Government troops in Myanmar are using civilians as human shields in clashes with anti-junta militias in Kayah state, according to family members of detainees and human rights groups, who said such tactics are increasingly used against residents of areas that have demonstrated support for the military’s opponents.
A photo of a group of men being led along a road, blindfolded and with their hands tied, recently went viral on social media in Myanmar.
According to the Karenni Human Rights Group, the photo shows 19 residents of Ka-the village in Shan state’s Pekhon township who were abducted by the military on Oct. 28 “to be used as human shields” in neighboring Kayah state.
“The photo was taken by a soldier and posted on social media,” Banyar, the group’s director, told RFA’s Myanmar Service on Wednesday.
“During an operation, they arrested people they found in the villages and took them away with them. It’s clear that the military is using civilians as human shields, as they are in constant fear of being ambushed.”
Banyar said that the military has an encampment on a hill west of nearby Shwe Pyay Aye village from where soldiers have been “firing heavy weapons almost daily” and suggested that the men might have been taken there.
“As far as we know, there were only 19 villagers [abducted],” he said.
Residents of Pekhon township told RFA that the military and Karenni armed groups have repeatedly clashed in the area since Oct. 26. They said more than 400 inhabitants of Ka-the had since fled the village and that the 19 men in the photo had been among “only a few elderly people behind.”
One resident whose family member had gone missing told RFA she only learned he had been abducted when she recognized him in the photo. She said his whereabouts remain unknown.
“When we left [Ka-the village], he remained with my grandmother—my husband’s grandmother,” said the woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisal.
“She is more than 90 years old and could not go anywhere. We found out he was taken away only after we saw the picture.”
A member of the Karenni National Defense Force militia told RFA that junta troops from the military’s 66th, 77th, and 88th divisions are conducting operations against Karenni armed groups, including the Karenni Army and the local branch of the People’s Defense Force (PDF). The units that abducted the villagers were from the 88th Brigade, the person said.
A PDF fighter who declined to be named said members of his group attempted to intercept a convoy that included the 19 detainees on Oct. 28 but were forced to abandon the operation when they saw that the men had been placed in the lead to act as human shields.
“They forced the men to lead so that if we attacked, they would be hit,” the fighter said. “Our ethnic armed groups are in the area, but we could not attack them and so the villagers are still being held.”
Banyar of the Karenni Human Rights Group said that the abduction of the 19 men marks the fourth time villagers were detained and used as human shields in Kayah state.
Some were released “on bail” by the military but “dare not talk about what had happened to them,” he said.
The detainees were also subjected to human rights abuses, such as “beatings” and “starvation,” while in captivity, according to their family members.
When asked about reports of civilians being used as human shields by the military, junta spokesman Maj. Gen. Zam Min Tun told RFA that “media outlets and so-called PDFs have made fake claims in various ways.”
He suggested that PDF groups and ethnic armed organizations are the ones using unlawful tactics by carrying out attacks on security forces in the area and “using nearby monasteries and schools for cover.”
“When there are deaths in the military, they say they killed them, but when they suffer casualties, they say the victims were villagers,” Zaw Min Tun said.
According to the Karenni Human Rights Group, a total of 88 civilians have been killed by the military in Kayah state since the military seized power from Myanmar’s democratically elected National League for Democracy government in a Feb. 1 coup.
Nine months after the takeover, security forces have killed 1,233 civilians and arrested at least 7,012 nationwide, according to the Bangkok-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners—mostly during crackdowns on anti-junta protests.
Evidence for international court
Human rights activist Nikky Diamond told RFA that local organizations need to gather evidence of the junta’s war crimes for international arbitration.
“Those who commit war crimes can be prosecuted at the International Criminal Court,” he said of The Hague-based tribunal.
“Human rights groups should learn how to gather valid evidence of human rights violations for domestic courts and international tribunals.”
The ICC is the only international criminal tribunal that can prosecute individuals convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity. In order for the ICC to prosecute human rights abuses by a military or government, the country must be a signatory to the Rome Statute.
The Rome Statute, which established the ICC, was signed on July 1, 2002, and currently has 123 member states. Forty-two countries, including Myanmar, have yet to sign the treaty.
Sources say that when the military conducts an operation in an area where it believes residents are supporting the PDF, its troops typically burn down villages and arrest the people who live there.
Human rights groups say rights abuses such as arresting locals and using them as human shields regularly take place throughout Myanmar.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
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