Men dressed in plainclothes believed to be government soldiers punched and kicked five blindfolded Rakhine men detained on a Myanmar Navy vessel in war-ravaged northern Rakhine state, according to a video of the assaults obtained by RFA and relatives who identified the victims.
The five men, whose hands are tied behind their backs, were forced to confess to being rebel Arakan Army fighters, some family members of the men told RFA on condition of anonymity after the video went viral inside Myanmar. Some of the detainees have blood on their noses and mouths in the video.
It’s not clear who shot or posted the video that emerged on Sunday. Relatives and friends of the five men say they remain in military custody.
The military says it is investigating the video and has arrested six men who are members or have connections to the AA, which the government declared in March to be an illegal association and a terrorist organization.
But family members and local villagers said the men in the video are innocent civilians, not conspirators of the ethnic armed group.
The relatives also said that three of the detainees are from Kyauk Seik village in Rakhine’s Ponnagyun township, and that they were apprehended days after Myanmar forces shelled the community with 120-millimeter mortars on April 13. The attack left eight civilians dead and injured more than a dozen others.
The fourth man is also from Ponnagyun township, and the fifth is from Mrauk-U township, family members and friends of the detainees told RFA on Monday.
Myanmar military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun tsaid that authorities are looking into the video, but that soldiers always act according to law when they arrest and interrogate suspects.
“We are still investigating the video that went viral on social media,” he said. “We released statements on the issue yesterday, and I have told RFA about that. We have arrested three AA members and three others who have connections to the AA.”
“We even got the ID numbers of three AA soldiers,” he added. “The three others are confirmed to have connections to the AA.”
AA spokesman Khine Thukha said the video is proof that Myanmar forces abuse detained civilians.
“This is totally wrong,” he said. “This is clear proof of military troops using torture and inhumane methods to get the answers they want during interrogations.”
“This is not the first time that they have arrested innocent civilians accused of being AA members and tortured them during interrogation,” he added. “It’s happened many times in the past.”
Clashes between government soldiers and the AA, which seeks greater autonomy for ethnic Rakhine people in the state, took place near Kyauk Seik village around mid-April.
Ponnagyun township has seen fierce fighting between the warring sides during the 16-month armed conflict and is one of nine townships in the conflict zone where the government has imposed a mobile internet blackout as a security measure.
Both Myanmar forces and the AA routinely detain and interrogate civilians and local government employees whom they believe may be assisting the enemy.
The relatives of the five men and local lawmakers have demanded justice.
A family elder from Kyauk Seik village, who requested anonymity out of fear for his safety, said it was traumatic to see his son-in-law being tortured in the video.
“I watched the video this morning,” he told RFA. “He is the one in white tank top. His hands were tied behind his back.”
“I saw him getting beaten and having his hair pulled out,” the elder said. “I am pretty sure the man in the white tank top is my son-in-law. I feel shocked and find it to be traumatic. I know he didn’t commit any wrongdoing. I want him released from captivity.”
‘Tortured on way to Sittwe’
A local resident who declined to be named for the same reason identified two of the detainees in the video as friends from Kyauk Seik village.
“I have watched the video on Facebook,” he told RFA. “Two of the five [detainees] in the video are my friends. They are the one wearing a white tank top and the one beside him who is wearing a green shirt.”
“The one beside him in a white checkered shirt is also from our village,” he added. “Of the two other men, one is from Ponnagyun [town’s] Ywa Haung area, and the other is from Mrauk-U’s Zeepingyi village, though he lives temporarily in Sittwe.”
The resident identified the three men from Kyauk Seik village as Nyi Nyi Aung, Myo Lin Oo, and Maung Chae, and said that Myanmar forces captured all five near the Guwa pagoda on the edge of Ponnagyun town.
“They were being tortured on the naval vessel on their way to the No. 1 naval base in Sittwe,” he said.
Kyauk Seik villagers told RFA in a previous report that Myanmar Army Battalion No. 550 based in Ponnagyun fired the artillery shells on their community on April 13, though the military denied the attack.
Six days after the shelling, soldiers detained 38 villagers for questioning over possible ties to the AA, but released 33 of them the next day. The remaining five had been sent by naval vessel to the Sittwe Myoma Police Station for interrogation. On May 7, they were sent back to the Ponnagyun Myoma Police Station.
The men told their family members that the beatings and other forms of assault in the video took place during a day and a night as they were being transported by boat to Sittwe.
Authorities have not given the men any specific reasons for their continued detention, their family members said.
