Armed opposition groups have assassinated five former officers in Myanmar’s military, including one believed to have close ties to the vice chairman of the junta, for what they claim is their public support of the regime and as retribution for the execution of prominent pro-democracy activists.
The assassinations — which highlight the increasingly complex idea of “justice” and who defines it in Myanmar’s post-coup chaos — took place over a 10-month period between November 2021 and September this year, RFA Burmese has learned, based on data compiled through local media reports and testimonies from sources with knowledge of the four incidents.
Anti-junta groups killed Navy Lieutenant Commander Thein Aung, the chief financial officer of military-owned telecom company Mytel, on Nov. 4, 2021 in Ma Yan village tract, in Yangon region’s Kungyangon township; Captain Thein Myint, the chairman of the War Veterans Association of Naypyidaw’s Tatkon township, on Jan. 16, 2022; Major Tin Maung Aye on Feb. 3, 2022 in Yangon’s North Dagon township; and Brigadier General Ohn Thwin, the head of the Myanmar War Veterans Association, and his son-in-law, Captain Ye Tayza, on Sept. 24, 2022 in Yangon’s Hlaingtharya township.
The assassination of Ohn Thwin – who had served as Myanmar’s ambassador to Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Maldives, and South Africa – made him the highest-ranking junta target killed by armed opposition groups since Thein Aung in November last year.
Sources say that Ohn Thwin was the mentor of Vice Senior General Soe Win – the junta’s vice chairman and second-in-command – although RFA was unable to independently verify the claim. The Myanmar War Veterans Association, which he ran, is a source of recruits for the junta’s operations to wipe out the country’s armed resistance, according to a report by the Irrawaddy online news journal.
Speaking to RFA about the killings, Sayar Kyaung, spokesperson for the anti-junta Yangon Urban Guerrilla Association, said his group is “targeting ex-military officials working for the junta,” and “not every veteran or former officer.”
“Some veterans understand justice. They keep silent [about their opposition to the junta], even though they don’t publicly show support for the people,” he said.
“Others are still working for the junta and standing up for them. We are targeting these kinds of veterans. We believe this is the right thing to do.”
Sayar Kyaung said veterans like Ohn Thwin have “become pillars for the junta and are spreading the wrong messages and ideas to the people.”
He did not provide details about how his group defines “support” for the junta, or “wrong” messages and ideas. It was also unclear who is responsible for making such decisions and ordering the assassinations.
Ohn Thwin was known to denounce officials from the National League for Democracy (NLD), which was ousted by the military in a Feb. 1, 2021 coup, and had posted comments applauding authorities for violently cracking down on peaceful anti-junta protests.
A group known as the Inya Urban Force claimed responsibility for assassinating Ohn Thwin because of “his public support for the junta.” The group has also claimed that it “doesn’t target every military veteran.”
Urban guerrilla groups based in Yangon, Mandalay and Naypyidaw also say their attacks are in response to the junta’s July 25 execution of four democracy activists, including prominent former student leader Ko Jimmy and a former NLD lawmaker. Prior to those executions, which prompted protests at home and condemnation abroad, only three people had been executed in Myanmar in the past 50 years.
However, Thein Tun Oo, executive director of pro-military think-tank Thaynaga Institute for Strategic Studies, composed mostly of ex-military officers, characterized the slaying of military veterans who are no longer actively serving in the military as “an act of cruelty.”
“They may have served in the military in the past. But they are now civilians, as they have retired from their service,” he told RFA.
“We question why they feel the need to kill civilians. There are many questions to answer. Killing veterans without providing a proper reason is a very brutal and murderous act.”
Thein Tun Oo claimed that the junta’s executions of the four democracy activists was “a lawful action taken through the judicial system after moving through the appeals process,” while the killing of former military officers is “lawless.”
A resident of Yangon, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity for security reasons, called the assassination of former top military officials like Ohn Thwin “an important step in the fight against the military regime.”
“It is not easy to kill top military officials like that. The assassins must have carefully observed his daily life and meticulously planned for the attack,” she said.
“The assassins are also putting themselves in danger to do that. If they get caught, they will be crushed brutally. They would be killed or get multiple lengthy prison sentences. So, I think this is a very important act in fighting against and getting rid of the military regime.”
Residents of Naypyidaw told RFA that some former military officials from Yangon and Mandalay moved to the capital after the assassination of Ohn Thwin, presumably out of fear for their safety.
Political analyst Than Soe Naing told RFA that while killing former military officers is “not a moral act,” it is “necessary in a revolution.”
“These assassinations by revolutionary fighters will dishearten members of the military and dissolve unity in the military. So, I conclude that this is an indispensable act in the success of a revolution.”
Than Soe Naing said that the assassination of Ohn Thwin sends “a clear message” to the junta’s supporters and others who acted as pillars of the military regime that they are “no longer safe.”
In April, then-Vice Chairman of Myanmar’s Central Bank Than Than Swe, widely seen as pro-military, was the target of an unsuccessful assassination attempt, when unknown assailants shot her at her apartment complex in Yangon amid a public outcry over a new Central Bank directive ordering the sale of all U.S. dollars and other foreign currency at a fixed rate to licensed banks.
The 55-year-old was sworn in after the military seized power from Myanmar’s democratically elected National League for Democracy (NLD) government in a Feb. 1, 2021, coup.
Believed to be the most senior junta official to be shot since the takeover, she was severely injured in the incident, but lived.
In August, she was promoted to head the Central Bank amid a shake-up of the bank’s leadership analysts warned was part of a bid by the military regime to assume control of the country’s financial sector and extend its grip on power.
The Yangon Region Military Subdivision Administration, a coalition of anti-junta People’s Defense Force (PDF) paramilitaries and allied guerrilla groups, announced on April 7 that they had carried out a total of 1,128 attacks on military targets over the previous seven months, including the attack on Than Than Swe.
Thailand’s Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) says authorities in Myanmar have killed at least 2,338 civilians in the more than 20 months since last year’s coup, mostly during peaceful anti-junta protests.
Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung for RFA Burmese. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.