AP Investigation: Myanmar’s junta using bodies to terrorize

Two black pickups speed down an empty city street in Myanmar before coming to a sudden stop. Security forces standing in the back of the trucks begin firing at an oncoming motorbike carrying three young men.

The bike swerves, crashing into a gate. More shots are fired as two of the passengers run away, while the third, Kyaw Min Latt, remains on the ground. Moans are heard as officers grab the wounded 17-year-old from the pavement, throwing his limp body into a truck bed before driving off.

The incident lasted just over a minute and was captured on a CCTV camera. It is part of a growing trove of photos and videos shared on social media that’s helping expose a brutal crackdown carried out by the junta since the military’s Feb. 1 takeover of the Southeast Asian nation.

An analysis by The Associated Press and the Human Rights Center Investigations Lab at the University of California, Berkeley, looked at cases where bodies of those targeted indiscriminately by police and the military are being used as tools of terror. The findings are based on more than 2,000 tweets and online images, in addition to interviews with family members, witness accounts, and local media reports.

The AP and HRC Lab identified more than 130 instances where security forces appeared to be using corpses and the bodies of the wounded to create anxiety, uncertainty, and strike fear in the civilian population. Over two-thirds of those cases analyzed were confirmed or categorized as having moderate or high credibility, and often involved tracking down the original source of the content or interviewing observers.

Since the military takeover, more than 825 people have been killed — well over two times the government tally — according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a watchdog organization that monitors arrests and deaths. The junta did not respond to written questions submitted by AP.

The HRC Lab examined hours of footage posted online over a two-month period showing dead bodies being snatched off the streets and dragged like sacks of rice before being thrown into vehicles and driven to unknown destinations. Some people have been disappeared or arrested one day and returned dead the next, their corpses mutilated with signs of torture, witnesses confirmed to AP.

Autopsies have been carried out without the permission of families. And some death certificates blame heart attacks or falls after violent attacks, contradicting witness accounts and images captured by protesters, journalists, or residents, including some who have been stealthily recording incidents with mobile phones through windows or from rooftops.

Cremations and exhumations of the deceased have been secretly conducted in the middle of the night by authorities. Other times, grieving families have been forced to pay military hospitals to release their loved ones’ remains, relatives and eyewitnesses told the AP.

Though the incidents may seem random and unprovoked — including kids being shot while playing outside their homes — they are actually deliberate and systematic with the goal of demobilizing people and wearing them down, said Nick Cheesman, a researcher at Australian National University, who specializes in the politics of law and policing in Myanmar.

“That,” he said, “is exactly the characteristic of state terror.”

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Taking a page from the army’s historical playbook, experts say the violence also appears aimed at keeping the death toll artificially low and concealing evidence. But unlike past violence, the attacks are being captured on smartphones and surveillance cameras in real-time and could one day be used against the regime before international criminal courts, as has happened elsewhere in the world.

“It has always been the military’s strategy to hide the mass crackdown there, the mass killing of the protesters,” said Van Tran, a Cornell University researcher who studied the bloody 1988 and 2007 uprisings in Myanmar. “There are always large-scale operations in order to either cremate the bodies of people that were shot down or … bulldoze and bury those bodies. So a lot of the time, families do not know where their children went.”

Almost a quarter of the recent cases with known locations analyzed by the HRC Lab involved injured people or dead bodies snatched by security forces in the country’s biggest city, Yangon, followed by Mandalay and Bago.

The largest number of those incidents, documented through posts on social media, was reported on March 27. Celebrated annually as Armed Forces Day, it commemorates the start of the military’s resistance to Japanese occupation during World War II after more than a century of British colonial rule.

This year protesters dubbed it “Anti-Fascist-Resistance Day,” and came out in large numbers in a stand against the military takeover.

It was on that day that motorbike rider Kyaw Min Latt was shot, though his family told AP the young carpenter had not been to a demonstration but was instead heading home from the job site to grab an early lunch with two friends.

Using satellite visuals, reverse image searches, and a sun-shadow calculator, the HRC Lab was able to verify that the shooting took place at 10:38 a.m. in front of a high school on Azarni Road in the southern town of Dawei. In the footage, two shots are heard and Kyaw Min Latt, who was sitting between the driver and a fellow passenger, is seen grabbing his head and falling sideways. Officers chased after the two other riders with guns raised. Another bang is then heard.

