Myanmar’s military is investigating the shooting of six detained villagers who died in its custody last week during interrogations about possible ties to rebel forces and has released another 48 of those still held in Myanmar’s violence-ridden Rakhine state, military spokesmen from both sides said Monday.
Government soldiers rounded up 275 men and boys from several villages on April 30 to question them about their connections to the Arakan Army (AA), which is fighting Myanmar forces for greater autonomy in Rakhine state.
The Myanmar Army said in an announcement on May 2 that it had shot dead six of the detainees and wounded eight others while four went missing when the villagers launched a coordinated attack on the troops and tried to grab their guns as they were being held in a school compound in Rathedaung township’s Kyauk Tan village.
Soldiers responded first by firing warning shots into the air, but resorted to shooting the detainees as a last resort, though eyewitness have disputed that narrative.
“We released our announcement by asking military officials on ground and villagers who are not involved in the incidents,” military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Htun told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“When we have a conflict, there are two points of views from both sides,” he said. “That’s why we have formed a military investigation team to find out what differences we have between both sides.”
Comprised of five military officers, the investigation team has been probing the incident since May 3, a day after the shootings.
When asked by RFA if the military will release the results of its investigation to the public, Zaw Min Htun said that the army usually issues information about what it should do in such a case and that soldiers found to have violated military regulations will be subject to punishment.
“Every soldier is responsible for following all existing laws, and military rules and regulations,” he said. “If a soldier breaks one of them, we will take action against him according to the law.”
Myanmar forces released 126 detainees on May 3 and freed another group on Monday, he said.
“We have released 48 more people who have been cleared of having any connection to the AA,” Zaw Min Htun said. “We are still investigating the rest, and we will release those who have no ties to the AA.”
AA spokesman Khine Thukha said all the detainees are local villagers, none of whom have ties to the Arakan force.
'They didn't allow talking'
Eyewitness have come forward with additional details calling into question the military’s version of events.
Some detainees told RFA on Friday that a mentally ill man among them shouted ‘run, run’ around 2 a.m. on May 2, when troops opened fire on those who were sleeping in front of the schoolhouse where they were being held.
The detainees said they did not even imagine grabbing the soldiers’ guns because as many as 300 security forces were guarding them.
“They [Myanmar soldiers] said we tried to rob their guns. We never did,” said one man who requested anonymity due to fear of retaliation.
After soldiers had made the detainees stand in the torrid sun the entire day, they gave them nothing to eat, he added.
“We had to stay and sleep on the dusty ground, and we were not allowed to bathe,” he said. “They didn’t even allow talking.”
Another eyewitness said soldiers showed the detainees a corpse with a bashed skull to frighten them.
“It terrified the detained villagers,” he said. “The corpse had a broken skull with brains oozing out.”
Since fighting between the Myanmar and Arakan armies spiked in early January in Rakhine state, more than 30 civilians have been killed by artillery explosions and improvised explosive devices, over 60 people have been injured, and 10 have died in military custody.
In a related development, the Myanmar military filed a criminal case against employees at the Development Media Group (DMG), a local news organization based in Rakhine’s capital Sittwe, for allegedly violating Section 17 (2) of the country’s Unlawful Associations Act, the journalists said.
Chief reporter Nay Win San said he was questioned after plainclothes police officials visited the headquarters of main office of the DMG Sunday night and informed them to report to the station.
He and another reporter were questioned again Monday morning, he said, adding that the investigator did not provide clear answers on why they were being charged.
DMG reporter Thet Naing said police questioned him Monday about a recent reporting trip he took to look into a Jan. 26 incident in Rathedaung's Thamee Hla village, during which a seven-year-old child was killed by a stray bullet amid fighting between the Myanmar military and the AA.
“I was questioned about my reports,” he said. “We had gathered information on the ground when we reported about the incident in Thamee Hla village. They inspected our video footage and questioned whether the information was gathered by myself or if anyone accompanied me, why we published the news, and what our intentions were.”
Tun Aung Kyaw, general secretary of the Arakan National Party, expressed concern over a recent crackdown on media reporting on the situation in Rakhine state.
“Those people from the DMG are journalists,” he said. “How come they are being charged regarding an accusation of having links to an unlawful association? We have to say that it damages press freedom in the country if journalists face actions for doing their jobs,” he told RFA.
DMG, founded in 2012, is the third organization sued by the military and the military-controlled Home Affairs Ministry this year.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar, Ye Khaung Myint Maung, and Nandar Chann. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.