Myanmar troops swap slaughter stories
Evidence of atrocities revealed on a soldier’s lost cell phone
Editor’s note: This story contains images and descriptions that some readers may find disturbing. Reader discretion is advised.
By Khin Maung Soe and Nayrein Kyaw for RFA Burmese
Two armed men stand behind a tangle of bodies leaking blood which congeals in the dust. Each of the five victims is blindfolded, hands tied behind their back, and appear to have been killed by gunfire or a blade to the throat. The armed men – one with his rifle slung over his shoulder and the other smoking a cigarette – strike a nonchalant pose that is recorded for posterity in a series of grisly photos captured on a soldier’s phone.
These graphic images are among a cache of files recently obtained by RFA Burmese that document atrocities apparently committed by soldiers during military operations in Myanmar’s war-torn Sagaing region. The files include a video in which those two same armed men brag about how many people they have killed, and how they have killed them.
The content was retrieved from a cell phone that was found by a villager in Sagaing’s Ayadaw township where the military had been conducting raids amid an offensive against the anti-junta People’s Defense Force (PDF) paramilitary group. An intermediary who obtained the video and photos forwarded them to RFA in Washington.
Among the many images is one of about 30 men with their hands tied behind their backs on the grounds of a monastery.
Among the many images is one of about 30 men with their hands tied behind their backs on the grounds of a monastery. Two of them appear to be the same men who are seen dead in the photos taken a day later of the five victims of execution.
Another series of photos shows a young man with his arms bound behind him, his face puffy and bloodied. An outstretched hand holds his chin up, forcing him to look into the camera, while a second hand holds a knife to his chest over his heart.
The images also include many ‘selfie’ photos of a soldier, seemingly the phone’s owner. He also features in the video and the photos of the dead bodies.
The 10 1/2-minute video shows him and two other men mugging for the camera and chatting in crude terms about the number of people they have killed and what they did with the bodies. The phone’s owner, who wears a wide smile and sometimes slurs his words, has a hand grenade pinned to his chest. More armed men can be seen in the background.
“You said you killed 26 people. How did you kill them? Just shooting them with a gun?” asks the phone’s owner of one of his fellow soldiers.
“Of course, we killed them with our guns. But not with our hands,” the soldier responds.
“For us, we even killed a lot by slitting their throats. I, myself, killed five,” the phone’s owner says.
“I have never [slit throats],” the third soldier chimes in.
The second soldier then reconsiders his personal tally of death. “I think eight,” he says. “I killed eight [by slitting throats].”
Clues in the images
A closer look at the photos provides proof that these men serve in Myanmar’s military. Soldiers in the photos sport the arm badge of the Myanmar Army and, in at least one photo, the Northwest Military Command based in Sagaing. Soldiers are seen with bamboo baskets normally used as backpacks by junta soldiers. Numbers on rifle butts in the photos even help identify one military unit.
RFA asked Capt. Lin Htet Aung, a defector from the military who has joined the anti-junta Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), about the evidence. He said the numbers “708” and “4” seen on the guns indicate they are from the 4th Company of the Light Infantry Battalion 708 (708 LIB). The battalion belongs to the Yangon-based Military Operations Command No. 4 (MOC-4) which has been deployed to Sagaing and Magway regions and may be involved in joint operations there, he said.
When contacted about the material recovered from the cell phone, junta Deputy Information Minister Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun told RFA that authorities had opened a probe into the matter.
“Regarding these incidents, we can respond only after investigation in the field,” he said. “We are now investigating it.”
The statements made by the men in the video appear in line with reports of attacks on civilians by junta troops in Sagaing and elsewhere in Myanmar, amid military offensives against the PDF, ethnic armies, and other anti-junta forces.
There have been widespread reports of soldiers arbitrarily detaining residents during village raids, looting their homes, setting buildings ablaze, and torturing, raping, and murdering inhabitants they accuse of assisting the armed resistance. The junta has previously denied such allegations or attributed the incidents to the PDF.
Sagaing region, home to around 5.3 million people, has seen some of the worst fighting between the military and the opposition since the junta seized power in February 2021. Thai NGO Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) says junta authorities have killed nearly 2,000 people in Myanmar since the coup, including at least 683 in Sagaing.
In photos from the phone, soldiers have the arm badge of the Northwest Military Command, which is based in Sagaing region.
The images obtained by RFA provide a rare glimpse into the lives of perpetrators of the ongoing atrocities in Myanmar under junta rule. While the victims of raids have documented the aftermath of such incidents, it is rare to hear directly from those responsible, speaking in detail about how they committed the acts and attempting to justify them.
