The Myanmar military said Friday that it did not torture three dead ethnic Rakhine villagers it detained with two dozen others for having alleged connections to the rebel Arakan Army in war-torn Rakhine state, amid accusations by family members that the men died at the hands of soldiers during interrogation.
Government soldiers took the 27 villagers from Letka village in Mrauk-U township on April 10 during fighting with the Arakan Army (AA) that has raged in the region since January as the rebel force seeks greater autonomy for Buddhist Rakhines in the western state.
Colonel Win Zaw Oo, spokesman for the Myanmar military’s Western Command responsible for Rakhine state, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that three detainees passed away while in detention. Zaw Myo Tun died of a heart attack, Thein Tun Sein died of suicide by hanging, and Maung Than Nu died from the effects of drug withdrawal, he said.
When asked by RFA if the military had notified the families about the deaths, Win Zaw Oo said he did not know.
Agence France-Presse reported Friday that police told the families that the dead captives had already been cremated, and that their relatives would seek legal action against those responsible, citing the nephew of one of those who died.
A regional lawmaker said he believes the men were tortured to death during interrogation while in custody, and that the military’s public announcement of the deaths is an attempt to cover up the truth.
Oo Hla Saw, who represents Mrauk-U township in the Rakhine state parliament, told RFA Thursday that he is highly suspicious of the deaths and that the central government bears responsibility for disclosing the truth.
“The military may have its own military disciplinary [code], but there will be violations during armed conflicts anyway,” he said. “There is no such thing as zero violations.”
“There will always be human rights violations during war, he said. “Instead of trying to cover up such cases, they should have given journalists an opportunity to uncover the truth.”
Oo Hla Saw also said the government’s information minister should release unbiased information in real time to disclose the truth behind such cases.
“The Union government is entirely responsible for that,” he added.
Where’s the evidence?
Win Zaw Oo, however, pointed to autopsy reports from Sittwe General Hospital, confirming that the men did not die of torture.
“What kind of evidence do you have to assume these detainees died from torture?” he said. “We have the autopsy results of the bodies at Sittwe General Hospital. The conclusion should be based on these results.”
“We have officially transferred the bodies to Sittwe General Hospital to perform post-mortem examinations,” he said. “The results from the autopsies are unquestionable. We have been careful to have the bodies formally examined to avoid suspicion. If the cause of deaths is torture, it will show in the results. ”
When RFA contacted Kyi Lwin, chief of Rakhine state’s department of health, to confirm the causes of death from the autopsy results, he declined to provide information.
“We cannot release any information about this case,” he said. “As for the Rakhine state department of health, we are not authorized to release this information. I am the highest-ranking health official in Rakhine state. When I refuse to answer, no one else will.”
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), said on Twitter that “Justice must be ensured for these three Rakhine men! Urgent action needed to end Myanmar military impunity for human rights violations.”
Meanwhile, Myanmar forces will hand over the 24 other detainees to police in a few days, Commander Kyi Lin, chief of the Rakhine State Police Force, told family members of the captives at a Thursday meeting.
The relatives of those detained also met with Rakhine state Chief Minister Nyi Pu and Colonel Phone Tint, minister of state security and border affairs in the state capital Sittwe to request visits with their family members.
Reporters trying to cover the meetings were not allowed to approach Nyi Pu.
Kyan Maung, father of detainee Naing Win, said Kyi Linn promised the relatives that they would be allowed to see the detainees after the military had transferred them.
“He said they are still under interrogation,” Kyan Maung said. “After they complete the interrogations, the military will transfer them to the police forces, and then family members can meet the detainees in a few days. He said any family member can come and meet the detainees.”
Second amnesty announced
In a related development about detainees, the Myanmar government on Friday announced the release of nearly 7,000 inmates from seven prisons in the second presidential amnesty in two weeks, government spokesman Zaw Htay said.
Among them were two political prisoners — ethnic Kachin activists Lum Zawng and Zau Jat, who were serving time for defaming the military during rallies calling on the government to help civilians displaced by armed conflict in northern Myanmar’s Kachin state.
