Burnings and beheadings: Myanmar junta escalates terror tactics against its people

Burnings and beheadings: Myanmar junta escalates terror tactics against its people
Burnings and beheadings: Myanmar junta escalates terror tactics against its people

We show you our most important and recent visitors news details Burnings and beheadings: Myanmar junta escalates terror tactics against its people in the following article

Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - BANGKOK — The two young men are bloodied, their feet clamped in wooden stocks.

“What is the PDF (People’s Defense Force)?” their tormentors yell. “Dogs,” they reply.

Humiliated and dehumanized, the men are hogtied and dragged across the rough ground by their thick chains.

In front of dozens of onlookers, they are strung up to a tree and a fire stoked beneath them.

As smoke rises and the flames consume them, the two men writhe and scream in agony – their final moments of unimaginable pain and horror captured on video.

Phoe Tay was 21-years-old, Thar Htaung just 20.

The two young men had left their family farms in northwest Myanmar to join a local armed resistance group following the 2021 military coup, hoping to bring peace and democracy to the Southeast Asian country, their fathers told CNN.

But they were captured during a battle against the military on November 7 last year, and taken to a nearby village, where they were tortured and killed by a pro-junta militia under the watch of Myanmar army soldiers, according to witnesses.

CNN has built a timeline of events, using accounts from more than a dozen witnesses, villagers, resistance fighters, family members and analysts, with analysis of the video and pictures from the day using open source techniques. Those accounts and analyses point to the ruling military as being responsible for the killings, in contradiction of their public denials.

Phoe Tay and Thar Htaung’s deaths are horrific, but they are not anomalies in Myanmar, where the military is waging a war of terror against civilians as it finds itself increasingly on the back foot against a nationwide armed resistance determined to oust it from power.

Those attacks have only increased since a rebel offensive launched five months ago resulted in major losses and defections for the military, multiple sources confirmed.

By waging terror tactics including burnings, beheadings, mutilations, torching villages, and through a massive aerial bombing campaign that has displaced nearly three million people, the Myanmar military is attempting to control and divide the population through a long-established doctrine of fear and brutality, witnesses and analysts say.

United Nations Human Rights Chief Volker Türk recently called the situation “a never-ending nightmare,” where “brutal acts are carried out by trained soldiers against their own people” in a “chilling disregard for human life.”

CNN has requested comment from Myanmar’s military junta spokesperson about the killings and its attacks on civilians but has not received a response. The military has repeatedly said it does not target civilians and often claims it is resistance forces that commit the violence.

Army chief Min Aung Hlaing’s coup on February 1, 2021 deposed the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, replacing it with a ruling military junta and plunging the country into a state of instability and violence. Suu Kyi, who was state counselor, is now serving a 27-year sentence following secretive trials.

Widespread public opposition to the military’s forcible takeover and bloody crackdown on protesters has only grown in the past three years and a nationwide armed resistance movement, which includes many of the country’s powerful ethnic rebel armies, now poses a legitimate threat to the junta.

Nestled between the Chin Hills to the west and central Myanmar’s Dry Zone to the east is the Yaw Valley.

“We knew they had no way of escaping. Although we knew they would be killed, we didn’t expect this kind of inhuman killing”

The area has been at the center of some of the fiercest fighting between the military and resistance groups, known as People’s Defence Force (PDFs).

Before dawn on November 7, Phoe Tay and Thar Htaung were part of three columns with the Yaw Defense Force (YDF) — one such civil resistance group formed in the wake of the coup — that set out to attack a hospital they believed was being used as a military weapons cache.

The hospital was in Myauk Khin Yan village, a pro-junta stronghold in Gangaw township in Magway region, “Yaw Lay,” a member of the YDF who used his nom de guerre, told CNN. Soldiers had been deployed there since 2022, he said.

But the rebels became trapped by heavy fire. As the group tried to retreat, several fighters were injured while others, including Thar Htaung and Phoe Tay, became separated, platoon commander “Ninja” told CNN, also using a nom de guerre.

“The last time I saw, they were hunkering down 50 meters away from me,” Ninja said.

The YDF later received a message from an informant in the village saying the two men had been captured alive and warned them not to try and find them.

“We knew they had no way of escaping. Although we knew they would be killed, we didn’t expect this kind of inhuman killing,” Yaw Lay said.

That morning, local villager Zaw Zaw says he woke at his parents’ home in Myauk Khin Yan to the sound of gunfire.

Shortly after, he says, members of the pro-junta militia who controlled the village banged on his door.

“It took me about 10 days without being able to eat and sleep after seeing what happened”

“They happily announced that one person from each house must come to see they have caught the two rebels,” said Zaw Zaw, who asked to use a pseudonym for his safety.

“When I got there, they dragged the two with their hands and legs tied back with chains from the hospital, where the junta troops are stationed. And then, they hanged them on a tree and poured gasoline and diesel on their bodies.”

Zaw Zaw said the two men “were covered with blood” with wounds on their thighs and feet.

