‘Burn it all down’

How Myanmar’s military razed villages to crush a growing resistance

For decades, Thantlang had known peace. The town’s mostly Christian residents cherished their home among mountains in northwest Myanmar, where they hosted an annual soccer tournament. At Christmas, they would feast.

All that changed after a military coup in February. Chin state, which includes Thantlang, had emerged as an unlikely stronghold for the resistance as Myanmar spiraled toward civil war.

In August, the military summoned town elders to deliver a warning. A commander “repeatedly told us that the town will be burned down to ash if we do not cooperate with them,” said a pastor from one of Thantlang’s churches, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.

When the shelling began less than a month later, residents rushed to live-stream the carnage. Rebel fighters had ambushed junta forces, killing several soldiers, and the military responded by bombarding the town and setting more than a dozen mostly wooden homes on fire on Sept. 18.

Almost all of the town’s people fled, abandoning homes and possessions. Videos of Thantlang taken roughly a year apart capture the devastation left by the fires, which ripped through the town’s main corridor.

That was just the start.

Facing armed resistance after it seized power, the military, known as the Tatmadaw, has escalated its use of force against civilians using tactics honed during past atrocities. A Washington Post analysis of more than 300 videos and photos, some not previously made public, as well as satellite imagery, eyewitness accounts and military planning documents, reveals a premeditated campaign of arson and killing targeting civilians in Chin state beginning in September.

Military planning documents shared exclusively with The Post show that the attacks were planned as early as June, and that soldiers were authorized to “clear” the region — similar to orders in the 2017 operation against Rohingya Muslims. The documents, supported by visual evidence, implicate commanders in atrocities for the first time since the coup. The military government did not respond to a request for comment.

In Thantlang, The Post found that over the course of three months, the military returned multiple times to raze most of the buildings along the town’s main road. After the shelling and fires in September, soldiers came back the next month, looting abandoned homes, grabbing sacks of rice, cash and liquor. On Oct. 29, they turned to arson, setting homes and churches ablaze, according to eyewitness accounts and visual evidence.

“Everything they warned us about has been happening to our town and to us,” said a Thantlang town elder who attended the August meetings.

Only a few villagers and about 20 children in an orphanage outside the town were left to witness the acts that late October day. Pu Pan Hike, the sole adult man in Thantlang at the time, was watching from a peephole as troops used a catalyst to start the fire.

“One house, two homes, three and then four — fires started breaking out in all of them,” he said.

When Pu Pan Hike realized his home would be torched, too, he hid with his elderly mother and her friend in a mud pit beneath the residence and stayed there until the soldiers left that evening.

At least four fires were visible in drone video taken on the day Pu Pan Hike’s home was burned.

Now, around 2 million square feet have burned, according to The Post’s analysis of available imagery. That represents roughly 30 percent of Thantlang, or about 600 of the town’s 2,000 buildings. Almost all of the town’s shops and businesses were destroyed, according to the Chin Human Rights Organization.

Since the September fires, the military has burned significant portions of at least three other villages, including civilian homes and religious buildings, and killed more than 10 civilians, among them Christian leaders in Chin state. The targeting of religious minorities also recalls the Rohingya campaign, the subject of a genocide investigation by the International Court of Justice.

“The orders are simple: just clear the insurgency,” said Hin Len Piang, a former clerk to the deputy commander in charge of the Chin state operation who defected from the military in October over moral opposition to these tactics. Ground troops, he said, were granted “total immunity.”

The fires and troop movements debunk the Tatmadaw’s assertions that rebel fighters started the blazes. The military’s actions in Chin add to evidence that it is committing crimes against humanity and war crimes, according to two legal experts who reviewed material shared by The Post.

“For them, the collateral damage is not collateral — it is the point,” said Tom Andrews, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on Myanmar. “This is overwhelming force, directed at civilian targets.”

At least one group has submitted evidence to the International Criminal Court that Min Aung Hlaing, the commander in chief of Myanmar’s military, is committing crimes against humanity. The U.N. Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM), established to investigate the gravest crimes against international law allegedly committed by the military since 2011, has received 220,000 pieces of evidence since the coup.

“When you use different tactics and they result in crimes against civilians on occasion, you can say that was unexpected,” said Nicholas Koumjian, the head of the IIMM and a former prosecutor of war crimes in countries including Cambodia and Bosnia. “When it happens repeatedly, it becomes clear that the person or persons are carrying out a policy.”

‘Special clearance operation’

As resistance to the junta grew, rebel groups formed the People’s Defense Force as an armed wing of the ousted government, stretching the resources of a military already fighting ethnic armies in border regions.

