The Silence of Myanmar’s Whistle-Blower Cop

To his admirers in Myanmar, Moe Yan Naing is known as the “Whistle-Blower Cop”. He was still a police captain when, in April 2018, he revealed to a courtroom full of reporters and diplomats that his boss and colleagues conspired to entrap two Reuters journalists in an effort to block their reporting about a military massacre of 10 Rohingya men in the village of Inn Din.

He was ejected from the force, and his wife and three children were evicted from their police-funded apartment. He was charged and later sentenced to a year in prison for violating police protocol, of which he served nine months.

His sacrifice in the name of truth and justice made him an instant hero. “The reason I testified was because I witnessed that they were unfairly set up,” he tells New Naratif, referring to the Reuters reporters. 

In addition to being dubbed the “Whistle-Blower Cop” by the media, foreign diplomats praised him, and countless Facebook users across the country made his face their profile images. 

“I didn’t like it when I saw someone doing something wrong. I empathised with the reporters’ families and spoke out.”

While he was in prison, the free expression advocacy group PEN Myanmar bestowed upon Moe Yan Naing an award for “Outstanding Protection of Free Expression”. After his release a few months later, he was invited to the National Theatre of Yangon to receive the 7Day Hero Award from one of Myanmar’s most popular daily newspapers.

“I am very grateful and honoured to receive these awards, which are given to outstanding people who have made a difference in our country,” he tells New Naratif. “I just came out speaking the truth honestly. I didn’t hope for anything. I didn’t like it when I saw someone doing something wrong. I empathised with the reporters’ families and spoke out.”

In May 2019, the two Reuters reporters—Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo—were released after serving less than two years of their seven-year prison sentences. Their story forced the Myanmar military to make its only admission of mass killing during the “clearance operations” in Rakhine State.

Today, Moe Yan Naing is set on remaining a public figure. On 8 September 2020, he launched an independent campaign for a seat in the parliament of Sagaing Region, hoping to represent his hometown of Khin U. He says he has a unique voice to bring to politics in Myanmar, where nearly all lawmakers owe blind allegiance to either State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi or to the military, and where several laws restrict criticism of the government.

“I’ll go to every village in my constituency during the campaign,” he recently told the Myanmar Times. “My advantage is that I speak frankly, without fear regarding the truth.”

“Don’t Make Me Answer This”

There is one topic, however, about which the Whistle-Blower Cop will not speak frankly—a topic that serves as an inconvenient reminder that his story begins well before his testimony in April 2018. It begins on 27 August 2017—a few days before the massacre in Inn Din.

On that day, according to his court testimony, Moe Yan Naing was serving as the “mobile team leader” of the Maungdaw Area Inn Din police outpost and “deputy divisional commander” of the 8th Security Police Battalion—a paramilitary unit tasked with clearing Rohingya homes (which at least one police officer says he interpreted to mean burn the dwellings) in order to prevent them from returning.

According to Reuters, the battalion was led by a police captain who said: “If they have a place to live, if they have food to eat, they can carry out more attacks…That’s why we burned their houses, mainly for security reasons.”

On 1 September 2017, after the Rohingya homes were burnt and their inhabitants dispersed, soldiers from the 33rd Light Infantry Division captured 10 Rohingya men from among the hundreds of people seeking shelter on a beach west of the village. A photo taken the following day shows the 10 men kneeling in a grassy clearing north of the village with their hands bound behind their backs. Moe Yan Naing can be seen in the top right emerging from the brush behind the row of doomed captives, wearing a khaki T-shirt and dark trousers, and resting a rifle on his shoulder.

A second photo, taken moments later by an unknown photographer and supplied anonymously to Reuters, shows the victims’ bodies, mangled by machetes and gunfire, piled into a mass grave.

He continues studying the photo for a few moments before saying, this time more decisively: “I was not there. I was asleep in the monastery at the time.”

A report by United Nations investigators states: “In Inn Din, police were responsible for, at a minimum, the extrajudicial killing of 10 men.” As the deputy commander of the police unit that was stationed in Inn Din at the time, it stands to reason that Moe Yan Naing played some role in this, or was at least a bystander to it.

Moe Yan Naing admits to being “on the frontlines” in Inn Din—one of the 392 Rohingya villages destroyed by Myanmar security forces in “clearance operations”, in which an estimated 10,000 Rohingya civilians were killed and more than 700,000 displaced, having fled to Bangladesh, in the final months of 2017. He also admits to providing information about these operations to Reuters.

However, in an interview with New Naratif at his relatives’ home in Yangon shortly after his release from prison in March 2019, Moe Yan Naing refused to discuss his combat experience any further.

When asked, he said: “Please don’t make me answer this. One day, without being asked, I plan to talk about what happened there under circumstances that would be good for me.”

“I Was Asleep in the Monastery”

When asked about the photo of him holding a gun behind the victims on the day of the massacre, Moe Yan Naing appears startled. His wife Tu Tu, sitting beside him, says, “What are you talking about when you say there is a photo of him?”

They say they have not read the Reuters story about the massacre and do not know about the photo. When shown the photo on a smartphone screen, Moe Yan Naing zooms in and out for several minutes before saying: “I can’t say if it is me. I don’t think it is. There are people who look similar to me in the battalion.”

A burnt fence surrounds the remains of the Rohingya section of Inn Din Village in Myanmar’s Rakhine State on 26 September 2018.
A burnt fence surrounds the remains of the Rohingya section of Inn Din Village in Myanmar’s Rakhine State on 26 September 2018. Jacob Goldberg

He continues studying the photo for a few moments before saying, this time more decisively: “I was not there. I was asleep in the monastery at the time. I was asleep there, and everything was done. I didn’t see.”

