Mass Murder of Civilians in Myanmar’s Sagaing Region Amounts to ‘War Crime,’ Says Rights Lawyer

At least 15 bodies found in a remote jungle were brutally tortured and executed, villagers say.
2021-07-13
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Mass Murder of Civilians in Myanmar’s Sagaing Region Amounts to ‘War Crime,’ Says Rights Lawyer Citizen journalist
Decomposing bodies discovered in the jungle in Kani township, in Myanmar's remote Sagaing region, July 13, 2021.

The murder of more than a dozen people whose bodies exhibited signs of torture and were left to rot in a forest in Myanmar’s remote Sagaing region this week was carried out by troops loyal to the country’s junta and should be classified as a “war crime,” witnesses and a rights lawyer said Tuesday.

Residents of Sagaing’s Kani township, where fighting has raged between junta forces and a branch of the People’s Defense Force (PDF) militia in recent months, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that they found the hog-tied and severely beaten bodies of at least 15 people scattered in the jungle surrounding Yin and Kone Thar villages on Sunday and Monday, days after a government military unit left the area.

Photos obtained by RFA show several rigid, discolored corpses littered face down on the forest floor, either naked or wearing soiled clothing, stretched tight from swelling during decomposition.

The victims were not members of the PDF that was formed to protect villagers following the military’s Feb. 1 coup d’état, but rather a group of civilians ranging in age from their late teens to mid-60s who were arrested after attempting to flee the arrival of junta troops on July 8, the residents said.

One resident, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity citing fear of reprisal, said that his brothers’ bodies were among those discovered in the forest and said the condition he found one of them in pointed to physical abuse.

“He was lying on his stomach, with his legs tied with a rope. He appeared to have been tortured. There were plenty of wounds on the body and he seemed to have been dragged on the ground,” the resident said. He had to cut the bindings before cremating the body where it lay because “it was too risky to carry it back [home],” he added.

“I will never accept the rule of such an evil regime. I want to appeal to the international community to intervene in this situation instead of ignoring us during this crisis.”

RFA spoke with another resident who claimed he had witnessed the military carry out the killings, but said he was too terrified to go on the record about what he saw.

A source from Yin village, who declined to be named, said he had never seen a body as savagely murdered as the ones found in the forest this week.

“As the military troops arrived, we tried to pacify the soldiers as much as we could to avoid conflict, but this still happened despite those efforts,” he said.

“This kind of brutality is unprecedented—not only in this township, but throughout Myanmar. We have seen bodies piled like firewood and covered under a sheet of tarpaulin, as well as traps set to injure or kill the people who come to dispose of them. But this is so brutal. I have never seen anything like it.”

Other villagers whose loved ones were among the dead said the military no longer bothers to separate PDF members from civilians anymore, “firing on anyone they encounter in the forest” and “tying up as many people as they can find before killing them all.”

A member of the PDF confirmed that none of the victims were part of his militia and vowed to continue to fight the military to bring them justice.

“The ruthless killing of fleeing civilians demonstrates the lowest level of inhumanity,” the PDF member said.

“This killing shows that [military chief] Min Aung Hlaing’s regime has stepped up its brutality and ignorance. I speak for all PDF members from Kani and around the country when I say that we will keep resisting them however we can.”

Military impunity

On Feb. 1, Myanmar’s military staged a coup, seizing power from Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), rejecting its landslide victory in November 2020 general elections as the result of voter fraud. The junta has provided no evidence to back up its claims and citizens from all walks of life have protested the junta.

Amid nationwide turmoil, the military has stepped up offensives in remote parts of the country of 54 million that have led to fierce battles with several PDF militias, including in Kani township, where more than 15,000 people from some 40 villages have been displaced by fighting between the two sides since April 2.

Residents of Kani said that villagers are also forced to flee because military troops regularly steal their valuables, destroy their homes, and arrest and torture them.

Earlier this month, sources told RFA that at least 10 people were killed between June 19 and 30 in Sagaing region alone, including 50-year-old Sein Min, who was among 15 residents of Kani’s Kin Ywa village that were detained and tortured by junta troops and members of the pro-junta Pyu Saw Htee militia. He was later shot, and his body was dumped in a river, according to his wife, Moe Win.

And over the weekend, villagers discovered four dead bodies believed to be civilians in the latrine of a home in Kayah state, where an estimated 100,000 people have fled the area since fighting broke out between junta troops and the local PDF on May 20. Residents of battle-ravaged Demoso township told RFA that the bodies were so badly decomposed that they could not be identified but were wearing civilian clothing.

According to the United Nations and aid groups, conflict in Myanmar’s remote border regions has displaced an estimated 230,000 residents since the February coup. They join more than 500,000 refugees from decades of conflict between the military and ethnic armies who were already counted as internally displaced persons (IDPs) at the end of 2020, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, a Norwegian NGO.

Villagers in Kani township said Tuesday that most of the bodies discovered earlier this week will be collectively cremated because the risk of troops returning is too great for victims’ families to hold individual funerals. They said efforts are still underway to determine exactly how many residents were arrested by the junta last week or had fled the area.

A body discovered with its ankles bound in the jungle in Sagaing's Kani township, July 13, 2021. Citizen journalist
A body discovered with its ankles bound in the jungle in Sagaing's Kani township, July 13, 2021. Citizen journalist
Call to try ‘war crime’

Min Lwin Oo, a human rights attorney from the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) Burma, said the mass killing in Kani township should be classified a war crime and litigated accordingly.

“We have seen such mass killings and torture occurring in the ethnic areas in the past—we have collected information about these incidents and presented it at U.N. Human Rights Council for many years—but the international response has taken too long,” he said.

“These delays have allowed the illegitimate armed forces to kill with impunity.”

Aung Myo Min, human rights minister for Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government (NUG), called the killings in Kani “inhumane” and in violation of international law.

“They chased after people who fled their homes to arrest, torture and brutally kill them,” he said.

“During armed conflicts, combatants are required to avoid harming civilians … But even if a soldier surrenders, he should be treated humanely. This is international law. We denounce this ruthless mass killing.”

Repeated attempts by RFA to contact Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun, the military’s Deputy Minister of Information, went unanswered Wednesday.

According to the Thailand-based rights group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), at least 906 civilians have been killed and nearly 5,239 people have been arrested in Myanmar since the coup.

Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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