In Myanmar’s restive Rakhine state, civilian deaths in military custody have increased to at least 29 cases this year, with most of the victims ethnic Rakhine men detained and tortured for suspected connections to the rebel Arakan Army (AA), family members of the missing or dead told RFA.
Rakhine state has been torn by conflict since nearly three years ago, when the Myanmar Army responded to an attack on border guard posts by a militant group with a scorched-earth campaign that drove 740,000 Rohingya Muslims across the nearby border to Bangladesh.
Similar attacks on border posts in early 2019 by the AA, a group formed in 2009 with an estimated 8,000 fighters last year that seeks autonomy for ethnic Rakhines in the state, launched the Rakhine conflict, which has killed hundreds and displaced tens of thousands of civilians.
At the end of April, RFA’s Myanmar Service reported that the number of cases stood at 15 since the conflict between the AA and the military flared up in December 2018. Since April, the figure has almost doubled as the corpses of more detainees are discovered.
Some of the deaths occurred after groups of villagers were rounded up en masse in army operations. Though many remain missing, those who have resurfaced say they were tortured, while others were discovered dead, with their bodies bearing signs of torture.
On Feb. 29, a land mine detonated by the AA against government forces prompted those soldiers to open fire in Myaung Bway Chay village, in Mrauk-U township, and round up villagers. According to relatives of victims, village administrators and local civil society groups, the onslaught left 11 dead and 17 wounded. Among the dead was Maung Soe Lwin, a 47-year-old from Shwe Lan village, who was visiting Myaung Bway Chay at the time.
Government troops asked him questions about his involvement with the AA and killed him, according to his son-in-law Aung Naing Htay, who hid in a nearby latrine.
According Maung Soe Lwin’s widow, his body was left buried in a shallow grave apparently dug by government troops. One outstretched hand was poking out.
“We found a bullet wound and several dagger wounds. It seems like he was buried while he was still alive,” the widow, May Chay, told RFA’s Myanmar Service on Thursday.
She added that the family called the police to report what they suspected, but nobody answered. Instead, the son-in-law Aung Naing Htay was arrested on charges of violating the Anti-Terrorism Act and detained at the Mrauk-U district police station, where the army tortured him for four days, his wife Ngwe Na Chay said.
“My husband is tall and strong, but after I saw him I could not recognize him. He had so many wounds all over his body and he said he could not breathe well,” Ngwe Na Chay told RFA.
Enquiry committee launched
On July 12, the military announced that an inquiry committee would be formed in order to investigate the allegations of abuses by the government troops in Minbya, Kyauktaw, Rathedaung and Mrauk-U townships, but it has yet to comment further on any progress in its investigations.
On March 16, army troops detained 10 residents Tin Ma village in Kyauktaw Township. The body of one of them, Maung Win, was discovered two months later. The corpse was found in the Kaladan River, riddled with bullet wounds.
The other nine are still missing. In mid-June, the mother of one of the missing, Nay Lin Oo, told a news conference, that she had spotted her son, who has hearing and speech impairments, at a military camp in the Taung Shay mountain area near Tin Ma Gyi village, with some of the others missing from Tin Ma.
“I recognized my son there,” the mother, Oo Than Ye, said. “I saw other villagers, too. They were forced to work. Some were shoveling dirt, and others were carrying bags of soil on their shoulders.”
Than Tin, who is the widow of Maung Win, said: “The army arrested [a large group of] villagers including my husband, and they marched them into the mountains. On the way, they chose ten people including my husband, and sent the rest back to the village.”
Than Tin said soldiers had fired warning shots in the direction of those who were released, and one person suffered a bullet wound to the neck.
“Then they shot the villagers [whom they sent back] and a friend of mine ran for his life and was badly injured,” she said.
Slow responses to complaints
Contacted by RFA, a military spokesman refused to answer questions regarding deaths in custody.
“Concerning these cases, investigations are still ongoing. We cannot answer right now,” Major General Tun Tun Nyi told RFA.
The government has, however, pledged to punish those who kill detainees.
“If there is a case like that, then they can be sued according to the law, with enough evidence,” said Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay during a press conference in Naypyidaw on July 17.
“We protect [those we detain] totally. We have been trying to do that,” he said.
But in Rakhine, those who attempt to alert the authorities say they have had difficulty getting a response from authorities.
Complaints have been accepted by the National Human Rights Commission, but not by the police or the court. In some cases, police stations did not accept complaints, and in others, the families are too afraid to report the incidents, residents said.
Commenting on the May 2, 2019, killing of six detained civilians in Kyauktan, which the military acknowledged, Human Rights Watch said, “the Myanmar Army has a long history of failing to effectively or credibly investigate alleged abuses by its own forces, rarely holding military personnel accountable.”
The fighting, most of which has taken place near villages outside urban areas, has left 274 civilians dead and 587 injured since December 2018, according to figures compiled by RFA.
The armed conflict has displaced nearly 200,000 civilians, according to the Rakhine Ethnics Congress, a local relief group.
Reported by RFA's Myanmar Service. Translated by Maung Maung Nyo. Written in English by Eugene Whong.