Myanmar Military Detains North Western Commander for Planning to Defect: Ethnic Insurgent Sources

By The Irrawaddy 7 October 2021

The head of one of the Myanmar military’s regional commands has been detained and interrogated by the military regime after his plan to defect and take refuge in an area controlled by an ethnic armed group was exposed, according to sources close to the matter.

Brigadier-General Phyo Thant, the commander of the military’s North West
Command, which has responsibility for areas that are strongholds of resistance to the Myanmar regime, is the highest-ranking regime official so far to switch allegiance to the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) against the junta, and the most senior officer to be arrested.

The Irrawaddy has learned that the commander, who is in his early 50s, contacted a CDM support group that assists defectors from the military and police, and also reached out to some local resistance forces in his area.

A senior official from an ethnic army said the brigadier general had been planning to join them and that officials from the ethnic armed group and the leader of local civilian resistance forces told him to leave as soon as possible.

“The coast was clear for him to come to us with four or five of his subordinates. But he said he wanted to get more people to join him. Then, the plot was uncovered and he was arrested,” said a senior official from an ethnic armed group.

The brigadier general was apparently detained this week, as he was seen holding meetings with local veterans as recently as Monday in Sagaing Region, one of the areas under his command. He is likely to face serious interrogation, as the regime has zero tolerance for anyone participating in the CDM. Rumors have already circulated that he was tortured to death.

Detained Commander Brig-Gen Phyo Thant before his arrest on Oct. 4. / Thala Shwe Myay

The Irrawaddy has learned that the commander had been under increasing pressure as Sagaing Region and Chin State, which were under his command, had seen deadly and ongoing armed clashes between regime soldiers and local guerrillas known as the People’s Defense Force (PDF) on an almost daily basis. During the fighting, junta soldiers have sustained significant casualties due to landmine attacks and ambushes. To retaliate against the resistance forces, regime troops have raided and torched villages in areas suspected of harboring PDF units, while committing extrajudicial killings.

The ethnic armed group source said Brig-Gen Phyo Thant had also promised to testify that a massacre took place under his command in Sagaing Region, as he feared that his superiors in Naypyitaw would use him as a scapegoat for recent mass killings in the region.

In July, the Myanmar army killed nearly 40 people, including a 14-year-old boy, in Sagaing’s Kanni Township. The bodies were found four days after junta troops entered villages in the area. Some bodies were burned; all were badly bruised and exhibited signs of torture, said residents. The mass killing prompted Myanmar’s ambassador to the UN to alert the world body that a “reported massacre” was committed by the military junta in Sagaing, calling for a global arms embargo on the ruling junta and “urgent humanitarian intervention” from the international community.

In the meantime, Brig-Gen Phyo Thant has been replaced as commander by the notorious Lieutenant General Than Hlaing, chief of the Myanmar Police and the junta’s deputy home affairs minister, who will take charge of operations against the PDF in Sagaing, Chin State and neighboring Magwe Region. Lieutenant General Tay Zar Kyaw from the Bureau of Special Operations is accompanying Lt-Gen Than Hlaing on the new mission. In recent days, locals reported that many reinforcements have been deployed in the area, prompting fears of more serious clearance operations against the PDFs.

Lt-Gen Than Hlaing has been sanctioned by the European Union, which said the police chief was “directly responsible for decision making concerning repressive policies and violent actions committed by police against peaceful [anti-regime] demonstrators and is therefore responsible for serious human rights violations in Myanmar/Burma.”

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