The family members of three villagers from Myanmar’s Rakhine state who died while being detained by the military are demanding justice, saying that the military’s explanation for the villagers’ deaths were lies.
The three deceased villagers were part of a group of 27 arrested on April 10 in Mrauk-U township’s Letka village on suspicion of supporting the Arakan Army (AA). The military denied accusations of torture and said the three had succumbed to other causes.
According to the military, 25-year-old Zaw Myo Tun died of a heart attack, 41-year-old Thein Tun Sein hung himself, and 45-year-old Maung Than Nu died from the effects of drug withdrawal.
Their families are now demanding an investigation into the deaths and for authorities responsible for the deaths to be punished. They believe that the detainees died after being tortured during their interrogations.
“I feel like my entire world has collapsed. They didn’t even let us cremate his body at our native village,” said Daw Ahla, wife of Thein Tun Sein in an interview with RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“We weren’t allowed to see his body either, I only want to appeal to the authorities to punish those responsible,” she said.
Khin Kyi, Maung Than Nu’s wife, said the military explanation for her husband’s death makes no sense.
“He didn’t smoke, drink or chew betel,” she said. Betel is the leaf of a vine that when chewed is a mild stimulant.
“He was in good health, and they told me he died of drug withdrawal. I just want justice for [my husband],” said Khin Kyi.
Thien May Yi, who was Maung Than Nu’s neighbor, agreed.
“What the military announced is totally wrong. Maung Than Nu never did betel or any drugs,” she said.
“We were all in utter shock when they said he died from being a drug abuser. You can ask anyone in the village about him. But we are too afraid to argue with the authorities because they are very powerful,” she said.
Meanwhile in Geneva, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Rupert Colville released a statement about a similar incident of deaths-in-detention in Rathedaung township’s Kyauktan village. The statement said that the Kyauktan incident was not isolated, citing the Mrauk-U incident and claiming that the three detainees had been shot.
“The authorities have refuted allegations that they were shot but the bodies were cremated shortly after their deaths and before their families were notified,” said Colville.
“OHCHR has repeatedly observed that investigations by the Tatmadaw [Myanmar military] serve only to whitewash their crimes. We echo calls for a credible, impartial and independent investigation [into both incidents],” he said.
RFA attempted to contact a military spokesperson to comment on the statements from the detainees’ relatives, but the attempt was unsuccessful.
Tun Aung Thien, a state parliament representative from Buthidaung township, said he was suspicious of the military’s claims.
“They should have confirmed with the villager’s statements. The authorities need to check if [people they are detaining] have heart conditions, a history of drug abuse or mental issues before the detention begins,” said the representative.
“The authorities’ announcement is totally one-sided, so I have lots of suspicions.”
During a press conference Wednesday, Rakhine state’s Electricity, Industry and Transportation minister Aung Kyaw Zan, said Maung Than Nu died because of an illness, contradicting to the military’s announcement that he died of drug withdrawal.
The minister also said the authorities informed the family members about the deaths, but because they didn’t respond in time, the bodies were buried at Sittwe cemetery. This contradicts statements from the family members, who say nobody had ever contacted them.
RFA contacted Kyi Lwin, head of Rakhine state’s health department, but he refused to disclose the hospital records of the three deceased detainees.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Eugene Whong.