Atrocities escalate while the Myanmar army is under pressure
When the soldiers of the notorious Myanmar army reached the village of Nanneint, the residents fled. Some took refuge in the basement of a nearby Buddhist monastery.
“They thought the soldiers would not kill monks and people in the monastery,” said one resident, Khun Htwe, who fled to another village.
But the monastery was not a sanctuary. Last Sunday, ethnic rebels fighting the military regime said they found the bullet-riddled bodies of 22 people slaughtered by the army there.
A gruesome video taken by a Karenni Nationalities Defense Force fighter and posted to Facebook shows the victims lying on blood-stained ground or leaning against the monastery wall, which is riddled with dozens of bullet holes. Among the dead are three monks in saffron robes.
“Apparently they were lined up and shot in the head,” Khu Ree Du, a rebel soldier who saw the bodies, said by phone.
Since the army – which has a long history of atrocities against civilians – took power two years ago, one Resistance, which began as peaceful protests, has grown into an increasingly well-armed rebellion. Analysts following the conflict say the army is coming under pressure as the rebels gain strength and are resorting to even bloodier tactics, such as the killings near Nanneint.
“Now we’re talking about beheadings, eviscerations and massacres, and it clearly reflects the frustration and anger at the field level in the military,” said Anthony Davis, a Bangkok-based security analyst with Jane’s Group of Military Publications.
“It also reflects a broader strategy based on terrorizing the resistance’s civilian support base — that is, most of the population.”
Ye Zaw, a doctor, said Thursday that all 22 of the monastery’s victims were tortured, some cut or burned with cigarettes.
Most were shot in the head at close range, said Ye Zaw, who examined the bodies for the shadow government of National Unity, which considers itself Myanmar’s legitimate government. Her human rights minister, Aung Myo Min, said the victims were all civilians and called the killings “a war crime committed by the military.”
Junta spokesman Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun said in a statement that clashes in the Nanneint area began earlier this month as “terrorists” from outside the region took position and the military tried to evict them.
“Misinformation was spread that villagers were killed,” he said. The general declined to take calls The New York Times. (story continues below)
Anti-government protesters armed with slingshots clash with security forces at a protest in Yangon in March 2021. The resistance is now much better armed, in some cases with sophisticated weapons smuggled in from Thailand. (Photo: The New York Times)
The resistance is much better armed today
The conflict now raging is a far cry from early resistance to the February 2021 coup. In those early months, protesters fought soldiers and police with slingshots and airguns made from plastic tubes.
After the crackdown on the demonstrations, many protesters fled the cities and joined forces with armed ethnic groups who had been fighting the military for decades. Together, the ethnic armies and the recently formed People’s Defense Forces now hold much of the countryside, while the military controls key urban areas.
Factories in two areas held by ethnic armies make assault rifles and grenade launchers that have spread across the country, Davis said. Other weapons, including M16s and M4s, are smuggled across the border from Thailand.
Based on the expertise of engineers and technicians who have fled to rebel-held territory, a cottage industry has sprung up that makes roadside bombs and adapts drones to drop explosives on enemy targets, Davis said.
“What we’ve seen over the past year is a remarkable improvement in the level of organization and weaponry now employed by the resistance forces,” he said. “It’s still David and Goliath, but David always seems cockier and more combative.”
The Tatmadaw, as the army is known, is perhaps most notorious for its ruthless campaign against Rohingya Muslims in 2017, killing at least 24,000 people and driving more than 700,000 across the border into Bangladesh, where most are still in shacks living in refugee camps.
During protests against the coup in 2021, soldiers and police gunned down protesters and bystanders, including small children. Many were shot in the head. Last October, military jets bombed a concert in Kachin State, killing 80.
As the Tatmadaw faces an increasingly well-armed resistance, the regime placed 40 more townships under martial law in February, adding to the 10 already in place. The declaration sent the message to the troops that anything is possible, Davis said.
Since then, there has been a spate of military atrocities in the Sagaing region, including the beheading, evisceration or dismemberment of nearly two dozen rebels and civilians this month.
“All these crimes are not mere human rights abuses,” Myanmar’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Kyaw Moe Tun, who was appointed before the coup, said Thursday in a speech to the General Assembly in New York.
“They are part of the military junta’s systematic, widespread and coordinated attacks against the civilian population.” He held up photos of the bodies at Nanneint Monastery.
But Davis said the resistance was now too large and well-armed for the Tatmadaw to hunt them down with increasing brutality.
“The military is a large and robust organization, but it’s also severely understaffed and overworked, and that obviously creates vulnerabilities,” he said. “It’s hard to see, politically or militarily, what else they can bring to the fight.”
“This is the forgotten war”
Tom Andrews, United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, called for a coordinated international approach to the conflict, like the coalition supporting Ukraine against the Russian invasion. “This is the forgotten war,” he said in an interview.
Soldiers massacring monks and other civilians at a monastery is a sign of how far the junta is willing to go in terrorizing the population, Andrews said.
“They’re losing ground, and they understand they’re losing ground,” he said.
He cited a leaked memo from a December meeting of senior junta officials, which concluded that the resistance was beyond their control and that rebel attacks would escalate this year. The document was published online by a Burmese-language news outlet, Khit Thit Media.
According to the memo, officials said the Resistance’s capabilities had grown so dramatically that instead of sneaking in, they staged artillery strikes using makeshift 107mm rocket launchers. Officials also complained that they were having trouble gathering information and that money earmarked to pay whistleblowers was not being spent.
“The junta’s response to its increasingly dangerous position is to redouble its brutality,” Andrews said. “What they don’t realize is that it has the opposite effect of what they intend. It strengthens people’s resolve to resist the regime.”
In a statement Thursday condemning the Nanneint massacre, the National Unity government and groups allied to it called on the international community to impose sanctions blocking the sale of jet fuel, weapons and technology to the junta.
Nanneint, a village just 80 kilometers east of the capital Nay Pyi Taw, is in a part of Shan State that has remained largely under military control. During the fighting there, military jets bombed the village, said Khun Htwe, the villager. Soldiers burned about 60 houses, he said.
“Myanmar army treats people as enemies,” he said. “Myanmar military will kill anyone if their interests are harmed.”
- This article originally appeared in The New York Times
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