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Myanmar's military investigates 'war crime' in era of reform

Rights groups such as Amnesty International said it is extremely rare in Myanmar for soldiers to be held accountable for alleged abuses, or for such allegations to be investigated transparently. Photograph: (Getty)

Reuters Mong Yaw, Myanmar Jul 20, 2016, 11.44 AM (IST)
An amateur video shot by a resident of Mong Yaw village in Northern Shan State of Myanmar, shows a bloody path above a cornfield, where several bodies were exhumed from a mass grave.

Witnesses said that soldiers entered the village of Mong Yaw on June 25 and rounded up dozens of men.

Five were led away, never to be seen alive again. Two other men, brothers, were shot while trying to escape on a motorbike and their bodies found in a ditch, villagers said.

"I think Burmese soldiers killed my husband, as they are the people who arrested him in the first place," said 18-year-old Aye Lu, wife of one of the five missing men, 23-year-old Aik Sai.

"We even went to their (military) office and asked about my husband. They said they already released him. But he has not arrived home yet," said Aye Lu.

For another local family, a similar story.

22 year-old Sai Mong Tan was weeding a cornfield with his 17-year-old brother, Sai Shwe Lu, when the soldiers arrived. The military later said they had come under attack from rebels in the area, although local activists said there had been no insurgent activity.

The brothers were marched to a nearby road, where dozens more soldiers had detained about a hundred people, and were forced to squat with their hands behind their heads. The soldiers beat and interrogated the men, demanding to know if anyone had spotted insurgents in the area, said Sai Mong Tan. He then watched as soldiers tied up his younger brother and the four other victims and led them away.

Reuters could not independently confirm this account, although it matched the version of events described by other villagers, local officials and rights activists.

Sai Mong Tan believes his brother was singled out because he didn't speak Burmese and couldn't answer the soldiers' questions.

Myanmar's armed forces have often been accused of abuses by human rights groups and Western governments during decades of conflict with ethnic armed separatists in its wild border zones. What is unusual in this case is that the military high command has been taking the allegations seriously.

Major Thein Zaw of the army's Northeast command said a court martial had begun, although he could not say how many soldiers were on trial or what charges they faced, and local government officials said several soldiers had been arrested.

Villagers say a senior army officer has promised them a full investigation. However, multiple requests by Reuters for comment from the army in the northern city Lashio and the capital Naypyitaw were declined or went unanswered. The military said it would address the issue at a news conference on Wednesday (July 20).

It is extremely rare in Myanmar for soldiers to be held accountable for alleged abuses, or for such allegations to be investigated transparently, rights groups such as Amnesty International say.

The military's response this time suggests a heightened sensitivity about its image, as it tries to present itself as a responsible partner in Myanmar's democratic transition and seeks closer ties with its Western counterparts.

Myanmar was a military dictatorship for nearly half a century until a quasi-civilian government of former generals replaced the junta in 2011 and launched a series of political and economic reforms.

Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was swept into office in April after winning a landslide election last year, but the military still holds immense power. Police and local officials told villagers in Mong Yaw in the days after the late June killings that they couldn't investigate because the military was already doing so.

Then, on July 3, the region's vice-commander, Major General Kyaw Kyaw Soe, visited Mong Yaw and promised a full probe, said villagers. He also gave each bereaved family 300,000 Kyat ($250) as a gesture of sympathy, local people said.

General Kyaw Kyaw Soe said some soldiers had been arrested, but gave no further details. A spokesperson from the local Shan Nationalities Democratic Party, Sai Leik, has called for an independent investigation.

"This should not be done by a military investigation alone. It should be a judicial process, they should have only a judicial process which can represent all sectors. The military cannot gain people's trust if they have the trial in the military court, meaning people cannot know what is happening during the trial," said Sai Leik

"That's why I want the independent justice to handle this case. Its judgments are independent, it is elected by the people, and there is no intervention from the government or military," added Leik.

Most people in Mong Yaw are from the Shan or Palaung ethnic minorities. Soldiers mostly hail from the majority Bamar ethnic group, and often accuse villagers of harbouring insurgents.

Ringed by misty hills, Mong Yaw lies in a remote corner of northern Shan State, a region ravaged by war and poverty. Thousands of people have been displaced by decades of fighting between the military and ethnic insurgents.

(Reuters)
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