gathered to show their support for the NLD leaders.
Later that day, an army colonel, a police chief, and 40 policemen arrived from the nearby town of Depayin to take the victims’ bodies away, according to the report. They then staged the aftermath of a traffic accident to provide a pretext for the supposedly spontaneous outbreak of violence.
The reports show that throughout the NLD leaders’ trip across Upper Myanmar, they were greeted by protesters with signs bearing typical junta slogans, such as “Oppose those relying on external elements, acting as stooges holding negative views.” Hundreds of plainclothes security officers were present at these demonstrations, according to the reports.
In 2015, former military intelligence chief Khin Nyunt claimed in his autobiography that his boss, Than Shwe, had called senior members of his regime together to discuss actions they could take to prevent the NLD leaders from continuing their journey, which was attracting huge crowds of supporters. He said the junta strongman wanted to use “any means” available to achieve this goal, while he himself counselled against using violence.
“I told him we should not resort to violence, but the ‘elder’ didn’t agree with me. I think it was good for me that he didn’t entrust the task to me,” said Khin Nyunt, who was purged by Than Shwe in October 2004.
Ultimately, it fell to another senior junta figure, Soe Win, to oversee the project. However, in his own memoir, published in 2014, the lieutenant general and junta secretary 2 also denied responsibility for what happened in Depayin.
“It had quite an impact on me. Some even said that the whole incident was pre-planned, that it was a premeditated plan to kill Daw Suu Kyi. If we said it wasn’t so, it would only make people believe it more,” wrote Soe Win.
In the wake of the Depayin incident, the regime mounted a massive crackdown on the NLD. In addition to detaining its leaders and many other members, it shuttered its Yangon headquarters and other offices around the country.
Meanwhile, the USDA continued to thrive until 2010, when it was transformed into the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) to act as a military proxy in elections held under the junta-drafted 2008 constitution.
A decade after marking its transition to quasi-civilian rule in 2011, the military again seized power in February 2021, following the USDP’s second humiliating electoral loss to the NLD in November 2020.
Since then, the newly installed regime has again sought to eradicate the NLD, and has been carrying out atrocities similar to the Depayin massacre on a regular basis.