‘They are going to kill us’

A survivor recounts the atrocities that were recorded on a cell phone by a Myanmar junta soldier and revealed by RFA.

Editor's note: This story contains images and descriptions that some readers may find disturbing. Reader discretion is advised.

By Khin Maung Soe for RFA Burmese

June 30, 2022

The raid on Mon Taing Pin village began at 6 a.m. on May 10, with shells exploding and about 150 pro-junta troops and militia entering town with guns blazing.

Villagers said hundreds of people fled in light trucks and motorbikes, but there weren’t enough vehicles for everyone to get away. Those who could not flee tried to hide, many taking shelter in the local Buddhist monastery in the hope they would be spared at a religious site.

Within 40 hours, 29 men were dead – hacked or shot to death with their bodies dismembered and hastily burned to hide the evidence, and the village in Ye-U township in northwestern Myanmar’s Sagaing region was in ruins. Blood pooled in the dusty streets and dogs devoured partially burned corpses.

After revealing evidence of atrocities in Mon Taing Pin village as recorded on a soldier’s cell phone during military operations, RFA Burmese in Washington spoke to three villagers who survived. One man described in detail what happened during a two-day-long nightmare of robbery, torture, death and arson.

The man and the other witnesses, who are not being named for their safety, helped RFA reconstruct the events as they happened, confirming the location of the atrocities and even the names of the 29 people who died.

Mon Taing Pin appears to have been targeted because it was under the People's Administration which is associated with anti-junta People’s Defense Forces and loyal to the shadow National Unity Government. The PDF militias have waged a war of resistance following the February 2021 military coup that toppled an elected, civilian government. Sagaing has become the most bloody front in the conflict.

The raid begins

The troops started shelling around 6 a.m. and then entered the village from the west side. Two local militia guarding the village were killed during the initial raids, according to the villagers.

Troops then went after those hiding in the temple, which lay over on the east side along the bank of the Mu River.

“They entered [the monastery compound] at around 9 o’clock firing their weapons. From the west, from the east and from the north,” the man said.

“They asked a young monk at the monastery to bring out the people [hiding] inside the building. The soldiers then forced the men to sit in rows, men on one side and women on another,” he said.

A photo from May 10 [seen here and in the top series of images] showing about 30 men with their hands tied behind their backs on the grounds of Mon Taing Pin monastery was recovered from the phone of a Myanmar soldier. The location was photographed several days later by villagers after the troops had torched some houses and left.

“After a while, they took the men to the East Pagoda compound and ordered them to kneel down. And then they called out for the women to come out. The women were all crying and screaming and didn’t come out quickly. So the soldiers put them in a room downstairs and locked up the room.”

The photos that RFA published June 17 from a Myanmar soldier’s cell phone showed about 30 men being held captive in a village monastery on May 10, and dead bodies of five men on May 11. The phone also included an undated video of three soldiers boasting about how many people they have killed and how they killed them.

Villagers say that in the initial fighting, two PDF militia members were killed, but the more than 30 men who were subsequently detained by junta forces were unarmed civilians.

Tied up with shirts and cattle ropes

The account from the man who spoke to RFA confirms some of the details revealed by the soldier’s cell phone. He describes how more than 30 men being held captive were taken in groups to a high school in the southwest of the village. They were tied up with nose ropes normally used for harnessing cattle, or with their shirts. This can also be seen in the cell phone photos.

“The men were asked to take off their shirts, which were used later to tie them up. Afterward they found some nose ropes from the village store and tied their hands behind their backs. The soldiers then took away their cash and everything they had, including gold jewelry. Later they were taken back to the monastery from the village high school in groups of five. It was about 10:30 or 11 a.m. by that time,” the man said in a telephone interview.

A series of photos from April 28 on the soldier’s phone shows a young man with his arms bound behind him, his face puffy and bloodied while a person holds a knife to his chest. A witness to the massacre described a similar interrogation technique by the soldiers during the raid on Mon Taing Pin.

“They interrogated us. We were beaten, tied up and stripped naked. We were tortured, beaten and whipped by five bull whips held together.

“Some of them interrogated us by poking us with knives, asking, ‘How many PDFs are in the village?’, ‘How many guns?’” he said.

“If you could not answer them, they beat you and poked your belly with knives. But they did not stab you to death yet, just poked you to make you frightened. They also struck you with rifle butts or slapped faces from right to left or kicked your body. If you tried to raise your head, they would slap your face and kick your back.”

