Myanmar: Investigate Civilian Killings in Karenni State, Hold Perpetrators Accountable

June 20th, 2024  •  Author:   Fortify Rights  •  8 minute read
Featured image

(DEMOSO and BANGKOK, June 20, 2024)–The National Unity Government of Myanmar (NUG) and the Interim Executive Council (IEC) of Karenni State should investigate the killings of three women and their three children and hold the perpetrators of the killings accountable, said Burma War Crime Investigation (BWCI) and Fortify Rights today.

A new joint investigation by BWCI–a community-based human rights organization in Myanmar–and Fortify Rights found that the Myanmar military captured seven civilians during a military operation in Shadaw Township, Karenni State on February 5, 2024. Although one man escaped, three women—including a pregnant woman—and their three children were killed during an armed clash between the Myanmar army and ethnic resistance fighters.

The civilians killed were identified as Soe Mae, 50, Law Mae, 45, and Ma Mae Mo, 33, who was pregnant, Nang Khin, 7, Baw Reh, 5, and Li Reh, 3.

“Wartime killings of civilians should be thoroughly investigated and perpetrators held accountable,” said Swe Lin, a researcher from BWCI. “The NUG and the IEC are well-placed to investigate the killings of civilians and work alongside international investigators. Resistance forces fighting against the junta should actively seek to protect civilians and work to support victims and ensure accountability for crimes.”

The killings took place during a battle between the Myanmar military and resistance fighters, including the Karenni Nationalities Defense Force (KNDF) and the Karenni Army (KA) near the village of Daw Ka Tel located northeast of Shadaw town in Shadaw Township.

In June 2024, BWCI and Fortify Rights spoke with members of IEC and NUG and shared the findings of their investigation. A member of the IEC said they are concerned about “any killing of civilians” and would investigate and charge perpetrators from the Myanmar military or Karenni forces who are responsible for crimes.

Between February and June 2024, BWCI and Fortify Rights interviewed 11 people, including a Myanmar military prisoner of war (POW) in the custody of the KNDF, a survivor of the incident who escaped, relatives of victims, two medical doctors, and a soldier from KA. BWCI and Fortify Rights also analyzed and reviewed photographs and videos taken by resistance fighters of the dead bodies on February 6, 2024. BWCI and Fortify Rights’s investigation could not independently verify the perpetrators of the killing.

According to the witnesses, on February 5, 2024, Myanmar junta soldiers from Light Infantry Battalion 249 detained the group of seven civilians who were hiding in a small house on top of a hill. The Myanmar military POW interviewed by BWCI and Fortify Rights also confirmed that soldiers from his unit detained the civilians.

Describing the incident, a 20-year-old Karenni man who escaped after being captured together with the women and children by the Myanmar military soldiers said:

I was working in the forest in the mountains and was resting for one or two days afterward. That was the same time when the [Myanmar military] soldiers came, and I was detained. The military caught me and other women and [children].

He went on to describe what happened after the junta soldiers detained the group:

[The Myanmar soldiers] tied me up with white nylon rope. … I was worried, of course. Capture means death. … [I was] thinking, when would I die? But nothing could be done. When they first arrived and captured me, they kicked me in the head and hit me with their gun. One [soldier] took out a knife and threatened to cut my ear off.

The man explained that the soldiers forced him to walk ahead with a few soldiers, while women and children were behind with other soldiers. When the soldiers began exchanging fire with the resistance troops, he escaped. He said:

There was active shooting. Because of that, they could not capture me again, and I escaped. …When I walked a bit far in front of the military, I ran. [The children and women] were left behind. … I ran, and the rest shouted. [The soldiers] shouted that I escaped and started shooting. … I ran and didn’t look back. I could only hear the screams [of the young girls]. They were shouting, “Please let us go,” and “We want to go back home.” I heard the girls screaming. It could be when they were shot and killed. When I escaped, I went to the farming field. When I got back to the displaced camp, I met with people who released me from the tied ropes.

Although he managed to escape, his niece was among those killed.

A KA resistance fighter who was part of the battle described the scene:

We had the area surrounded, with our forces both down the hill and on top. The [junta] troops were climbing up the middle, split into two units, unaware we were there. We started firing as they climbed towards us. As soon as the fighting started, we heard women screaming and thought the [junta soldiers] had brought their families. But it turned out they were [captured] civilians.

The KA resistance fighter told BWCI and Fortify Rights how he heard screams from the battle ground, saying:

I heard [screams], but we had no idea who [the civilians] were or how they got there. Since we started the fight, we had to finish it. We couldn’t tell if we hit the children, because we were firing from far away. We couldn’t see them clearly as they were with the junta troops. We could only see the junta troops and fired at them.

He continued, saying: “During the fight, kids and moms were screaming things like, ‘Oh, my son,’ or ‘Oh, my daughter,’ frightened. We heard the junta troops ordering them to stop screaming.”

Describing the aftermath of the offensive and seeing the civilians’ dead bodies, the resistance fighter said: “We did [see the bodies] after the troops fled. … I couldn’t bring myself to check on the children I didn’t have the courage to check on the children when asked. When I saw their bodies, I couldn’t stop crying and was too scared to uncover them.”

He continued, saying:

The youngest one, a child, was found a bit away from the group and was still breathing at first. I called a medic, but the child died on the way. I didn’t know where he was shot, but the medic said he was hit in the back. He was the youngest boy [Li Reh], and I couldn’t save him.

Photographs and videos on file with BWCI and Fortify Rights show the six dead bodies, including 45-year-old Law Mae and seven-year-old Ma Nang Khin with gunshot wounds to the head.

Relatives of the women and children described the impact. One woman said, “[The military] took everything. … I don’t know what to say. I lost my sisters. My elder sister, my younger sister, my nieces.”

A 55-year-old Karenni farmer also described how Myanmar military soldiers ransacked his home during the same attack, saying: “[The soldiers] looked inside the hut to see if anyone was inside and stirred things up before heading back downstairs. We could see and hear them as they looted the house.”

When the junta soldiers arrived, the farmer hid in his uncut fields, saying, “Otherwise, we would have been exposed and potentially shot on sight.”

Starting November 11, 2023, KNDF, together with other ethnic resistance organizations, initiated “Operation 1111” to attack the Myanmar military in Karenni State. The KNDF, KA, and People Defense Forces (PDF) has liberated Demoso, Mese and Ywar Thit and Shadaw townships in Karenni State. The battle that liberated Shadaw took place between January 15 and February 12, 2024.

At the time of writing, KNDF continued to detain three junta soldiers captured during the battle in Shadaw Township.

International humanitarian law—known as the laws of war—is applicable in the situation of Karenni State, where armed conflict is taking place between the Myanmar military and armed resistance organizations including KNDF, KA, and other resistance fighters. The Geneva Conventions expressly guarantee the protection of civilians “against all acts of violence.”

On February 1, 2021, the Myanmar military launched a deadly coup d’état, killing untold numbers of civilians and imprisoning tens of thousands of others in a bid to secure nationwide political power. In February 2022, Fortify Rights released a flash report documenting how the Myanmar military massacred civilians, used human shields, and committed other atrocities in Karenni State in acts that amount to war crimes. The junta’s ongoing attack against civilians provides further evidence of crimes against humanity and war crimes.

“The IEC and NUG should work cooperatively with international accountability mechanisms to address ongoing war crimes in Karenni State,” said John Quinley, Director at Fortify Rights. “Both parties to the conflict should uphold the laws of war, including ensuring that the rights of prisoners of war are respected.”

View the original