His response echoes a common refrain among the Buddhist villagers of Inn Din, some of whom participated in the violence against their Muslim neighbours. During a government-organised media visit to the village in September 2018, when asked to recount what they witnessed the previous year when the Rohingya section of the village was being razed, several said either “I wasn’t here at the time” or “I was in the monastery”.

A Reuters spokesperson tells New Naratif that the agency stands by its identification of Moe Yan Naing in the photo.

“He Needs to Be Investigated”

In the three years since the massacre, international efforts to hold the perpetrators accountable could only infer that genocidal orders came down the chain of command. The centralised command structure of the Myanmar army and the consistency among the accounts of Rohingya survivors leaves a slim margin for doubt that mass murder was intentional.

However, with the help of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, military leaders have found impunity within that margin. They have characterised the Inn Din killings as an aberration within a legitimate counterinsurgency mission. The absence of any witnesses from inside the security forces has allowed the generals to hide behind a veneer of plausible deniability.

That veneer, however, was finally shattered on 8 September 2020. 

On the same day Moe Yan Naing launched his campaign for regional parliament, videos emerged showing two Myanmar army deserters independently recounting direct orders from senior commanders in Rohingya villages near Inn Din to “kill all, whether children or adults” so that “their race will be exterminated”. In video testimony provided by human rights watchdog Fortify Rights, one deserter points out that “police conducted military operations together with soldiers”.

“Just because he was a whistle-blower doesn’t exempt him from his potential participation in the massacre. He would also be the best source for establishing the chain of command.”

The two defectors provided the names and ranks of 19 direct perpetrators of atrocities, including themselves and six commanders. They are now reportedly cooperating with the International Criminal Court in the Hague, and rights groups are calling for them to be prosecuted so that, in exchange for protection, they can help convict their superiors.

Moe Yan Naing, who is already famous for whistle-blowing, may also be a perfect candidate for such an arrangement.

“He needs to be investigated,” Yanghee Lee, the former UN special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, said in 2019. “Just because he was a whistle-blower doesn’t exempt him from his potential participation in the massacre. He would also be the best source for establishing the chain of command. For me, establishing the chain of command is crucial in any future prosecution.”

The result of Moe Yan Naing living in the public eye for three years without being questioned over his role in the destruction of Inn Din, Lee said, is that “the cycle of impunity gets reinforced”.

“Etched in the Mind of the Public”

However, inside Myanmar, where sympathy for the Rohingya is a fringe sentiment compared to the fight for free expression, Moe Yan Naing’s admirers are unbothered by his paramilitary past.

“We cannot say whether that person in the photo is Moe Yan Naing, so please be careful of your words,” says Ma Thida, a former political prisoner and board member for PEN Myanmar, which gave Moe Yan Naing his freedom of expression award.

She then qualifies her remark: “As far as we know, he was not assigned to do the shooting. If we had known someone committed such a crime, there would be no way of giving him any award.”

Swe Win, editor-in-chief of the independent investigative news outlet Myanmar Now, commissioned a watercolor portrait of the former police captain after his fateful testimony and hung it in his newsroom.

“I want to see his image etched in the mind of the public,” he tells New Naratif.

“I’m not sure about the exact role Moe Yan Naing played in the massacre of these 10 Muslim men at Inn Din Village, but regardless of his role, it is extraordinary that he revealed the trap the police set in the Reuters case. Even if he participated in the massacre, I would not believe that he did it willingly,” Swe Win says.

It is plausible that Moe Yan Naing did not shoot anyone and, if he did, it is also plausible that he did not do so willingly. The police officer-turned-political candidate appears remorseful when he recalls his time in Inn Din, telling New Naratif: “I didn’t know what I was getting myself into and got myself caught up in something wrong.”

However, according to Christopher Sidoti, a member of the UN Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, mitigating factors cannot be posited before a full investigation is carried out.

“Discretion relating to prosecution and trial is a question for prosecutors and judges, not for investigators,” Sidoti says.

Myanmar’s official investigation of the killings at Inn Din focused on seven soldiers, who were sentenced to 10 years in prison but pardoned and released after less than a year. Justice for the Inn Din victims remains elusive, and the only publicly known insider witness, despite being a well-known whistle-blower, refuses to talk about it.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, says the lack of public curiosity about Moe Yan Naing’s actions in Inn Din is an extension of the impunity long enjoyed by rights violators in Myanmar.

“The wholly opaque way the Myanmar authorities have dealt with the massacre at Inn Din extends to the role of Moe Yan Naing, who everyone admits was present when the atrocities were committed,” he says. “There needs to be a thorough and impartial investigation of what he and others did there, and who did what.”

Nay San Lwin, coordinator for the Free Rohingya Coalition, says he wants to be able to honor Moe Yan Naing as a truth-teller, but only if he tells the truth about his own role in the clearance operations.

“What he revealed in the court is remarkable. He had to spend a year in jail for revealing the police set-up, so I appreciate his efforts,” says Nay San Lwin.

“But as a Rohingya, I can only call him a hero if he has not done anything wrong against my people.”

Correction: This article has been updated to clarify this line: “Moe Yan Naing, who is already famous for whistle-blowing, may also be a perfect candidate for such an arrangement.” 

A previous version of this article implied that Yanghee Lee agreed with this statement in an interview she gave with the author. It has been updated to remove any such reference to Ms. Lee. 

This article was also updated to reflect that Ms. Lee was interviewed in 2019. 

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