During this year’s first amnesty on April 17, President Win Myint pardoned roughly 9,500 criminals to mark Myanmar’s Buddhist New Year, but only two were political prisoners.
“Principally, those who were released during the New Year included old, young, or those in poor health as well as drug offenders who had followed prison regulations,” Zaw Htay said at a press briefing in the capital Naypyidaw.
“The laws pertaining to drug users have been amended, and those who served jail terms before the amendments were also among those released,” he added, referring to changes to the country’s Narcotics Law in 2018 and the adoption of a policy to provide treatment to addicts rather than imprison them.
Some 6,000 additional prisoners are expected to be released soon in a third amnesty, Zaw Htay added.
The prisoners freed Friday were from jails in Kachin, Kayah, and Karen states and Sagaing, Tanintharyi, Bago, and Magway regions.
The amnesty was not extended to those incarcerated in prisons in the commercial hub Yangon, including two Reuters news agency reporters serving seven-year sentences for possessing state documents about atrocities committed during a crackdown on Rohingya Muslims by security forces in Rakhine state in 2017.
Two activists freed
As part of the second amnesty, authorities freed nearly 1,370 inmates, most of whom were serving time for drug offenses, from Myitkyina Prison in Kachin state.
Among those released were two ethnic Kachin activists imprisoned for demanding that the government assist displaced villagers trapped in the state’s conflict zones.
Kachin lawyer Lum Zawng, Zau Jat of the Kachin National Social Development Foundation, and Nang Pu of the Htoi Gender and Development Foundation, were sentenced in December 2018 for defaming the Myanmar military during rallies earlier that year, calling on the government to end the fighting and help civilians affected by armed conflict.
The three activists were sentenced to six months in prison and each fined 500,000 kyats (U.S. $325), though Nang Pu’s term was reduced to four months due to health reasons.
“We already have served nearly five months,” Lum Zawng said. “Now they are freeing us just when we are about to finish our time.”
He also accused the ruling civilian-led National League for Democracy (NLD) government of releasing him and Zau Jat for political purposes.
“It seems like the NLD is exploiting us for its own political benefit,” he said, adding that the activists objected to a statement issued Monday by military-controlled Home Affairs Ministry that said there are no political prisoners in the country, only offenders jailed under existing laws and the Penal Code for criminal acts.
Nang Pu said that now that her two fellow activists have been freed, all three of them would file an appeal of their sentences.
“We had to serve time because the court decided we were guilty,” she said. “As it was not so, an appeal will be made at the Union [government] level.”
“We hope that all political prisoners who have been imprisoned for standing up for the people are released soon,” she said.
Zau Jat said that many of the young offenders imprisoned for drug violations had been let down by the state.
“We feel sad to have witnessed drug problems in the prison,” he said. “All the drug offenders have now been released with a pardon,” he said. “No one is left in the prison. It’s unimaginable that this was the fate of our people [because] the government failed to address drug problems with effective policies.”
Of Myanmar’s current 364 political prisoners, 44 have been sentenced, 90 are being tried while they are in prison, and 228 are in the process of being charged, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) (AAPP), a human rights NGO based in Mae Sot, Thailand.
‘Legal tools of oppression’
Rights groups have blasted a recent series of arrests of peaceful critics of the military and the government, including satirical performers, political activists, and journalists, dealing further blows to freedom of expression and press freedom in the developing democracy.
On Friday, HRW called on Myanmar’s parliament to repeal or amend repressive laws used by authorities and officials to stifle their critics, during its next session which begins on April 29.
“Myanmar’s government should be leading the fight against the legal tools of oppression that have long been used to prosecute critics of the military and the government,” said Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director, in a statement.
“During military rule, [Myanmar leader] Aung San Suu Kyi and many current lawmakers fought for free expression, yet now the NLD majority in parliament has taken almost no steps to repeal or amend abusive laws still being used to jail critics,” he said.
Reported by Thiri Min Zin, Win Ko Ko Latt, and Elizabeth Jangma for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Nandar Chann, Ye Kaung Myint Maung, and Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.