Sixteen minutes later, a passerby posted a picture on Facebook of blood-soaked concrete and flip flops near the white motorbike that security forces had carefully propped back up before taking Kyaw Min Latt’s body.

Within two hours, the CCTV footage was also being shared widely across social media platforms.

That’s how the teen’s father received the news. He told AP he later learned his son had been taken to a military hospital. He rushed there to see him that afternoon and said the teen was still alive, but unconscious.

“He was badly wounded,” Soe Soe Latt said. “He opened his eyes when we were at the hospital, but could not say any words.”

The boy died soon after, and his father said army doctors wanted to perform an autopsy. The family fought against it, but said the hospital would only release the body if they signed a paper saying their son died of head injuries from falling off the motorbike.

A photo published online before Kyaw Min Latt’s funeral by Dawei Watch, a local news outlet, told a different story: There was a gaping wound in the teen’s neck.

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Myanmar has a long, tumultuous history of coups, military control, and ethnic conflicts.

A junta seized power in 1962, ending 14 years of civilian rule. That began five decades of censorship, mass arrests, disappearances, and dark isolation, resulting in harsh international sanctions that placed it roughly on par with North Korea.

Then in 2011, the country became the darling of the Obama administration and other Western governments when it started moving toward quasi-civilian rule and implementing political reforms as part of its long-promised “roadmap to democracy.”

But, despite the newfound freedoms and political reforms in the past decade — from the first ATMs and KFC restaurants to high-speed Internet and smartphones — the military never really relinquished control.

A quarter of the seats in parliament were reserved for those in uniform, and the armed forces held onto key ministries. Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, now chairman of the junta’s State Administrative Council, also had the power to impose a state of emergency if he felt national security was at risk.

But after the party headed by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi won a landslide election last November, the military, known as the Tatmadaw, cried voter fraud. That triggered the February takeover and an emergency declaration, transferring all power to the top commander, on the morning the new parliament was set to begin.

Suu Kyi — who earlier supported security forces during their violent crackdown on ethnic Rohingya Muslims — and other leaders of her National League for Democracy party were put under house arrest. Hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life poured into the streets nationwide in protest.

Soon after, other NLD members were hauled in for questioning. Some of them would never return alive. Party officials said that family members were prohibited from collecting the body of one man who died at an interrogation center. Two other NLD members were returned as corpses to relatives the next day, drawing a sharp rebuke from the U.S. State Department.

Photos and videos posted on social media from several locations, and analyzed by the HRC Lab, show they appear to have been tortured, with the skin partially peeled from one man’s face. Another had dried blood on his head and bruises covering his body.

“Just tell people he had a heart attack and died,” a man who attended the cleaning of one victim’s body told AP, recalling what doctors told family members.

Despite the attacks on NLD members, the anti-military demonstrations continued. Ordinary citizens soon found themselves targets of soldiers and police.

This month, relatives of one man in Bago Region’s Pyay Township said security forces arrived at their home with guns drawn.

After beating 33-year-old Aung Khaing Myit, his sister told AP they took him away for questioning about his suspected involvement in a bomb blast. She said the officers swore nothing would happen to him, but he was heard screaming in a nearby room before falling silent.

The next day, the family was taken to a military hospital. They were told Aung Khaing Myit died while trying to jump out of a transport vehicle and that he was already placed inside a coffin. His sister said they were allowed to look at his bruised face, but not his entire body, and then authorities took him away for cremation over their objections.

“We knew they beat him to death,” she said. “But they tried to lie to us.”

And even if bodies are returned to families, it doesn’t mean they will be buried and left to rest in peace.

Nineteen-year-old Kyal Sin, better known as Angel, became a high-profile case after being shot in the head March 3 during a protest in Mandalay, galvanizing supporters to wear T-shirts and banners bearing her image. Thousands, outraged by her death, gathered for her funeral the next day.

But later that night, the flowers were removed from her grave and MRTV state television said her body had been exhumed by authorities so an official autopsy could be carried out, exonerating the police. All that remained at the site afterward was a bloody latex glove and other strewn debris.

Authorities later released a death certificate saying the bullet that killed her didn’t match the caliber used by police, and that it came from the wrong direction for security forces to be responsible.