About 100 people from the village were made to watch the burning, Zaw Zaw said.

“They were burning them alive... They were moving and screaming,” he said.

Zaw Zaw said Thar Htaung and Phoe Tay begged for their lives as they were set alite. He says their executioner replied by saying “apologize in the next life.”

In the video, their charred, blackened bodies can be seen hanging in chains from the tree branch.

“It took me about 10 days without being able to eat and sleep after seeing what happened,” he said.

Following the executions, Zaw Zaw said the militia “locked down” the village and threatened to kill those who left.

Myanmar’s military junta has denied it was involved in the November 7 executions in Myauk Khin Yan, blaming “malicious media” that “mislead the international countries and people (sic.),” according to state mouthpiece Global New Light of Myanmar on February 8.

The junta acknowledged the two men in the video belonged to the resistance, but dismissed the video as “fabricated,” and accused resistance forces of posing as regional guard unit members to carry out the killings — allegations vehemently denied by the Yaw Defense Force.

The junta does confirm that an attack took place that day and that its troops, known as the Tatmadaw, were stationed in the village.

“(People’s Defence Force) terrorists attacked the security forces and regional guard unit members in Myauk Khin Yan village of Gangaw Township of Magway Region in November first week of 2023,” the statement in state media read. “They retreated with huge losses, and none of the terrorists were arrested alive.”

On March 5, the junta again denied burning the two men to death, saying in a statement, “careful examination of the video reveals that the weapons being carried by the perpetrators were never used by Tatmadaw.”

However, CNN has geolocated the video of the execution to a tree near the hospital in Myauk Khin Yan on November 7, 2023, showing the incident occurred at a time in which the regime was in full control of the village.

To do this, CNN obtained a video of their deaths — which was originally leaked to a local media outlet Khit Thit Media — and compared it to satellite imagery and other videos of militia members training in the village, obtained by the Burma Affairs and Conflict Study, a local non-profit analyzing the junta’s movements in Myanmar, and shared with CNN.

Multiple villagers who spoke to CNN consistently said Myauk Khin Yan has been a militia stronghold since the 2021 coup. No resistance force has ever claimed to control the village.

CNN also spoke with four members of the Yaw Defense Force who all described the events leading up to the killing.

On November 7, initial photos of Phoe Tay and Thar Htaung in captivity were shared on pro-military pages and Telegram channels.

“There’s absolutely no reason that the military themselves wouldn’t do this. And this is entirely consistent with so much testimony over years and years,” said independent Myanmar researcher Kim Jolliffe.

“It’s consistent, not just that there are people capable of doing these things, but it’s consistent with the doctrine of the military, which is heavily focused on fear and intimidation.”

Myauk Khin Yan has also been the location of other gruesome killings, reportedly committed by the militia and Myanmar military based in the village.

In March 2022, a villager was chained to a vehicle by his neck and dragged around until he died, local media reported at the time.

CNN cannot independently verify these incidents, but they fit with witness descriptions of how the militia and military operate in Myauk Khin Yan.

“In that village, their mentality is as though they become heroes if they kill someone as inhumanly and cruelly as possible. Beheading and cutting off fingers and toes, including pulling out the organs from the bodies are happening in that village,” said Yaw Lay, the YDF fighter.

Armed militias like the group running Myauk Khin Yan have become a useful network for the military as it fights nationwide resistance. Known as the Pyu Saw Htee, these groups have been involved in some of the worst alleged crimes against civilians since the coup began, analysts say.

“The military is deeply involved in preparing these militia. They get military training, they get weapons, they sometimes get food, they get circles of protection and then they directly take part in joint operations alongside the military,” said Jolliffe.

Others are formed by ultra-nationalist Buddhists, members of the military’s proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and army veterans, analysts say.

The United States, United Kingdom and Canada imposed sanctions on several figures it has accused of providing training and securing arms for these militias, including Hla Swe, formerly a senior member of the USDP — whose constituency was Gangaw Township — and an ex-military official.

Several former villagers told CNN that hundreds of people have fled Myauk Khin Yan since it became a militia stronghold after the coup began. Since the burning, that exodus has continued, they said.

Phoe Ei Thu, 17, lost her leg to a landmine while fleeing Myauk Khin Yan in early January.

Life there had gotten worse since the killing of the two men, she said, citing the militia’s tight controls on access to the village and surging cost of daily necessities.

“We had to live under their strict restrictions. We couldn’t do anything other than live according to their command. It was very stressful,” she said.

Several people CNN spoke to from Myauk Khin Yan, who had since left, said villagers were forced to work for the army, including portering and digging trenches. Others were pressured to join the militia, they said.

“In the beginning, I felt depressed about losing a leg. But I am not depressed anymore as I could leave that place. I feel liberated and happy despite losing a leg,” Phoe Ei Thu said.

The military’s attacks against civilians since its coup over three years ago have been labeled as war crimes and crimes against humanity by UN investigators and multiple human rights organizations.

