Two elite divisions led a crackdown that forced 700,000 Muslims to flee Myanmar. Here's how they did it.
A Reuters investigation provides the first comprehensive account of the precise role played by Myanmar’s 33rd and 99th light infantry divisions in the savage offensive, and the close ties between the army's commander in chief and its elite troops.
YANGON, Myanmar/COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh – In early August last year, a young lieutenant named Kyi Nyan Lynn flew to Rakhine State, with hundreds of other Myanmar soldiers. They were about to launch a campaign that would drive hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims from their homes and leave the region in flames.
First, however, Lieutenant Kyi Nyan Lynn of the 33rd Light Infantry Division did what any young man might do: He wrote a Facebook post.
“In our plane, we got to eat cake,” read the Aug. 10 post.
“Are you going to eat Bengali meat?” commented a friend. Many Burmese refer to Rohingya as “Bengali” or use the pejorative term “kalar.”
“Whatever, man,” replied the lieutenant.
“Crush the kalar, buddy,” urged another friend.
“Will do,” he replied.
Kyi Nyan Lynn was part of what some Western military analysts refer to as Myanmar’s “tip of the spear:” hundreds of battle-hardened soldiers from two light infantry divisions – the 33rd and 99th – famed for their brutal counter-insurgency campaigns against this nation’s many ethnic minorities.
When Rohingya militants launched attacks across northern Rakhine State in August last year, the 33rd and 99th spearheaded the response. Their ensuing crackdown drove 700,000 Rohingya into neighboring Bangladesh. The United Nations has said the army may have committed genocide; the United States has called the action ethnic cleansing.
Myanmar denies the allegations.
It has been widely reported that Myanmar soldiers committed mass killings and burned down Rohingya villages. But a Reuters investigation is the first comprehensive account of the precise role played by Myanmar’s 33rd and 99th light infantry divisions, how they executed the assault across northern Rakhine State, and the longstanding ties between Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the commander in chief, and the army’s elite troops.
Reuters spoke to scores of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and Buddhists in Rakhine State, and conducted rare interviews with members of the Myanmar security forces, to reconstruct the actions of these two elite divisions. Interviews with Rohingya, Rakhine witnesses and policemen implicate troops from the two light infantry divisions in arson and killing.
The military is so secretive that even its official spokesmen rarely speak to the media. But Facebook is hugely popular in Myanmar, and Reuters found accounts of soldiers who posted about military life, troop movements and the crackdown in Rakhine State. The Facebook accounts of two members of the elite infantry divisions reveal a raw ethnic hatred.
Kyi Nyan Lynn, the soldier from the 33rd division, told Reuters that the army’s reaction was justified because soldiers were under attack from “Bengali terrorists.”
“They terrorized us first,” he said. “So we were given the duty to crack down on them. As we cracked down, whole villages fled.” He said he wasn’t involved in any killings or arson.
The military and government did not respond to questions from Reuters. In the past, the government has denied allegations of ethnic cleansing in Rakhine and said the security forces mounted legitimate counter-insurgency operations against Rohingya militants. The Ministry of Home Affairs, which is responsible for the police, told Reuters it rejected allegations that policemen had been involved in torching Rohingya villages.
Rakhine State was already an ethnic tinderbox before the light infantry divisions arrived. Years of violence between its two main groups – Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists – had killed hundreds and left thousands homeless, most of them Rohingya. Attacks by Rohingya militants in 2016 had rattled Myanmar’s security forces, who blamed ordinary Rohingya for harboring “terrorists.”
The arrival of the light infantry divisions in early August 2017 marked a dramatic military build-up. Photos from that period show soldiers arriving at the airport in Sittwe, or crowded onto boats.