The body of a Myanmar journalist killed in military detention showed signs of trauma consistent with torture, according to a lawyer representing the reporter’s widow, after it was exhumed by a forensics team Wednesday as part of an investigation into his mysterious death.
Around 100 people gathered at the shallow grave site in Kyaikmayaw township in southeastern Myanmar’s Mon state to witness the exhumation of freelance reporter Aung Kyaw Naing—also known as Par Gyi—including his widow Thandar, political activists, lawyers, and authorities.
Members of the Myanmar military directed the group to the site.
After the body was removed from the grave it was taken to the General Hospital in the Mon state capital Moulemein for further examination to confirm the identity and to determine the cause of death.
Lawyer Robert San Aung, who is representing Thandar and who was present at the exhumation, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that Aung Kyaw Naing had likely died “as a result of torture” based on the appearance of his corpse.
"Upon observing the body, the injuries indicate that his death was caused by excessive torture,” he said.
“This [conclusion] is based on my whole life of experience and on the science of criminal cases. It is also because there did not seem to be any gunshot wounds on his body.”
Robert San Aung rejected claims by the military that Aung Kyaw Naing had been given a proper burial after his death.
“The burial site was about 800 meters [half a mile] from the village of Shwe Wa Chaung—one has to walk quite a ways to get there. It is on farmland and there are bushes around it,” he said.
“It is not in the village cemetery at all. That is why we reject the statement that a proper burial was given. There was no coffin or even a bamboo mat in the grave.”
The lawyer said that Aung Kyaw Naing’s body was buried under “no more than one foot [30 centimeters] of earth” and had been interred with his clothing on.
He said the body would undergo an autopsy and then be returned to Aung Kyaw Naing’s home in Myanmar’s commercial capital Yangon for burial with the assistance of the city’s Free Funeral Services Society.
A report by the Democratic Voice of Burma quoted eyewitness Nay Myo Zin from local civil society group Myanmar Social Life Development Network as saying that the corpse showed signs of a broken jaw, a caved-in skull, and swelling on the torso indicating broken ribs.
“It is completely clear that Ko Par Gyi was tortured,” he told DVB.
Aung Kyaw Naing’s widow, Thandar, confirmed that the body was that of her husband, the report said.
Wednesday’s exhumation is believed to be the first time that Myanmar’s Army has ever fulfilled a request to produce the body of a civilian casualty.
Death in custody
Aung Kyaw Naing was killed in military detention last month after documenting clashes between government forces and rebels in Mon state, according to reports.
The Ministry of Defense had said that he was shot dead on Oct. 4 while trying to escape military custody in Mon state’s Kyaikmaraw township, accusing him of being an information officer for a branch of the rebel Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA).
The DKBA however disavowed any links with Aung Kyaw Naing, who had served as a bodyguard for opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in the 1980s.
On Oct. 31, President Thein Sein ordered Myanmar’s National Human Rights Commission to fully investigate the case after immense public outrage and calls from foreign entities.
The order followed a complaint filed by Thandar at the Kyaikmaraw township police station, demanding that authorities conduct an investigation into the death of her husband, and calling on the authorities to exhume the body in her presence as part of the probe.
Local and International nongovernmental organizations, including Thailand-based Association for the Assistance of Political Prisoners (AAPP) and New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), had dismissed the Defense Ministry’s statement and joined in the call for a probe into the killing.
Civil society groups had also held mass protests in Yangon and in the northern city of Mandalay over the killing, demanding an immediate and independent probe.
Intimidation of journalists
Under Myanmar’s nearly five decades of military rule, journalists were forbidden to cover certain topics such as corruption, poverty, and natural disasters, and government crackdowns landed many reporters in prison.
Thein Sein’s reformist administration has implemented a series of reforms to push Myanmar towards democracy, including new laws enshrining media freedom.
But rights groups say that the intimidation and arrest of journalists appear to be worsening in the former military state, even though official censorship has ended.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Soe Thinn. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.