Sources say the unit takes heads as trophies to strike fear into the hearts of the junta’s enemies.
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They lop off people’s heads and mutilate bodies to instill terror. They torture victims to death.
They seem fearless in battle, surging forward when under fire.
Officially, they make up part of the 99th Light Infantry Battalion of the Myanmar military. But to most people, they are known as the “Ogre” column, a unit of killers notorious for their cruelty in a military already known for its brutality.
And they have been criss-crossing Myanmar’s heartland, killing rebel fighters and massacring villagers believed to be supporting them, terrorizing everyone in their path.
“What makes this column different is that they are specially trained to kill people,” said Nway Oo, a member of a resistance group in Myaung township. “They chop off the heads and ears of victims in cold blood.”
“They appear ghostly in battles, too,” he said. “They move forward in battles no matter how risky the situation is or how much they are under attack.”
Myanmar’s military has faced stiff resistance from ordinary men and women who have taken up arms to form People’s Defense Force bands to fight junta troops since the military’s coup two years ago.
The Ogres’ atrocities are meant to terrorize their foes, who often have little combat training and aren’t usually well-armed.
It’s all part of psychological warfare that was developed by the country’s generals known as “Sit Oo Bi Lu,” the “First wave of brutal attack,” or “Yakkha Byu Har” – “The Ogre Strategy,” a former military captain who defected to the rebel side since the junta’s takeover.
“Brutal acts by the junta troops, such as beheading people and burning down civilian properties, are intended to frighten the people,” said the captain, who goes by Nat Thar.
“This is a psychological tactic to scare the people into thinking that they don’t want to be the one beheaded when the junta’s 99th Division enters their village, to make them fear head-on conflict, although they belong to a population of tens of thousands,” he said.
Some of the fiercest resistance against the military has been in the northern Sagaing region, and in recent weeks the “Ogre” battalion has been attacking dozens of villages and rebel bases there in townships such as Ye-U, Khin-U, Taze, Myinmu and Myaung.
On March 30, the column raided a PDF base under the command of Capt. Bo Sin Yine near the village of Swae Lwe Oh.
The junta troops soon overwhelmed the rebel fighters, and soldiers then took Bo Sin Yine, a 31-year-old former corporal in the township’s Fire Brigade, and his fighters captive.
Footage taken by a drone operated by the Civilian’s Defense and Security Organization of Myaung, CDSOM, captured a junta soldier beheading Bo Sin Yine, whose name means “wild elephant,” and carrying his head away on his shoulder.
A few days later, Bo Sin Yine’s wife and a team of villagers discovered his body abandoned near the jungle. In addition to beheading him, junta soldiers had lopped off his arms and legs.
“They beheaded him and took away his head, but it wasn’t just him. They took away the heads of many people in other townships, too,” she said of her husband, who became the deputy battalion commander of the PDF No.1 in Sagaing.
Prior to entering Myaung township, the column raided Myinmu’s Let Ka Pin village, where it killed 10 civilians and disemboweled local PDF leader Kyaw Zaw before chopping off his head and limbs, residents said. The column also killed 16 civilians it had taken as human shields to protect against landmines after raiding Sagaing township’s Tar Tai village.
Among the column’s members are soldiers the CDSOM has identified as Capt. Aung Hein Oo, Lt. Capt. Zaw Naing, Sgts. Zaw Set Win, Myint Zaw, Maung Naing, Soe Hlaing, Tun Zaw Myo, and Thein Tun; Lt. Sgts. Ye Yint Paing and Thiha Soe; Engineer Trooper Nay Lin, and Troopers Pyae Sone Aung, Min Thu, and Thant Zin.
‘They told us to pass a message’
In mid-March, the “Ogre” column crossed the Chindwin River from Sagaing into Magway region and made its way south to Yesagyo township, one of several areas under martial law as a hotbed of anti-junta resistance.
Early on the morning of March 19, the unit blocked all of the exits from Mee Laung Kyung Ywar Thit village and arrested some 140 residents who didn’t have time to flee.
By the end of the day, Ogre fighters had shot and killed a man in his 50s named Han, who worked as a cook feeding refugees of conflict, tortured a 47-year-old mentally disabled man named Sandra to death, and wounded a 16-year-old boy as he tried to escape, villagers told RFA.
Those captured in Mee Laung Kyaung Ywar Thit were added to prisoners from Sagaing’s Myaung township, where the unit had conducted its last raid, including inhabitants of Za Yat Ni, Min Hla, Thar Khaung Lay, Shwe Hlan, Myay Sun, and Sin Chay Yar villages.
Around 200 women were divided into two groups and held at the Taung Kuang Monastery on the outskirts of Mee Laung Kyun village, while another group of 40 men and teenage boys were placed under guard in civilian homes, sources who escaped the unit said.
A man who escaped after three days said that Ogre fighters confiscated his jewelry and interrogated him about the local PDF, claiming they had already crushed more than 20 of the group’s bases.
“We didn’t know if they would take us to the battlefront and force us to step on landmines or kill us before they left the village,” said the man, who declined to be named out of fear of reprisal.
“They told us to pass a message to our relatives to give up fighting, bury their weapons, and end their support for the PDF. But despite their threats, we will continue to fight against the regime until the end.”
Attempts to reach Aye Hlaing, the junta’s spokesman for Sagaing region, and junta Deputy Information Minister Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun for comment on the reported actions of the Ogre column went unanswered, as did efforts to contact the junta’s information team.
Than Soe Naing, a political analyst, told RFA that the tactics of the Ogre column represent the “next level” in the junta’s violence against the people of Myanmar and must be stopped.
“Such inhumane actions against individuals can be regarded as international war crimes,” he said, suggesting that the perpetrators should be held accountable by an international court of law.
Seeking justice for victims
Kyaw Win, executive director of the U.K.-based Myanmar Human Rights Network, said his organization is systematically documenting the junta’s atrocities for just such a case.
“The junta is committing horrible and disheartening war crimes, in violation of existing … laws,” he said.
“Before long, we will be able to prosecute the perpetrators, who are officials at all levels in the military.”
In the meantime, the wife of Bo Sin Yine, who was decapitated by the Ogre column in Myaung township last month, said that she will not be able to rest until her husband and other victims receive justice.
“I need justice for him – the crime they committed was cruel and savage,” she said. “These days, the whole country knows about the atrocious brutality of [junta chief] Min Aung Hlaing.”