By Charlotte Attwood, Ko Ko Aung and Rebecca Henschke
BBC World Service
Soldiers in the Myanmar military have admitted to killing, torturing and raping civilians in exclusive interviews with the BBC. For the first time they have given detailed accounts of widespread human rights abuses they say they were ordered to conduct.
Warning: This story contains descriptions of sexual violence and torture
“They ordered me to torture, loot and kill innocent people.”
Maung Oo says he thought he had been recruited to the military as a guard.
But he was part of a battalion who killed civilians hiding 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 we had to kill elderly people and a woman.”
The testimony of six soldiers, including a corporal, plus some of their victims provides a rare insight of a military desperate to cling to power. All of the Myanmar names in this report have been changed to protect their identities.
The soldiers, who recently defected, are under the protection of a local unit of the People’s Defence Force (PDF), a loose 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. It is now trying to crush the armed civilian uprising.
On 20 December last year, three helicopters circled Yae Myet village in central Myanmar, dropping soldiers with orders to open fire.
At least five different people, speaking independently from each other, told the BBC what happened.
They say the army entered in three separate groups, shooting at men, women and children indiscriminately.
“The order was to shoot anything you see,” says Corporal Aung from an undisclosed location in a remote part of Myanmar’s jungle.
He says some people hid in what they thought was a safe place, but as the soldiers closed in they “started to run and we shot at them”.
Cpl Aung admits his unit shot and buried five men.
“We also had an order to set fire to every large and decent house in the village,” he says.
The soldiers paraded around the village torching houses, shouting, “Burn! burn!”
Cpl Aung set fire to four buildings. Those interviewed say about 60 houses were burnt, leaving much of the village in ashes.
Most of the villagers had fled, but not everyone. One home in the centre of the village was inhabited.
Thiha says he had joined the military just five months before the raid. Like many others, he was recruited from the community and says he was untrained. These recruits are locally referred to as Anghar-Sit-Thar or “hired soldiers”.
At the time he was paid a decent salary of 200,000 Myanmar Khat (approximately 100 USD) a month. He remembers what happened at that house vividly.
He saw a teenage girl trapped behind iron bars in a house they were about to burn down.
“I can’t forget her shouting, I can still hear it in my ears and remember it in my heart,” he says.
When he told his captain, he replied, “I told you to kill everyone we see”. So Thiha shot a flare into the room.
Cpl Aung was also there and heard her cries as she was burnt alive.
“It was heartbreaking to hear. We heard her voice repeatedly for about 15 minutes while the house was on fire,” he recalls.
The BBC tracked down the girl’s family, who spoke in front of the charred remains of their home.
Her relative U Myint said the girl had a mental health condition and had been left in her home while her parents went to work.
“She tried to escape but they stopped her and let her burn,” he says.
She was not the only young woman to suffer at the hands of these soldiers.
Thiha says he joined the military for the money but was shocked by what he was forced to do and the atrocities he witnessed.
He speaks about a group of young women they arrested in Yae Myet.
The officer handed them to his subordinates and said, “Do as you wish,” he recounts. He said they raped the girls but he was not involved. We tracked down two of these girls.
Pa Pa and Khin Htwe say they met the soldiers on the road as they tried to run away. They were not from Yae Myet, they had been visiting a tailor there.
Despite their insistence that they were not PDF fighters or even from the village, they were imprisoned in a local school for three nights. Each night, they were repeatedly sexually abused by their intoxicated captors, they say. “They blindfolded my face with a sarong and pushed me down, they took off my clothes and raped me,” Pa Pa says. “I shouted as they raped me.”
She pleaded with the soldiers to stop but they beat her round the head and threatened her at gunpoint.
“We had to take it without resisting because we were scared that we would be killed,” says her sister Khin Htwe, trembling as she speaks.
The girls were too scared to get a proper look at their abusers but say they remember seeing some in plain clothes and some wearing military uniforms.
“When they caught young women,” remembers the soldier Thiha, “they would say, ‘this is because you support the PDF’ as they (raped) the girls.”
At least 10 people died in the violence in Yae Myet and eight girls were reportedly raped over the three-day period.
