Hundreds of people have fled their homes in southern Chin State since last week after a column of junta soldiers overran the command post of a local resistance group, before coming under attack itself days later.
Some 200 troops from the junta’s Light Infantry Division (LID) 55 attacked the Chinland Defence Force (CDF) base in San Ma Thar, a village in the northern part of Kanpetlet Township, on March 15.
The CDF said it withdrew the following day because it was outgunned by the attackers and concerned that civilians in the area would be hurt if they kept fighting. The soldiers raided the command post and burned it down.
They then pursued the CDF fighters through surrounding woodlands, and detained three elderly men who were fleeing the violence and made them serve as their guides, said Salai Aung Ling, the deputy division commander of the Kanpetlet CDF.
At around 2pm on March 19, the LID 55 soldiers came under attack by the CDF near Long Pauk village, which is eight miles from the captured command post.
“We waited for them along their route and ambushed them. So many of them were injured,” Salai Aung Ling said, adding that three junta soldiers were killed and a member of the Kanpetlet CDF was injured during the two-hour battle.
The soldiers spent the night in Long Pauk village and the three men they had captured reportedly escaped under the cover of darkness. The next morning, the soldiers headed towards the town of Mindat, and the area has been calm since then.
Since the clashes started last week over 1,200 people have fled from the villages of San Ma Thar, Kyawt Taw, Am Pon, Khi Taw, and Ma Swi Twi, a Christian priest helping the displaced locals told Myanmar Now.
They are in need of food, medicine, and sanitary supplies, he said.
Another 6,000 people have already been displaced in Kanpetlet since clashes began in the township in May last year. Reinforcements from LID 55 began arriving in the area in early February, and fighting has intensified since then.
Over 300 soldiers from LID 99 and other battalions are stationed inside schools, police stations and township education offices in the town of Kanpetlet. They did not leave the urban center to help the LID 55 troops during the recent clashes in the surrounding villages.
Junta hostages found tortured, executed in Sagaing
The bodies of 17 people, including a resistance fighter who was dismembered and disemboweled, are found after a village raid by a junta column under LID 99
A butchered body
From the house where he was being held, Kan Kaung could easily hear the screams and cries coming from the monastery on the opposite side of the village. But he also saw some of those who would later be killed, including a woman in her late 30s or early 40s and an elderly man who were both brought into the house. The woman had her hands tied behind her back and had been accused of having a gun in her house.
The entire village was filled with the sound of soldiers shouting threats at those they had captured, but no shots were fired for the first three hours after the raid began. Then a shootout with local resistance forces started. This clash lasted about half an hour and included the eight soldiers who were guarding the house. Kan Kaung remained perfectly still the whole time, mindful of the soldiers’ threat to kill him if he tried to escape.
After the fighting stopped, another soldier entered the house and showed a photo of a man with multiple gunshot wounds to the two Tar Taing villagers, demanding to know if the man was Kyaw Zaw. After looking at the soldier’s phone, the villagers confirmed that the victim was, in fact, Kyaw Zaw. After receiving the answer he wanted, the soldier went to get a meat cleaver and left the house again.
When he returned about half an hour later, the soldier no longer had the cleaver. But he had a new photo on his phone that he insisted on pushing into the faces of the two captured villagers.
“He showed his phone to the villagers and told them that this is what happened to Kyaw Zaw. He also told them to take notes,” Kan Kaung told Myanmar Now.
The soldier asked Kan Kaung if he wanted to see the photo, too, but he said he didn’t dare look at it. The photo, as he later learned, showed Kyaw Zaw’s body, not just dead, but also decapitated, dismembered and eviscerated.
Murder in the monastery
U Moe, a Tar Taing resident in his 60s, was among the 100 or so villagers who were held in the village’s monastery throughout the nearly 24-hour ordeal. Soon after he was captured, he and around 10 other elderly villagers were taken to the monastery’s main building, while some others who had their hands tied behind their backs were forced to lie face down on the ground in the monastery compound.
“The soldiers called themselves the ‘Ogre Column.’ They said they weren’t going to torch the village, but were just looking for PDFs,” he said, referring to members of the anti-regime People’s Defence Force.
According to U Moe, the soldiers had a list of names on their phones that they used to separate the villagers into different groups. Around 80 people who were not on the list filled the building that he was in, which housed the monastery’s altar and Buddha images. This group was further divided by gender, with the men staying upstairs and the women downstairs, he said.
The ones lying on the ground outside were all people whose names were on the list. They were also joined by a few villagers accused of trying to escape or of talking back to the soldiers.