Khin Maung Latt, an upper house lawmaker who represents Rakhine state’s No. 2 constituency, told RFA that the government should take action to ensure that such brutality against civilian detainees does not occur again.
“The family and relatives of the victims confirmed that the men in the video are related to them,” he said. “We have seen many cruelties. This is unacceptable. The government should act according to legal mechanisms to take action against the abusers so that we can avoid other incidents like this in future.”
“This is not good for the state,” he added. “It damages the image of the government and its ability to maintain the rule of law. The international community is also watching, so the government should take more action for [the sake of] the rule of law.”
Three officials charged
The beatings of the five Rakhine men on board the naval boat is the latest in an ongoing string of incidents targeting ethnic Rakhine civilians amid the larger conflict between Myanmar and Arakan forces.
Police in Rakhine’s Taungup township on Monday charged three local officials under Section 50(a) of Myanmar’s Counter-Terrorism Law and remanded them to court, though details of their arrests remain unclear, said the defendants’ attorney Tin Nyo.
Zeya Kyaw, chairman of the Taungup township municipal committee; San Wai, former municipal committee chairman; and Wai Thaung, vice chairman of the township's Arakan National Party executive committee have been charged, he said. They face sentences of 10 years to life in prison if found guilty.
The three men were arrested over the past three days, Tin Nyo added.
“They were [charged] this morning,” Zeya Kyaw said Monday. “Three of them have been remanded at court today.”
Han Su, wife of Zeya Kyaw, told RFA that her husband said that the trio will be held for 15 days.
“He told me not to worry,” she said. “He said that the authorities haven’t found any evidence against him so far. They remanded him so that they could proceed with their investigation.”
Han Su also said that the three men were taken to Yangon after their court appearance on Monday, though RFA could not confirm this.
The family of Zeya Kyaw, who has been working with local authorities to control the spread of the coronavirus, said that authorities have not stated their reasons for charging the men.
RFA was unable to reach Hla Tin from the Taungup Township Police Force for comment.
Attorney Tin Nyo said Zeya Kyaw has been accused of influencing public opinion on social media.
San Wai said he has been accused unfairly by those who want to sabotage his township development activities.
On May 7, the Taungup Township Court remanded five other individuals, charging them Monday under Section 52(a) of the Counter-Terrorism Law.
Calls for nationwide truce
Myanmar political analysts, meanwhile, say the government military should issue a nationwide unilateral cease-fire and focus on containing the spread of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.
The Myanmar military announced a partial truce on May 10, but excluded the AA amid the current armed conflict in northern Rakhine state.
On May 3, the AA and two other ethnic armies that comprise the Brotherhood Alliance announced the extension of their unilateral cease-fire for another month while the government focuses on fighting the spread of COVID-19.
They also requested that the government army not exclude Rakhine state from its unilateral cease-fire from May 10 to Aug. 31.
Myanmar political analyst Maung Maung Soe said that the AA, which is included on the list of organizations participating in COVID-19 eradication activities, will not be able to assist in the effort without a temporary cessation of hostilities.
“To the extent that the government is calling on the AA to participate in the eradication of the coronavirus, it is not possible without a cease-fire from the Myanmar Army’s side,” he said.
“In our view, only with a nationwide cease-fire agreed to by both the army and all ethnic armed groups can we fight COVID-19,” he added.
Aung Myo, a retired Myanmar Army officer and political analyst, said the two sides will have no choice but to stop fighting in Rakhine if the virus spreads there. So far, the state has reported no confirmed COVID-19 cases.
“If it spreads into this area, and especially into the villages, both sides will stop fighting,” he said. “Right now, we haven’t reached that stage yet. [But] if there is an outbreak in the villages, both the AA and the army will stop fighting.”
Nyi Ran, the liaison officer for the United Wa State Army (UWSA), Myanmar's largest non-state military, said a nationwide truce would allow all ethnic armies to join in the efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“Because it is an infectious disease, we have to fight against it together,” he told RFA. “We welcome the army’s cease-fire announcement, but if it were a nationwide truce, then it would be perfect.”
Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun said the military excluded AA and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which operates in Rakhine state, because they both have been declared terrorist organizations.
“We excluded two terrorist organizations — ARSA and the AA — from the cease-fire,” he said.
“It is in the public’s interest not to declare a cease-fire when the other side is planting mines along public roads, attacking security forces, and blocking food supplies,” he said, referring to the AA.
“On the other hand, the army has sent a letter about coronavirus prevention to the AA under a government-proposed virus cooperation plan,” he added.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.