(New York) – Myanmar authorities should independently investigate the killing of detainees held by the military in Rakhine State, Human Rights Watch said today. On May 2, 2019, army soldiers shot and killed at least six villagers from among several hundred who had been detained in Kyauk Tan, Rathedaung township, for suspected links to the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine armed group.
On May 5, the military said that it had created a team of five officers that has been investigating the incident since May 3. However, the Myanmar army has a long history of failing to effectively or credibly investigate alleged abuses by its own forces, rarely holding military personnel accountable.
“The Myanmar military concedes that they killed six villagers that they were holding in Rakhine State, but only a genuinely independent investigation will get to the bottom of what happened,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “An independent and impartial investigation is needed to bring to justice anyone responsible for wrongdoing.”
Fighting between the Myanmar military and Arakan Army has displaced over 33,000 people in Rakhine and Chin States since November 2018. The media have reported that the army has detained scores of people during military operations.
On the morning of April 30, soldiers rounded up about 275 villagers in Kyauk Tan – all men and boys between the ages of 15 and 50 – on suspicion of involvement with the Arakan Army, according to media reports. The men and boys were detained in a local schoolhouse for two days of interrogation, with some reports that they were denied food and water.
The shooting of those in custody occurred at about 2 a.m. on May 2, with conflicting accounts about what triggered the violence. The military said that some of the detainees converged on the soldiers in an attempt to take their weapons, and that shots were fired only after other measures failed. “We warned them verbally,” said a military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Zaw Min Tun. “Then we fired warning shots into the air to disperse the group but they didn’t move, so shots were fired.” Zaw Min Tun stated that “security forces acted according to section 131 of the Penal Code,” which covers the crime of “abetting mutiny, or attempting to seduce a soldier, sailor, or airman from his duty.”
Injured detainees reported that soldiers began shooting into the group after one detainee started yelling and ran off. “The accusation that villagers tried to take the guns is impossible because they have been heavily guarded while being detained and denied food and water,” said Tun Aung Kyaw, general secretary of the Arakan National Party, which sent a letter to the government, military, and Myanmar human rights commission requesting action on the attack and protection for civilians.
The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, which includes military personnel, states that “intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.” The Basic Principles further provide that “in cases of death and serious injury or other grave consequences, a detailed report shall be sent promptly to the competent authorities.”
The media reported that over 300 troops arrived in the area after the shooting and denied entry to aid workers and community leaders who arrived at the school to provide medical assistance and retrieve the bodies. “The aid groups have not been allowed to visit the scene for now to prevent unwanted confusion,” Brig. Gen. Zaw Min Tun told Radio Free Asia on the day of the shootings. “When they finish the announcements and interrogations, they will allow the aid groups to come in.”
At least eight villagers were injured in the shooting. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Myanmar Red Cross were eventually allowed to help transfer the wounded to hospitals, including three people with severe injuries to Sittwe General Hospital and two others to Rathedaung Township Hospital. The military announced it released 126 of the detainees from the school compound on the morning of May 3, and an additional 48 on May 6, while about 80 remain in custody.
The shooting occurred several weeks after another incident of deaths in military custody. On April 10, the military raided the village of Let Kar in Mrauk U township and detained 27 people for questioning about alleged ties to the Arakan Army. By April 22, three of the men were dead, attributed to “heart failure” by a military-owned newspaper and followed by a swift cremation by security forces, according to a media account. Authorities contested allegations that the men were tortured, yet have refused to investigate the deaths. The 24 others detained from Let Kar remain detained in Sittwe, though any charges have not been disclosed, and their families have not been permitted to see them.
Fighting between the military and Arakan Army has escalated since early January, following a coordinated attack on four Border Guard Police posts by the Arakan Army that killed 13 police officers. In response, the president’s office instructed the military to “crush the terrorists” and classified the Arakan Army as a terrorist organization. The military has held suspected Arakan Army supporters under the vaguely worded Unlawful Associations Act and Counter-Terrorism Act.
Under international human rights law, Myanmar has an obligation to investigate deaths in custody and to hold those responsible to account. Despite numerous credible reports by the UN, Human Rights Watch and other nongovernmental organizations, and the media on unlawful killings and other serious abuses by the Myanmar army, authorities have convicted soldiers in only one case in Rakhine State for abuses committed since late 2017. In April 2018, a military court sentenced seven soldiers to 10 years in prison for their role in the execution of 10 ethnic Rohingya in Inn Din village.
Rights monitors and journalists have been restricted from Rakhine State since the military opened its campaign of mass atrocities against the Rohingya population in October 2016 and August 2017, in effect banning independent investigations into ongoing abuses.
“The killings in Kyauk Tan should not be the latest deaths of villagers in Myanmar that are not seriously investigated,” Adams said. “Governments concerned about the military’s atrocious record on accountability should press Myanmar’s authorities to independently uncover what happened and give the families of those killed both the answers and justice they deserve.”