Shootings by soldiers and police were the reason Ye Yint Naing’s mother had forbidden him to join a protest in northern Shan State. But that didn’t stop the 15-year-old — he simply skipped breakfast that morning and snuck out while she was busy washing clothes in the back of the house.

He quickly met up with friends and headed to the rally, but an hour later tensions began to explode. After activists set a car on fire, Myanmar security forces responded by shooting into the crowd.

Ye Yint Naing was hit and fell to the ground. As he lay bleeding and calling for help, his friends watched paralyzed for two hours, unable to reach him because they feared they would be shot by a sniper standing watch, his brother told AP.

When the gunfire finally stopped, Ye Yint Naing’s motionless body was loaded into an ambulance and driven away. Social media posts provided the first clues for family members about what happened to him.

A picture posted on Facebook by a sympathetic worker at a local cemetery showed them where the body was ultimately taken. Once there, Ye Yint Naing was cremated — which goes against Muslim burial customs — following an order by police.

“They actually wanted to hide the dead body,” his brother said, adding he was able to get a bag with ashes and bits of bone to bury. “I have to say, ‘Thank you,’ to the person who cremated the body and took the photo. If not, it would have been hard for our family to find my younger brother because we would not know where he was taken.”

Other secret cremations were confirmed in a mountainous trading town in the same state. Military trucks carrying soldiers and police rumbled into Aungban to stamp out a protest early on March 19th, firing off tear gas and bullets that left at least eight people dead, a witness told the AP.

Images from the scene posted on social media, showed one bloodied body lying next to a curb, and video captured men dressed in black uniforms kicking debris and randomly shooting their guns.

Security forces brought most of the corpses to the local cemetery that night and days later. They broke locks on the crematorium and used car tires to burn several bodies, witnesses said, until “all that remained was ash.”

Terrified that their loved ones will not receive proper burials, some family members have started hiding bodies, racing to get them buried before security forces can claim them.

That was the case with 13-year-old Htoo Myat Win. He was hit in the chest by a stray bullet while sitting inside his home in the central town of Shwebo, Sagaing Region.

Video posted online showed security forces shooting while walking through the street, and a neighbor who witnessed the boy’s death confirmed to AP that they were “spraying bullets” at houses.

Authorities came to ask the family for the boy’s body, but they refused to hand it over and instead hid it at a local temple, the neighbor said, declining to give his name fearing retribution. “They cremated him the next day.”

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Junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun said there is a clear legal procedure in place when people die. Families are informed and autopsies are carried out.

“We never hide this number,” he said at a press conference earlier this month.

However, the military has put the total killed nationwide at about 300, stressing that nearly 50 police have also died in the violence. Earlier, state-run TV called the more widely used figures from AAPP “fake” news, even though the highly regarded Thailand-based monitoring group often includes the victims’ names, ages and photographs. It also details how and where they died as part of its tally, helping bolster the credibility of those numbers.

Ko Bo Kyi, the group’s co-founder, noted the junta also claimed hundreds — instead of thousands — died during some of the country’s biggest pro-democracy protests in 1988. He added that, just as in the past, their goal now is to maintain a climate of fear and uncertainty that immobilizes people and breaks their will.

“They believe if they kill, torture, and arrest the protesters, they can stop the demonstrations,” he said.

But access to technology and social media since the recent military takeover could eventually be used to help build an international criminal case against the junta, while also making it difficult for foreign donors and developed nations to turn a blind eye to what could one day be classified as crimes against humanity.

“It’s a whole new ballgame in terms of evidence in a way that will make prosecution possible many years from now if need be,” said Richard Dicker, International Justice director at the nonprofit Human Rights Watch, noting that video footage from smartphones has also been used in other uprisings and conflicts, including crimes committed in Syria. “That wouldn’t have been viable (in the past) because the evidence would have disappeared.”

Still, despite the fact that security forces are aware their actions are being filmed, posted online, and seen around the world, they have continued their attacks on civilians unabated. Dicker said authoritarian governments have long silenced their opponents.

Normally, he added, these kinds of atrocities occur at night in the shadows. “What’s new is that it is taking place on the streets and in public view.”

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Associated Press journalist Kiko Rosario contributed to this report from Bangkok.

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Contact AP’s global investigative team at Investigative@ap.org or https://www.ap.org/tips/

Copyright © 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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