(Tokyo) – A Myanmar army general who received military training in Japan served as a high-ranking officer in a regional command that has been implicated in serious abuses in ethnic minority areas, Human Rights Watch said today. From August 2021 to July 2022, Brig. Gen. Tin Soe was based at Eastern Command headquarters, which oversees operations in southern Shan and Karenni (Kayah) States and whose forces were responsible for a massacre of civilians and other atrocities.
The Japanese government should immediately halt its training program with Myanmar and investigate whether program participants have been involved in operations violating the laws-of-war.
“Myanmar graduates of Japan’s military training program are serving in conflict areas where Myanmar military abuses are rampant,” said Teppei Kasai, Asia program officer at Human Rights Watch. “The Japanese government should stop playing with fire and immediately end its support of Myanmar’s military.”
Then-Colonel Tin Soe received training at Japan’s Ground Self Defense Force Staff College from August 2016 to March 2017, based on information from the All Japan Defense Association and a Defense Ministry document. Tin Soe served as military attaché for the Myanmar embassy in Tokyo from 2019 to 2021, according to a source with direct knowledge of the matter and state media reports. Two sources said that Tin Soe left Japan after the February 2021 military coup in Myanmar and was appointed a brigadier general. He was deployed to the Eastern Command headquarters in Shan State’s Taunggyi in August 2021. In July 2022, Tin Soe was relocated to Myanmar’s capital, Naypyidaw, a source said.
The Eastern Command, one of 14 regional commands of Myanmar’s armed forces, controls more than 40 infantry battalions in southern Shan and Karenni States, areas that have had increased fighting since the coup. Since the renewal of military operations in the region in May 2021, the United Nations, human rights groups, and independent media outlets have documented extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, looting, and arson, as well as offensives targeting civilians, indiscriminate attacks, and use of landmines by Myanmar forces under the Eastern Command.
On December 24, 2021, in Karenni State’s Hpruso township, security forces summarily executed at least 39 people, including 4 children and 2 staff members from the international aid group Save the Children. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that many of the victims were bound, gagged, and showed signs of torture, and some may have been burned alive. “It is one of the most shocking and depressing things I have ever experienced,” said a doctor who performed autopsies on the victims.
In February, the European Union sanctioned Brig. Gen. Ni Lin Aung, head of the Eastern Command and Tin Soe’s superior at the time, stating that he “directly commands the units in the State of Kayah, including those responsible for that massacre.” The EU also sanctioned Lt. Gen. Aung Zaw Aye, the commander of the Bureau of Special Operations No. 2, which oversees the Eastern Command.
Light Infantry Battalion 531, which operates under the Eastern Command, was implicated in the massacre, as was Light Infantry Division (LID) 66. A LID 66 commander told Amnesty International that all ground operations in Karenni State were overseen by the Eastern Command.
Other abuses against civilians have been reported in military operations against anti-junta armed groups and ethnic forces in Karenni State. The UN special rapporteur on Myanmar reported in March, “Instead of limiting its attacks to combatants from these groups, the military has targeted civilians, including by striking the region’s larger towns. The military has also pursued civilians as they flee, launching attacks on places where IDPs [internally displaced persons] are sheltering.”
In May, Amnesty International reported on abuses carried out during Eastern Command operations including “unlawful attacks, village burning, pillage, enforced disappearances, torture and other ill-treatment, and persecution of ethnic Karenni communities.” Infantry Battalion 102, under an Eastern Command combat division, committed several indiscriminate shelling attacks. Amnesty also reported on the military’s use of antipersonnel landmines “on a massive scale” in Karenni State, which the Karenni Human Rights Group said were responsible for killing or seriously injuring at least 20 civilians since June 2021.
In May, the Shan Human Rights Foundation identified four infantry battalions under Eastern Command linked to human rights violations in southern Shan State’s Ywangan township, including the massacre of nine villagers in mid-April.
Since 2015, the Japanese government has accepted cadets and officers from Myanmar under article 100-2 of the Self-Defense Forces Act, which permits training and educating foreign nationals in Defense Ministry facilities with the defense minister’s approval. In 2021, following the Myanmar coup, Japan accepted two cadets and two officers from Myanmar. In 2022, Japan again accepted two cadets and two officers from Myanmar for training.
Previously, Human Rights Watch and Justice For Myanmar identified Hlwan Moe, a Myanmar Air Force lieutenant colonel trained by the Japanese government who was based at Magway Air Base in Magway region. Aircraft from the air base have been implicated in possible indiscriminate airstrikes since the coup. The Myanmar military has also committed summary executions, arson, and other abuses in Magway region.
Human Rights Watch in December 2021 said that the Japanese government should immediately suspend the training program because it risks making Japan complicit in military atrocities. A Japanese Defense Ministry official responded that the ministry did not have any information about what the cadets and officers trained in Japan were doing once back in Myanmar.
However, on April 26, during a parliamentary committee session on security, a defense official said the ministry “knows to a certain extent” what “positions” these program participants currently hold, but declined to disclose any details due to Japan’s “relationship” with “the other country.” On June 22, during an ASEAN defense ministers meeting, Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi said it will be “difficult to accept” officers for training if they are “complicit in oppression against civilians” once back in Myanmar.
For decades, the Myanmar military has been responsible for war crimes in long-running armed conflicts with ethnic armed groups, and crimes against humanity and acts of genocide against ethnic Rohingya in Rakhine State, Human Rights Watch said.
The Japanese government has called for a restoration of democratic rule in Myanmar and the release of elected government officials, including Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto Myanmar leader prior to the coup. On March 28, 2021, Japan’s Defense Ministry issued a joint statement with 11 other countries criticizing the military’s attacks against “unarmed civilians.” The Japanese government halted new non-humanitarian Official Development Assistance projects earlier in 2021, while allowing existing aid projects to continue. The Japanese Diet passed a resolution in June 2021 that condemned the coup and called for a “swift restoration of the democratic political system.”
“The longer the Japanese government continues to train Myanmar soldiers and officers, the more harm it does to its own international reputation, as well as the lives of Myanmar people,” Kasai said. “As a country that wants to be recognized for promoting human rights, Japan should stand up for the rights of Myanmar’s people and cut defense ties with the junta.”