The man’s description of being poked with a knife is also echoed in the photos from the soldier’s cell phone. A series of images from April 28 show a man, who appears to have been beaten, with a knife pointed at his chest. It’s unclear, however, where those images were taken.

The villager said the soldiers beat the captives and interrogated them in the resting hall of the monastery until about 5 p.m. The men were later locked up on the eastern side of the monastery. There was no drinking water or toilet and they were not given any food for the whole day.

The massacre begins

The massacre took place the next day, May 11, after soldiers forced a group of 10 younger men, whose faces were covered, to carry looted goods to the bank of a river near the village.

“They were taken around the village and had to carry stuff to the banks of the Mu River on the east of the village. After the last trip, the victims were ruthlessly killed with machetes and burned, some of them half-alive. The pools of blood on the ground were covered with earth,” the villager said.

The soldiers then prepared to kill the remaining captives in the afternoon.

“At about 2:30 p.m., we were taken out of the room to a big pagoda called Zeya Theikdi. We were ordered to sit in front of the pagoda in pairs. The soldiers standing on the left and right of us seemed to be high on drugs. They were excited. They were saying things like ‘Shall we hit them now, sir? Shall we give it to them? Is it time now?’ ”

‘This is it now’

“We thought, ‘Well, this is it now. They are going to kill us.’ And we started praying in front of the pagoda. After we said our prayers for the fourth time, their leader said, ‘OK, it’s time now, give it to them.’ He was sitting on a chair in the building. The moment they got the order, the soldiers pulled away our sarongs and ropes,” he said.

“At about 3:30 pm, they said it was time and took us in pairs, some blindfolded and some with their faces covered with pieces of sarongs and with our hands tied behind our backs. We were taken to the southern part of the village, south of the monastery.”

The man was one of just eight of the captives believed to have survived the massacre. They were locked inside the monastery and through the iron bars of the window could see the village at a distance. They could hear gunfire and see fires burning.

“When we later looked at houses that were burned down, we found pools of blood in the front yard where the victims seemed to have been killed and the bodies dragged inside. We found six bodies in the first house. Some of them were burned on a bed. Some bodies were burned face down on a bed, with the heads facing west. They appeared to have been killed by machetes. Some bodies were cut into three or four pieces. The bodies were on beds when the house had a big bed, and in houses where there were no beds, the bodies were lined up downstairs with logs and timber on top so they would burn completely.”

This photo from May 11 [blurred to cover the graphic scene] shows the phone owner and another man standing next to five slain men lying in pools of blood. Two of the slain men also can be seen in the photo from the previous day showing about 30 men with their hands tied behind their backs on the grounds of Mon Taing Pin monastery.

Soldiers prepare to leave

That evening an army officer, apparently with the rank of captain, came to the room where the eight captives were held and released them after giving them a warning.

“At about 6 p.m. on May 11, an army officer with three stars on his shoulder and a pistol at his waist came to the room. He said, ‘We are leaving in the morning and we will leave the door unlocked. So you can return to your houses in the morning. In future, if you hear any commotion you should run, run as far away as you can,’ he said.”

That was the last time the surviving captives saw the soldiers. The surviving villagers passed the second night without any food and then at about 2 a.m. on May 12 – about 40 hours after the military had arrived in Mon Taing Pin – the troops left the monastery and departed the village along the Mu River to the east.

A witness told RFA that some of the captives were tied up with nose ropes normally used for harnessing cattle. Similar ropes can be seen on the wrists of five slain men in this May 11 image taken from the soldier’s phone.

Bodies and smoldering ruins

In the morning, the survivors left the monastery where they had spent the night and went to see the smoldering ruins of houses in the village and found charred bodies.

Another villager who had managed to escape the military raid but returned afterward to help in the clean-up, claimed the eight people were spared by the military at the request of the village abbot and a senior monk in the capital Naypyidaw who is native to the village.

During the military raid, about 50 women and children were also detained by the soldiers and freed when they left. One of the women said they were all terrified, but the soldiers did not harm them. They allowed them to cook rice, which they ate with peanuts they found in the monastery building where they were held.

“There were no young women among us. Most of us are elderly women. Some of us have poor eyesight. The children and some of us were crying and so, they said, ‘Do not bring the women.’ We were left under the library (of the monastery). None of us was harmed.”

According to the 2018 census, Mon Taing Pin village had 403 houses and about 1,700 residents, while villagers put the population at 1,900. But now the village was deserted and a scene of carnage – one of dozens of villages in Sagaing that have been torched by soldiers in apparent retaliation for resistance by local PDFs. The group Data for Myanmar says that by May 31 this year, nearly 14,000 houses had been burned down in Sagaing.

