Myanmar Army soldiers have admitted to killing, torturing and raping civilians in several exclusive interviews with the BBC. For the first time, they have provided detailed testimony of the human rights abuses they say they were ordered to commit.
Warning: This story contains descriptions of sexual violence and torture.
“I was ordered to torture, loot and kill innocent people.” Maung Oo claims that he thought he had been drafted into the army as a guard. Nevertheless, was part of a battalion that killed civilians who had hidden in a monastery in May 2022.
“We were ordered to round up all the men and shoot them dead,” he says. “The saddest thing was having to kill old people and a woman.”
The testimony of six soldiers, including a corporal, and some of their victims, offers an extraordinary perspective on an army desperate to cling to power. All names of those interviewed in this story have been changed to protect their identities.
The soldiers, who recently deserted, are under the protection of a local unit of the People’s Defense Forces (PDF)a network of civilian militia groups fighting to restore democracy.
The military seized power from the democratically elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi in a coup last year. Now he is trying to crush the armed civil uprising.
On December 20 last year, three helicopters flew over the village of Yae Myet in central Myanmar, from which soldiers jumped out with orders to open fire.
At least five different people, who were interviewed separately, told the BBC what happened.
They assure that the army entered the town in three groups, shooting men, women and children indiscriminately.
“The order was to shoot everything in sight,” Corporal Aung says from an undisclosed location in a remote part of the Myanmar jungle.
According to their testimony, some people hid in places they thought were safe, but when the soldiers got closer, “they started running and we shot at them.”
Corporal Aung admits that his unit shot and buried five men. “We also had orders to set fire to all the big, decent houses in town,” he says.
The soldiers paraded through the town setting fire to houses, shouting: “Burn! Burn!”
He himself set fire to four buildings. Interviewees say that some 60 houses were burned, leaving much of the town in ashes.
Yae Myet village, Sagaing region, Myanmar
Drag the button to the left to see the burned areas
Most of the villagers had fled, but not all. A house in the center of town was still inhabited.
Thiha claims that he had joined the army only five months before the raid. Like many others, he was drafted and had no training. These recruits are known locally as Anghar-Sit-Thar or “contract soldiers“.
At the time, he was being paid a decent salary of 200,000 Myanmar khat (approximately US$100) a month. He clearly remembers what happened in that house.
He saw a teenage girl trapped behind bars of a house that they were about to burn down. “I can’t forget her screams, I can still hear them in my ears and remember them in my heart,” she says.
When he told his captain, he replied, “I told you to kill everyone we see.” So Thiha set off a flare inside the house.
Corporal Aung was there too, and he heard her screams as they burned her alive. “It was heartbreaking to hear it. We heard it for about 15 minutes while the house was on fire,” she recalls.
The BBC tracked down the girl’s relatives, speaking to them in front of the charred remains of their home.
Her relative U Myint said the girl had a mental health problem and had been left at home while her parents went to work. “She tried to run away from it but they stopped her and let her burn,” she says.
Nope was the only young who suffered at the hands of these soldiers.
Thiha admits that he joined the army for money, but was shocked by what he was forced to do and the atrocities he witnessed.
It refers to a group of young women who were arrested in Yae Myet.
The officer handed them over to his subordinates and told them: “Do whatever you want”, recounts. The soldiers raped the girls, although he claims that he did not participate. The BBC located two of these women.
Pa Pa and Khin Htwe tell how they ran into the soldiers on the road when trying to flee. The girls are not from Yae Myet, but had gone to see a tailor there.
Despite insisting that they were not PDF combatants and were not even from the village, they were locked up in a local school for three nights. Each night, their drunken captors sexually abused them over and over again, they say. “They blindfolded me with a sarong and pushed me down, took my clothes off and raped me,” Pa Pa says.I screamed while being raped“.
She begged the soldiers to stop, but they beat her on the head and held her at gunpoint.
“We had to put up with it without resisting because we were afraid they would kill us,” says his sister Khin Htwe, trembling as she speaks.
They were too scared to get a good look at their assailants, but say they remember seeing some in civilian clothes and others in military uniforms.
“When they captured young women,” recalls Private Thiha, “they said ‘this is because you support the PDF‘ while the violated“.
At least 10 people were killed in the attack on Yae Myet and eight girls were reportedly raped over a three-day period.
The brutal killings involving soldier Maung Oo occurred on May 2, 2022, in the village of Ohake pho, also in the Sagaing region.
