Burmese army soldiers knocked on U Thein Aung’s door one morning in April last year while having tea with friends, demanding that everyone accompany the platoon to another village .
When they reached a dangerous stretch in the mountains of Rakhine State, the soldiers ordered the men to walk 30 meters in front of them. One of the men stepped on an exploded landmine, killing him. Fragments of metal hit Thein Aung in the arm and in his left eye.
“They threatened to kill us if we didn’t go with them,” said Theing Aung, 65, who eventually lost his eye. “It was very clear that they were using us as detectors for human landmines.”
The military and its brutal practices are causing pervasive fear in Myanmar, a sentiment that has intensified since the generals seized full power in a coup last month. As security forces slaughter peaceful protesters on city streets, the violence that is already rampant in the countryside is a grim reminder of the long legacy of atrocities committed by the military.
During decades of military rule, an army led by the Bamar ethnic majority has acted with impunity against minorities, killing civilians and burning villages. The violence continued even after the military ceded part of its authority to an elected government, as part of a power-sharing deal that began in 2016.
The following year, the army expelled more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims from the country, as part of an ethnic cleansing campaign labeled genocidal by a United Nations panel. The soldiers fight the rebel armies of ethnic minorities with the same brutality, using men and boys as human shields and raping women and girls.
The generals have now regained full control, and the Tatmadaw, as the army is called, has turned its arms against the people, who have launched a nationwide civil disobedience movement.
The repression intensified on Monday (8) in response to a general strike. Security forces took control of universities and hospitals and canceled operating licenses for five news agencies. At least three protesters were shot dead.
More than 60 people have been killed since the February 1 coup, an increasingly bloody crackdown reminiscent of what happened when the military quelled pro-democracy protests in the past.
“It is an army in the midst of darkness,” commented David Scott Mathieson, an independent analyst who has studied military practices for years. “It is an unrepentant institution.”
Brutality is rooted in the Tatmadaw, which came to power in a coup in 1962, arguing that it should safeguard national unity. The military has fought for decades to control parts of the country that are inhabited by ethnic minorities and are rich in jade, timber, and other natural resources.
For three years, the Tatmadaw have waged intermittent warfare against ethnic rebel armies in three states: Rakhine, Shan and Kachin. The most intense fighting has taken place in Rakhine, where the Arakhan army, an ethnic force in Rakhine, is seeking greater autonomy.
Civilians often become victims in these protracted conflicts, as 15 victims, their families or witnesses in these three states testified in interviews with The New York Times.
Six men described how they were injured by landmines or gunfire when soldiers forced them to risk their lives. Several women said they were raped by soldiers. Others recalled their husbands and children who never returned after being taken away by soldiers.
The New York Times contacted the victims through local advocacy organizations who had documented their reports, visited residents, interviewed witnesses, and largely corroborated the facts. Human rights groups have also published reports on these general practices.
An army spokesperson declined to comment.
People who spoke to the newspaper described a pattern of abuse in which soldiers forced civilians to act as porters, under threat of death. Men and boys were forced to march in front of soldiers in conflict areas and were often used as human shields.
In October, Sayedul Amin, a 28-year-old Rohingya man, was fishing in a pond near his village, Rambarbill, in Rakhine state, when around 100 soldiers arrived. He said the soldiers rounded up 14 men, including him, and ordered them to carry sacks of rice and other food. Several men who refused to obey were severely beaten.
“We were told to walk in front of the soldiers,” he said. “Looks like they wanted us to be shields against them, in case someone attacks.”
They had been walking for less than an hour when the shooting started, Amin said. He didn’t even see who shot them. Amin was hit by two bullets. A 10-year-old boy and an 18-year-old boy died before him, taking so many hits in the face and head they were almost unrecognizable.
The soldiers abandoned the bodies to be buried by the men of the village.
Tatmadaw has already forced at least 200 boys and men in Rakhine state to serve as human carriers and shields in the past three years, according to U Than Hla, board member of the Arakan CSO human rights coalition. Network. Of the men forcibly taken away, 30 are known to have died and at least 70 are missing. Half of them were under 18.
Human rights organizations say such practices have long been common in Kachin and Shan states. But there is no similar data from the same period in these states.
Women face their own horrors. While sexual violence by members of Tatmadaw often goes unreported, rapes have been widespread and systematically during the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, according to the NGO Human Rights Watch. The same goes for women of other ethnic groups in conflict zones.
“The Burmese army violates human rights in many ways,” said Zaw Zaw Min, founder of the Rakhine Human Rights Group. “Women are raped, villages are set on fire, goods are stolen and people are taken away to be used as porters.”
Oo Htay Win, 37, said that in June, when soldiers arrived in her village of U Gar, Rakhine state, she hid in her home with her four children and their granddaughter. new born. That night, the baby’s crying betrayed his presence to four soldiers, who invaded the house. They gave you the choice: to have sex with them or to die. Over the next two hours, three soldiers raped her while a fourth stood guard.
In the morning, Oo Htay Win, her daughters and the baby escaped through the back door and took refuge in the town of Sittwe, where she currently lives. When she heard about the rape, Oo Htay’s husband abandoned her.
Most of the women raped by soldiers remain silent, but Oo Htay Win has filed a criminal complaint. The soldiers confessed, were tried, convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
“I hate these three soldiers because they destroyed my life,” she said. “Because of them, I lost everything.”
Some villagers try to escape the conflict, but nevertheless end up being victims of violence.
In March 2018, U Phoe Shan’s family and others from her village were fleeing the fighting in Kachin State, northern Myanmar. They were going to a camp for internally displaced persons when they encountered Tatmadaw’s forces on the road.
Phoe San, 48, said soldiers ordered her to walk past a group of 50 men, through an area of forest. Fifteen minutes after entering the forest, he stepped on a mine. He was hospitalized for three weeks with leg injuries.
“If we resist, they can shoot us,” he said. “Better to walk through a minefield.”
The lives of victims of these atrocities rarely return to normal. Your loved ones who have been taken away never come home. People who have suffered disabling injuries find it difficult to find work.
In eastern Shan state, U Thar Pu Ngwe, 46, was forced to serve in the army. He was hit in the leg by a fragment when a soldier stepped on a mine.
Now he is walking with difficulty and taking three times as long as before to get somewhere, as he said. He had to reduce the area of land he cultivates and his income was halved.
“This incident changed my life,” he said. “I was a happy man, but I’m not anymore.”
He asked Tatmadaw to stop using civilians in combat. “If you want to fight, do it on your own.”