Photos taken by villagers after the raid show smoldering homes and charred human remains.

‘Dogs were eating the bodies’

Photos taken by villagers in the days after the raid show smoldering homes, decaying bodies, and charred and dismembered human remains. Some of the photos were posted online on May 14 by local National League for Democracy parliamentarian, Myint Htwe. One image shows a pair of legs in flower-patterned shorts separated from the torso. A saffron-colored monk’s robe lies beneath. The legs are severed at the knees.

The survivor who spoke to RFA at length said he would never forget the scene in the aftermath of the raid.

“We saw three pools of blood beside one house and assumed they were of three people. The bodies were unrecognizable. One house was not totally burned and so the dogs were eating the bodies.”

The 29 victims were aged between 25 and 64, according to the villagers. The man who fled the village and then returned said one of his family members was one of the victims. Among the victims, three men were brothers from a single family, four others were brothers from two different families.

The victims included members of the National League for Democracy, the party of leader Aung San Suu Kyi that was deposed 17 months ago by the army, but also five members of the pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party, said the man who returned.

“There were about five of them. I even know their names. They were Aung San Win, Kan Win, Myint Tun, Zay Lin and Moe Khaing.”

USDP spokeswoman Yamin Myint Swe said the party had no knowledge of the incident and could not verify the allegation that party members had been killed.

Nor could military spokesman Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun, who has said that they are investigating but can only answer questions about the incident “after finding out the facts on the ground.”

One photo [blurred to cover the graphic scene] taken by the villagers shows a chopped pair of legs in flower-patterned shorts separated from the torso.

Who might be responsible for the killings?

The original photos and video from the soldier’s cell phone indicated the presence of troops from the Light Infantry Battalion 708, which belongs to the Yangon-based Military Operations Command No. 4. Villagers also claimed that members of the pro-junta Pyu Saw Htee militia took part in the raid on the village.

Capt. Min Maung Maung, who is a defector from the Myanmar military with detailed knowledge of its command structure, said the commanding officer of LIB 708 is Lt. Col. Tun Lin Aung. He said the regional command is led by Brig. Gen. Kyi Thaik. Min Maung Maung currently lives in Australia after fleeing Myanmar.

“The Strategic Command is waging an offensive in the Ye-U area. This division is among the worst in the country. Their operational skills are not noteworthy and their attitudes and morals are at rock bottom.”

Another army defector, Capt. Htet Myet, said that in some cases, officers will “finish off the enemy” without reporting it to higher command, but in this case, involving about 30 villagers, they would have sought permission through the chain of command.

RFA, however, does not have evidence that Lt. Col. Tun Ling Aung and Brig. Gen. Kyi Thaik were directly involved in the events at Mon Taing Pin village.

In an image taken from a video found on the soldier’s phone, the phone’s owner and two other soldiers talk about how many people they have killed, the methods they used and cutting up the bodies.

Name Age
1 Thein Han 55
2 Kan Win 53
3 Aung San Win 46
4 Zaw Lwin 42
5 Zaw Moe Hlaing 33
(4 ands 5 are brothers)
6 Kyaw Khaing 46
7 Kyaw Paing 44
8 Aung Kyaw Thu 34
(6, 7 and 8 are brothers)
9 Sein Naing 52
10 Tun Lin Aung 25
11 Aung Swe Than 64
12 Thein Lin 62
13 Moe Khaing 48
14 Kyaw Khaing 46
15 Soe Tun 46
16 Kyaw Aye 45
17 Kyaw Min Aung 34
18 Myint Tun 58
19 Soe Soe Tun 29
20 Nyi Nyi Min 38
21 Kyaw Swa Lin 41
(20 and 21 are brothers)
22 Nyein Thu 30
23 Kyaw Zay Lin 38
24 Aung Htoo 49
25 Zaw Min Aung 41
26 Min Yu Wai 48
27 Thein Myint Swe 45
28 Win Myint 53
29 Myo Thant 38

Additional reporting by Nayrein Kyaw
Translated by Khin Maung Nyane
Edited by Thane Aung, Kyaw Min Htun, Paul Eckert, Mat Pennington
Visual editing and graphics by H. Léo Kim, Paul Nelson, Amanda Weisbrod
Web page produced by Minh-Ha Le
Produced by Radio Free Asia
© 2022 RFA
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