A careful review of the data from the images found they had been taken on a Chinese-made OPPO phone. The photo of the young man being interrogated at knifepoint was taken on April 28, 2022, while the photo of the bound captives was taken on May 10, and the photos of the five execution victims were taken on May 11.
Local media reports suggest killings by the military took place in Ayadaw township around the time the photos were taken. According to a May 11 Facebook post by the Ayadaw Post, junta troops entered Ayadaw’s Chin Pin village, shot six guards, and abducted 30 people on May 7.
But reporting by RFA indicates the photos may actually have been taken in neighboring Ye-U township. One of the slain men in the May 11 photo was wearing a t-shirt advertising a grocery store in the township.
This photo (blurred to cover the graphic scene) shows the phone owner and a man who also appeared in the video 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 a monastery.
A resident of Ye-U told RFA that the May 10 image of the 30 men with their hands tied appears to have been taken at Mon Taing Pin monastery in the township. A separate source also confirmed that another photo, taken April 26 and showing a roofed walkway, resembles a pagoda at Wet Phyu village, which lies 17.5 miles (28 kilometers) to the west of Mon Taing Pin. RFA is not naming these and other sources for safety reasons.
RFA previously reported that 27 people were killed in Ye-U township’s Mon Taing Pin and In Pin villages some time between May 10 and May 12. Villagers said the incident began late on May 9, when Mon Taing Pin village came under fire from small arms, artillery and mortars. Initially, two PDF members guarding the village were killed in the gunfire before the military raided it.
One villager in Mon Taing Pin said the soldiers rounded up several dozen men from the village, aged between about 20 and 60, and they were detained in the monastery. He said the men were beaten up and killed and then put inside houses in the village which were set on fire.
Photos provided to RFA by residents of the aftermath of the incident included images of razed buildings, human remains nearly completely incinerated by fire, bloated corpses, and the lower part of a severed torso – the legs of which had also been removed and left at the scene.
Boasting of killing
Details about the disposal of victims’ bodies provided by the three soldiers in the video found on the cell phone sound strikingly similar to the state of the remains discovered in Ye-U township last month. And the lack of emotion in the soldiers’ voices as they discuss the incident suggests that killing has become normal behavior for them.
“Seriously. I have killed people before. And I don’t like blood. It’s nauseating, though I killed them. Cut them in three parts,” the phone’s owner says.
“I killed those whom I caught. And the sergeant told us to cut them in three pieces and bury them,” the soldier who claims to have killed more than two dozen people responds.
The phone’s owner goes on to describe covering up his handiwork, using slurred speech that suggests he isn’t sober.
“One guy had his head blown off at the back. He had burns all over his body and his skin was peeling off. Yuck, it was horrible,” he says.
“I had to cut off the head, bro. I had to chop it off [and it took] five or six tries … Pieces of flesh came out, like pork. But human flesh is yellowish.”
He goes on to brag that he is “an expert in killing.”
The photos on the phone include many selfies of a soldier, who appears to have been the phone owner. He also is seen in the video and the photos of the slain men.
But the boasting is intermingled with more plaintive comments, in which the soldiers compare themselves to “driftwood,” obliged to follow orders, and lament that they could be killed at any time.
“Do you know why I didn’t complain then [when we had to cut up the bodies]? [Our superiors] were leading the fight and I didn’t want to say anything. Otherwise, there’s no need to cut off their heads,” the phone’s owner says at one point.
“What is life? It’s a fight. You win or you die. But our lives don’t seem to matter whether we live or not … [This video is] just for the record. We’re brothers. If I get killed, you won’t see me anymore, but you can remember me with this.”
Reports of the military’s targeting of civilians since the coup led to U.S. sanctions last year against the 33rd Light Infantry Division (33 LID) and the 77th Light Infantry Division (77 LID) of Myanmar’s Army over “excessive force, including killings” following their deployment to Mandalay and Yangon, respectively.
The 33 LID was also the target of U.S. sanctions in 2018 “for engaging in serious human rights abuse” against the ethnic Rohingya during alleged “terrorist” clearance operations a year earlier in Rakhine state. Atrocities committed by soldiers from the 33 LID and the 99 LID during that campaign, which forced more than 740,000 Rohingya to flee across the border to Bangladesh and was subsequently designated an act of genocide by Washington, were documented in a groundbreaking investigative report by Reuters news agency in June 2018.
Web page produced by: Minh-Ha Le
Translated: Khin Maung Nyane
Video: Chris Billing
Editing: Paul Eckert, Kyaw Kyaw Aung, Kyaw Min Htun, H. Léo Kim, Paul Nelson, Joshua Lipes, Mat Pennington
Produced by Radio Free Asia
© 2022 RFA
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