Three of 27 people detained by Myanmar’s army in a one village in conflict-ridden Rakhine state on April 10 have died in military custody, raising suspicions of torture, bereaved relatives and local lawmakers told RFA’s Myanmar Service on Thursday.
The 27 were taken from Letka village in Mrauk-U township, center of much of the fighting that has raged since January between the government army and the Arakan Army (AA), an ethnic army fighting for more autonomy for the Buddhist Rakhines in the western state. They were suspected of supporting the AA.
“I can confirm the death of these detainees,” Rakhine state parliament chairman San Kyaw Hla told RFA.
“I have talked with authorized persons. I have confirmed with the Security and Border Affairs minister and officials from the hospital,” he said, adding that the deaths were reported in the Myawaddy News, a military media outlet.
Ko Zaw Myo Tun, Thein Tun Sein and Maung Than Nu died on April 11, April 14 and April 22, respectively, he said, citing confirmation he received from Rakhine Security and Border Affairs Minister Col. Phone Tint and officials at Sittwe General Hospital in the Rakhine state capital.
The causes of death the government provided for three men were disease, suicide by hanging, and the effects of drug addiction, said San Kyaw Hla.
The family members of the deceased detainees told RFA that they had not been informed about their deaths.
“They should have told me about the passing of my husband. Now, we are not informed and living in uncertainty,” said Than Khin Kyi, wife of the deceased detainee Maung Than Nu.
“I am trying to convince myself my husband is dead now. In my mind, he seemed to be still alive. He was in good health (when I saw him last),” she said.
'Totally unacceptable to us'
The remaining detainees’ family members said they have not been allowed to see the captive villagers since their arrest and don’t know where they are being detained. They met Rakhine parliament members led by San Kyaw Hla on Thursday to ask for help.
“Announcing about the death of detainee is not enough,” said San Kyaw Hla .
“It is acceptable that some people under suspicion are apprehended and detained for questioning during the conflict. But if the detainees die in detention, regardless of what the cause of death is, they are responsible to return the bodies,” he told RFA.
San Kyaw Hla called on authorities to return the three men’s bodies to their families to be cremated according to their religious traditions.
Local villagers believe that the death of the men in military custody is unusual and could be the result of torture during interrogations.
RFA attempted to contact military spokesmen on Thursday for comment on the deaths and the lack of information for families, but they didn’t reply. Calls to Col. Win Zaw Oo, commander of military’s western division, went unanswered as his mobile phone was turned off.
Oo Hla Saw, who represents Mrauk-U township in the Rakhine state parliament, told RFA the failure to hand over the men’s bodies is “totally unacceptable to us.”
“Even the notorious military regime informed the families about the death of prisoners in Insein Prison after their 1988 military coup,” he said, referring to the harsh military junta that ran Myanmar for about five decades before giving way to civilian rule in the past decade.
“They allowed the bodies to be retrieved for cremation. Now, the situation in Rakhine state under the so-called democratic government is even worse than that of military regime. Can you imagine what it will do to the family members?” said Oo Hla Saw.
Another Mrauk-U township parliamentary representative, Tun Thar Sein, said he will submit a proposal to address civilian causalities in armed conflicts in Rakhine State.
“We are planning to submit a proposal in parliament to demand the government to form an independent commission to investigate all cases of the deaths, injured or missing persons and damages of home and properties from January to today,” he told RFA.
After an AA attack on police outposts in northern Rakhine killed 13 officers in early January, Myanmar’s government labeled it a terrorist group and instructed its forces to destroy it.
Since then, the two sides have clashed more than 100 times, leaving some 60 AA soldiers, 30 policemen, and a dozen civilians dead. The Myanmar military has yet to reveal its casualties.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written by Paul Eckert.