The brutal killings which hired soldier Maung Oo took part in occurred on 2 May 2022 in Ohake pho village, also in Sagaing region.
His account of members from his 33rd Division (Light Infantry Division 33) rounding up and shooting people in a monastery matches witness testimonies and disturbing video the BBC obtained from the immediate aftermath of the attack.
The video shows nine dead bodies lined up including a woman and a grey-haired man lying next to each other. They are all wearing sarongs and t-shirts.
Signs in the footage indicate that they were shot from behind and at close range.
We also spoke to villagers who witnessed this atrocity. They identified the young woman in the video lined up next to the elderly man. She was called Ma Moe Moe, and was carrying her child and a bag containing pieces of gold. She pleaded with the soldiers not to take her things.
“Despite the child she was carrying, they looted her belongings and shot her to death. They also lined up (the men) and shot them one by one,” says Hla Hla, who was at the scene but was spared.
The child survived and is now being cared for by relatives.
Hla Hla says she heard soldiers boasting on the phone that they had killed eight or nine people, that it was “delicious” to kill people and describing it as “their most successful day yet”.
She says they left the village chanting “Victory! Victory!”
Another woman saw her husband killed. “They shot him in the thigh, then they asked him to lie face down and shot his buttock. Finally they shot his head,” she says.
She insists he was not a member of the PDF. “He was really a toddy 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 says he regrets his actions. “So, I will tell you all,” he says. “I want everyone to know so they can avoid falling into the same fate.”
All of the six soldiers who spoke to the BBC admitted burning houses and villages across central Myanmar. This suggests it is an organised tactic to destroy any support for the resistance.
It comes as some say the military struggles to maintain its multi-front civil war.
Myanmar Witness – a group of open source researchers tracking human rights abuses – has verified more than 200 reports of villages being burnt in this way over the past 10 months.
They say the scale of these arson attacks is rapidly increasing, with at least 40 attacks in January and February, followed by at least 66 in March and April.
This is not the first time Myanmar’s military has used a scorched earth policy. It was widely reported against the Rohingya people in 2017 in Rakhine state.
The country’s mountainous ethnic regions have faced these kinds of assaults for many decades. Some of these ethnic fighters are now helping to train and arm the PDF in this current civil war against the military.
The culture of impunity in which soldiers are allowed to loot and kill at will, as described by the soldiers, has occurred for decades in Myanmar, Human Rights Watch says.
People are rarely held accountable for atrocities allegedly carried out by the military.
But Myanmar’s military is increasingly having to hire soldiers and militias due to defections and killings by the PDF.
Some 10,000 people have defected from both the army and the police since the 2021 coup, according to a group called People’s Embrace, formed by former military and police personnel.
“The military is struggling to maintain its multi-front civil war,” says Michael Martin from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies think tank.
“It’s running into personnel problems both in the officer ranks and the enlisted ranks, it’s taking heavy casualties, problems with recruitment, problems getting equipment and supplies and that’s reflected by the fact that they seem to be losing territory or control of territory in various parts of the country.”
Magway and Sagaing regions (where the above incidents happened) were one of the historic recruitment grounds for Myanmar’s military.
But young people here are instead choosing to join the PDF groups.
Cpl Aung was clear about why he defected: “If I thought the military would win in the long term, I wouldn’t have switched sides to the people.”
He says soldiers do not dare to leave their base alone as they are worried they will be killed by the PDF.
“Wherever we go, we can only go in the form of a military column. No-one can say that we are dominating,” he says.
We put the allegations in this investigation to General Zaw Min Tun, the spokesperson for Myanmar’s military. In a statement, he denied that the army has been targeting civilians. He said both of the raids cited here were legitimate targets and those killed were “terrorists”.
He denied the army has been burning villages and says that it is the PDFs who are carrying out arson attacks.
It is hard to say how and when this civil war might end but it seems likely that millions of Myanmar’s civilians will be left traumatised.
And the longer it takes to find peace, the more women like rape victim Khin Htwe will be vulnerable to violence.
She says she no longer wanted to live after what had happened to her and considered taking her own life.
She has been unable to tell her fiance what happened to her.