Hin Len Piang was working in April at the Tactical Operations Command in Hakha, the capital of Chin state, when rebels from the town of Mindat began fighting back against soldiers with hunting rifles and other weapons.

The rebels, who called themselves the Chinland Defense Force, killed dozens of soldiers after ambushing their trucks before they could reach Mindat. The military used heavy artillery and helicopters to shell the town, sending more than 10,000 residents fleeing. But with superior knowledge of the territory, and a strong allegiance to ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy, the rebels fought back.

The events in Mindat led the military to send reinforcements to Chin, Hin Len Piang said. As a clerk, he was also a personal assistant to the deputy commander of the Tatmadaw’s Northwestern Regional Military Command, Myo Htut Hlaing, and acted as a go-between among ground troops and senior commanders.

“They believed they totally lost control in Mindat for a while, so they were preparing to avoid such a situation again,” Hin Len Piang said in an interview. Troops began to arrive in June, including Light Infantry Division 11 and Infantry Battalion 222, Hin Len Piang said. Documents he shared with The Post, signed by the director of operations for the military’s Northwestern Regional Command, confirmed Light Infantry Division 11 was ordered to Chin state in June.

A separate document Hin Len Piang shared with The Post shows that the military authorized a “special clearance operation” in Chin that “shall commence between 4 Oct 2021 and 17 Oct 2021.” Troops were ordered to use up to “ground zero level as needed,” according to the document — putting no restrictions on soldiers and mirroring the terminology ahead of the Rohingya crackdown.

By early October, military convoys that included armed infantry fighting vehicles and dozens of cargo trucks were traveling from the town of Kalay into Chin state, taking the route outlined in the documents that would eventually lead to Thantlang.

LEFT: Two infantry fighting vehicles in a military convoy move through Kalay on Oct. 8 as they head toward the Chin mountains. RIGHT: More than 15 cargo trucks were also part of the military convoy moving though Kalay on Oct. 8. (Photos by Khit Thit Media)

Convoys stopped at towns along the main route, leaving fires and destruction in their wake. Soldiers hoped to inflict a campaign of punishment throughout the state, aware that they were facing a rebellion, Hin Len Piang said.

Between Oct. 11 and Oct. 25, evidence of military movement was spotted along this road at least 11 times, according to more than 40 videos and images reviewed and geolocated by The Post and Myanmar Witness, a project based at the Center for Information Resilience.

One of these convoys, comprising more than 20 military vehicles, moved through the mountain village of Thlanrawn on Oct. 14. The village is in the area the military ordered designated for “clearance.” At least five houses were set on fire that day.

Over the next seven days, similar images showed dozens of military vehicles moving south, through the area they were ordered to clear. Visual evidence reviewed and geolocated by The Post shows they arrived in Hakha on Oct. 20.

Rebel soldiers blew up a bridge connecting Hakha and Thantlang the next day, hoping to slow the military’s progress.

But it did little to stem the onslaught, or change Thantlang’s fate.

Writing on the wall

As soldiers moved through Chin state, they left little doubt about the purpose of their mission. They set fire to areas of at least three other villages along the road between Falam and Hakha by Oct. 25, destroying some 34 buildings, including the entire town of Rialti, according to an analysis of satellite imagery obtained by The Post.

After fires Oct. 25 in the village of Taal, 40 miles from Thantlang, the troops left ominous messages on the walls of homes. “We will burn it all down,” read one message that referenced Chin’s main rebel organizations, the People’s Defense Force and Chin National Front. They burned nearly a quarter of the village that day.

LEFT: A building burns in the mountain village of Thlanrawn, along the Hakha-Falam road, after military forces set fire to several homes Oct. 25. (The Chinland Post) RIGHT: “We will burn it all down,” soldiers wrote on the wall of a home in Taal on Oct. 25. (Obtained by the Washington Post)

By October, as fires were burning through Chin state, Thantlang was largely deserted. Town elders and the rest of the 10,000 residents had fled to neighboring villages and some across the Indian border after the fires on Sept. 18.

The risks of returning had become clear on Sept. 29, when five town elders tried to retrieve some of their belongings with permission from the military. They were ambushed as they turned to leave; two were killed.

“They had informed the soldiers that they were returning to Thantlang,” said one of the town’s pastors. “So there was no way soldiers mistook the car. It must have been intentional.”