The soldiers called themselves the ‘Ogre Column.’ They said they weren’t going to torch the village, but were just looking for PDFs
Although the windows and doors of the monastery’s main building were all closed, U Moe said he could clearly hear what was happening outside. The soldiers were beating the captives they had tied up, who were crying out in agony. Occasionally, this sound would be punctuated by that of a gunshot.
This continued until around 5pm, he said. That was when some of the soldiers came back into the building to get a few of the women, who were told to start cooking dinner for them and the other prisoners. (On the other side of the village, Kan Kaung said he saw soldiers catching chickens for the women to cook. They also stole dried beef from the villagers’ homes, he added.)
After eating, the soldiers settled in for the night. A few were assigned to guard duty, occasionally firing their guns out into the darkness whenever the resistance sources shot at them to remind them that they were still there.
A trail of bodies
The next morning, the Ogre Column set off in the direction of Nyaung Yin, a village about 4km west of Tar Taing. The column was divided into four groups this time, each one accompanied by a number of hostages. The first group left at around 7am, but the third group, which included Kan Kaung and his friends and five other men, didn’t leave until 8am.
Before reaching Nyaung Yin, Kan Kaung and his friends were separated from the other five, who stayed behind with five soldiers. As he was being led away, Kan Kaung said he heard at least eight gunshots being fired behind him.
“We were scared out of our minds, even though they said they weren’t going to kill us. I asked one of the soldiers what was going to happen to us, and he said that only those who had been tied up would be killed,” Kan Kaung told Myanmar Now.
Later he saw the bodies of other victims—villagers who had gone ahead of them with the first and second groups.
“There were five bodies in one place, and three more somewhere else. Some were on their stomachs, some on their backs. Some had been shot in the head from the behind while kneeling down,” he said.
When they reached Nyaung Yin, they found that its inhabitants had already fled. The soldiers they were with took over the first abandoned house they approached on the eastern edge of the village. And it was at this point that Kan Kaung and his friends were finally released with a final warning: Don’t try anything.
‘I can’t even describe it’
Others who saw the bodies claimed that the victims were not merely murdered, but also tortured and sexually assaulted.
“They were beaten so badly before they were killed that their skulls had caved in. It was so hard to look at. The female victims also appeared to have been sexually assaulted before they were killed,” said a local who was part of the group that retrieved the bodies on March 2.
Ko Kyaw, a member of a local defence team who also helped to collect the bodies, said the underwear of the female victims had been torn and that onions had been forced into their vaginas. Myanmar Now was unable to verify this information.
Despite the brutal treatment they were subjected to, it appeared that almost none of those who had been killed were members of the armed resistance. Most were farmers or fishermen, and a few were from other villages. One, a 35-year-old resident of the neighbouring village of Shwe Hlay named Chit Kaung, was allegedly captured near Tar Taing while trying to find a missing cow.
Many of the victims were related. Ko Thein, a 25-year-old Tar Taing native, lost his mother, brother, brother-in-law and aunt that day. He survived only because he was not in Tar Taing when the soldiers arrived.
“They killed my family members in such an unimaginable way. I can’t even describe it,” he said.
Two more bodies were later discovered north and south of Tar Taing. One, belonging to a 25-year-old man named Yarhu, was found south of the village on the bank of the Ayeyarwady River. Like Kyaw Zaw, the only confirmed member of the resistance among all the victims, Yarhu’s body was decapitated and dismembered.
“It looked like they put his neck on some kind of chopping block,” said one local who saw the body.
The self-described Ogre Column was, in fact, a group of nearly 70 soldiers that had been transported to the village of Ma Lal Thar in Ayadaw Township, some 50km north of Tar Taing, on February 24.
The same column also raided at least 10 villages in Myinmu and Sagaing townships. A total of 23 locals were killed in just one week and seven of them, including five in the village of Pa Dat Taing and two in Tar Taing, were decapitated and dismembered.
Moe Gyo, the leader of the Sagaing-based Sartaung Moe Gyo People’s Defence Team, encountered the Ogre Column in Kandaw, a village in Myinmu Township. Those same soldiers beheaded two members of his group after capturing them.
“They are taunting us and trying to instil fear in us. That is exactly why we can’t forgive them,” he said.
On March 6, the publicly mandated National Unity Government (NUG) held a press conference highlighting the Tar Taing massacre. Aung Myo Min, the NUG’s human rights minister, said that junta forces have committed at least 32 massacres over the past two years.
“We have proved multiple times how cruel the military is,” he said, addressing the international community. “I have urged you before and I am urging you again. Please stop the military council’s terrorist actions as soon as possible.”
Beheaded bodies of PDF members found in southern Sagaing Region
Resistance forces claim the military captured and executed three of the fighters, while the other two were killed in combat