“The scale and the intentionality of the way that the Sit Tat, Myanmar military, does these things is just completely extreme,” said Jolliffe, the researcher. “We normally see this in terrorist organizations like ISIS.”

The junta has never enjoyed full control over Myanmar and is now facing the biggest threat to its fragile hold on power. It is losing territory, and there are reports of mass defections of soldiers, even whole battalions.

“They are angry, they are frustrated,” said Crisis Group’s Myanmar Senior Adviser Richard Horsey, adding that the military is “going into punishment mode” against civilians.

“When you can’t win, what you’re left with is punishment,” he said.

Since the coup, advocacy group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) has verified 186 cases of the military or its allied militia burning people to death, with 82 last year, including 12 people under 18. The youngest was 5 years old, according to AAPP.

The group has also documented 22 beheadings, and says it is still verifying more incidents of violence.

Myanmar Witness, a project from the non-profit Centre for Information Resilience that collects evidence of military abuses, says it has documented more than 400 reports of bodies being burned either before or after execution.

The group has also verified more than a dozen beheadings, but this is “very likely just the tip of the iceberg,” said project director Matt Lawrence.

In one incident in October 2022, a teacher’s severed head was impaled on a spike outside the school gates, according to Myanmar Witness.

Attacks like these in areas accessible to the junta’s ground troops fit a clear pattern, analysts say.

Troops will lay siege to a village, torching homes and destroying food sources as they move through it. Anyone left is killed or tortured, often the disabled, elderly, and other vulnerable people who cannot escape, they say.

“There are particular columns, which are being sent in, particularly to the Dry Zone, to cause mayhem,” Horsey said, referring to the central plains of Myanmar that the junta considers to be the country’s heartland. These well-armed military units of up to 120 men are inserted into an area and “run rampage,” he said.

Terror is also raining from the skies as the military has unleashed a massive aerial bombing campaign in ethnic minority areas or places where there is anti-coup resistance.

Analysts and human rights groups say the military’s indiscriminate use of airstrikes and artillery are deliberately targeting civilian infrastructure and are not necessarily motivated by retaking territory. Instead, the aim, analysts say, is to displace populations, drive out communities, and keep areas under resistance control in a state of chaos.

“I know of only one hospital that hasn’t been bombed yet, according to our data. Others have been bombed many times and some we have had to move out and rebuild in a new place,” said Banya Khung Aung, founder and director of the Karenni Human Rights Group, in southeastern Kayah state, (also known as Karenni) where about 80% of the population has been displaced at least once.

These attacks are an attempt “to pacify the population through fear rather than through convincing them that they are a legitimate governing body,” said Lawrence, adding that such assaults appear to rise in line with increases in resistance.

Junta chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing has not publicly condemned or even acknowledged the widespread reports of abuse of civilians by his military.

When no action is taken against the perpetrators, “those type of tactics become a part of the culture of the organization,” said Dr. Miemie Winn Byrd, a retired US Army Lt. Col. and professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies.

“The Myanmar military is no longer a professional military,” she said. “It is a criminal gang, a militant criminal gang.”

There are signs the military’s tactic of relying on heavy weapons combined with sheer brutality is failing. Its resources are stretched and maintaining airpower is expensive, analysts say.

“You’re starting to see a lot of the airplanes become inoperable, and they have to ground them — they’re falling out of the sky,” Byrd said. “Because every time you run these things, you have to maintain them. And maintenance is expensive.”

The junta also needs manpower to replace losses and defections. Last month, it announced a mandatory conscription law for all young men and women, prompting a rush by young people to get visas out of the country or join resistance forces.

As the junta becomes more desperate, there is greater risk to civilians, analysts say, highlighting the urgency for action from the international community.

International sanctions are important, Byrd said, but far more is needed from the global community to cut off the junta’s access to jet fuel and international currency, and to stop its resupply of armaments.

Instead of dividing the people against the resistance, the junta’s extreme violence has only made much of Myanmar’s populace more determined to oust the military from power, according to analysts and people who spoke to CNN in the country.

“I come across so many people who just feel like this is the moment in the country’s history where there has to be this reckoning to try and finally remove the military. There’s also a huge amount of resilience and a huge amount of determination to see this through,” said Jolliffe, the researcher.

Phoe Tay and Thar Htaung’s families are left with anguish and memories. The fathers say they’ve been unable even to retrieve the bodies for burial.

Thar Htaung’s father, Soe Lin Aung, 45, urged the UN to act over his son’s horrific death, and for resistance forces not to be silent but “continue this revolution.”

“I want people to remember my son as a martyr as he fought for the country,” he said.

Yaw Lay, who fought alongside Phoe Tay and Thar Htaung, said their deaths have only given him strength.

“(The military) showed how brutal and cruel they are by killing civilians. They rule the country by instilling fear in people,” he said.

“It turned to be my strength in this revolution.” — CNN

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