Photos provided to The Post of the truck in which Thantlang’s leaders had been traveling show the windows shattered and tires deflated. In images from the scene, the truck’s body appears to have been sprayed with bullets and a remnant of an MG2 40mm rifle grenade is visible next to a small pool of blood.

LEFT: A man retrieves belongings from the truck in which five Thantlang elders were traveling when military forces ambushed them on Sept. 29. RIGHT: A remnant of an exploded MG-2 40mm rifle grenade sits near a pool of blood in the truck's bed. (Chin Human Rights Organization)

One soldier assigned to Thantlang, Lance Cpl. Aung Kyaw Nyein from Infantry Battalion 222, first appeared in the town in late August, according to geolocated photos from his Facebook page, which has since been removed. Material from his page was first archived by Myanmar Witness, a group that collects and verifies instances of rights abuses.

Aung Kyaw Nyein posted several photos and videos to his Facebook page, where he said there is no need for mercy and compared the rebels to jihadists — similar language to that used previously by the military to refer to the Rohingya.

By mid-October, around the time of Aung Kyaw Nyein’s video, only three people were left in Thantlang township: Pu Pan Hike, his elderly mother and her friend, in their 70s and 80s, respectively. Both in ill health and devoted Christians, the friends were unwilling to leave, convinced that no harm would come to them if they trusted in Jesus.

Pu Pan Hike said soldiers broke into his grocery store and other shops in Thantlang. Then, they set buildings on fire. Drone video provided to The Post shows several dark figures around the entrance of Thantlang Baptist Church after the first fires were set. Over the next few hours, the church burned to the ground.

“Soldiers are supposed to protect people,” he said. “I didn’t expect the soldiers were capable of causing this type of disturbance to people.”

Photos posted to Aung Kyaw Nyein’s Facebook page show him and another soldier looking out over Thantlang as it burned.

LEFT: Aung Kyaw Nyein and another soldier look out over Thantlang on Oct. 29 after military units set fire to more than 100 buildings in the town. RIGHT: Aung Kyaw Nyein turns away as the fires rage. He posted this image to Facebook on Oct. 31. It was manipulated by the source to obscure information that would identify his military unit. (Photos by Aung Kyaw Nyein/Facebook)

Richard Horsey, senior adviser on Myanmar to the International Crisis Group, said these tactics have long been part of the military’s playbook.

“This is the essence of Tatmadaw counterinsurgency tactics: You target their support base,” Horsey said. “If you want to stop food from going to the insurgents, you deprive the broader community of food. And if you don’t want them to operate in the community, you make sure there’s no community there.”

The People’s Defense Force has continued to attack soldiers in Chin state. Local media reported in November that Aung Kyaw Nyein had been killed by rebels.

Pu Pan Hike stayed in Thantlang, hiding, until rebels evacuated him on the evening of Oct. 29.

With the town in ruins, soldiers returned — venturing farther south and destroying at least 200 buildings in an area previously untouched, according to satellite imagery from Dec. 18. Previously unreleased visual evidence reviewed by The Post shows soldiers and military vehicles circling buildings before and after they were burned, including another church. The town was otherwise empty, negating the military’s argument that resistance fighters were responsible for the fires.

Priya Pillai, an international lawyer who reviewed The Post’s evidence, said the military’s actions probably constitute crimes against humanity. Destroying churches would also violate the laws of war and international conventions that Myanmar has signed, Pillai added.

Atrocities continue to be reported across Myanmar. In the Sagaing region bordering Chin state, villagers this month found the remains of 11 charred teenagers in a pile. They were tied together, shot, and their bodies burned.

Drone imagery from Nov. 26 shows the remnants of burned structures in Thantlang. (Chin Human Rights Organization)

About this story

A Myanmar journalist whose name The Post is withholding for safety reasons contributed to this report.

Satellite imagery for burned areas and military movements from Maxar Technologies, Soar.Earth and Planet Labs PBC.

Editing by Nadine Ajaka, Reem Akkad and David Crawshaw. Photo editing by Karly Domb Sadof and Wendy Galietta. Graphics editing by Danielle Rindler. Copy editing by Frances Moody. Design and development by Junne Alcantara.

Meg Kelly is a video reporter for The Washington Post's Visual Forensics team.
Shibani Mahtani is the Southeast Asia bureau chief for The Washington Post, covering countries that include the Philippines, Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia. She joined The Post's foreign desk in 2018 after seven years as a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal in Southeast Asia and later in Chicago, where she covered the Midwest.
Joyce Sohyun Lee is a video reporter for The Washington Post's Visual Forensics team. Before joining the Post, she worked as an associate video producer for Time magazine.