His account of what members of his 33rd Division (33rd Light Infantry Division) did, which gathered and shot several people in a monasterycoincides with witness testimonies and some disturbing videos that the BBC obtained immediately after the attack.
The video shows nine bodies lined up, including those of a woman and a grey-haired man, lying side by side. They all wear sarongs and t-shirts. The images indicate that they were shot in the back and at close range.
The BBC also spoke to villagers who witnessed this atrocity. They identified the young woman from the video that she was lying next to the old man. She was called Ma Moe Moe and she was carrying her son and a bag containing some gold pieces. She begged the soldiers not to take her things.
“Even though I carried a child, They looted her belongings and shot her dead.. They also lined up (the men) and shot them one by one,” says Hla Hla, who was on the scene but was saved.
The boy survived and is now in the care of relatives.
Hla Hla says that she heard the soldiers boast on the phone that they had killed eight or nine people, that it was “delicious” to kill a people and described it as “their most successful day yet”.
According to his account, they left the town singing “Victory! Victory!”.
he was shot in the head
Another woman saw her husband killed. “They shot her in her thigh, then asked her to lie on her stomach and shot her in the buttock. They finally shot him in the head,” she says.
The woman insists that he was not a member of the PDF. “He was a palm worker who earned his living in a traditional way. I have a son and a daughter and I don’t know how to continue living“.
Maung Oo admits that he regrets his actions and that is why he wants to tell everything. “I want everyone to know so they don’t fall for the same thing,” he says.
The six soldiers who spoke to the BBC admitted burning houses and villages in different parts of the center of the country. This suggests that this is an organized tactic to disrupt any support for the resistance.
It comes as some say the military is having trouble holding the various fronts in this civil war.
Bin village, Sagaing region, Myanmar
Drag the button to the left to see the burned areas
Myanmar Witness, a research group that tracks human rights violations, has verified more than 200 complaints of villages that have been burned in this way in the last 10 months.
They say the number of these fires is rising rapidly, with 40 attacks in January and February, followed by at least 66 in March and April.
Villages set on fire by the Myanmar army
Data from September 1, 2021 to June 22, 2022
This is not the first time that the Myanmar military has used a scorched earth policy. It was widely used against rohingain 2017 in Rakhine state.
The mountainous ethnic regions of the country have suffered from such attacks for many decades. Some of these ethnic fighters are now helping to train and arm the PDF in this war against the military.
The culture of impunityin which soldiers have been allowed to loot and kill at will, as soldiers have described, has existed for decades in Myanmar, Human Rights Watch says.
Rarely is anyone held accountable for atrocities allegedly committed by the military.
However, the Myanmar army has to recruit more and more soldiers and militia due to desertions and to the murders carried out by the PDF.
Some 10,000 people have deserted from both the army and the police since the 2021 coup, according to Abrazo del Pueblo, a group made up of former military and police officers.
“The military is having trouble maintaining the different fronts of this civil war,” says Michael Martin of the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.
“They are having personnel problems both in the officer ranks and in the enlisted ranks, they are having a lot of casualties, problems with recruitment problems getting equipment and supplies, and that is reflected in the fact that they seem to be losing territory or their control in various parts of the country.”
The Magway and Sagaing regions (where the above incidents took place) are among the historical recruitment sites for the Myanmar Army. But the young people here are now choosing to join the PDF.
Corporal Aung is clear about why he defected: “If I thought the military could win in the long run, I wouldn’t have switched sides with the people.”
He says that the soldiers do not dare to leave their bases alone for fear that the PDF will kill them.
“Wherever we go, we can only go in the form of a military column. Nor you can say that it isandwe are dominating“, He says.
The BBC presented the allegations being made in this investigation to General Zaw Min Tun, a spokesman for the Myanmar Army. In a statement, he denied the army targeted civilians, saying the two raids cited here were legitimate targets and those killed were “terrorists.”
He also denied that the army has been burning down villages and claims that it is the PDF that is carrying out arson attacks.
It is difficult to know how and when this civil war will end, but it seems likely that millions of Myanmar civilians will be traumatized. And the longer it takes to find peace, the more women like Khin Htwe, a rape victim, will be vulnerable to violence.
After what happened to him, Khin Htwe says he did not want to live, and considered taking his own life. Nope has been able toagive it to him to her fiancé.
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