YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar soldiers killed at least five civilians in their custody last month and will be prosecuted, a senior general announced Wednesday in a rare case of the military taking responsibility for carrying out atrocities against ethnic minorities.
Head of Military Security Affairs Lt. Gen. Mya Tun Oo said at a news conference that the army is investigating the deaths of seven civilians in northern Shan State on June 25. Five were taken away by soldiers, and their battered bodies were found later in shallow graves, while two motorcyclists were killed in a separate incident for which the army has not taken responsibility.
Shan and other local activists said many people witnessed the detention of the five and the shootings. The incident occurred as the military was seeking Shan insurgents they had been battling.
Human rights groups have long accused the army of carrying out abuses of ethnic minority civilians, including torture and rape, usually while engaged in counterinsurgency campaigns in remote rural areas. However, even when the evidence is strong, the perpetrators have received little or no punishment.
Noting that those involved in the June 25 case would be tried by a military tribunal, Mya Tun Oo said the treatment of the five men found dead was "completely against military rules. We will investigate and take action. We will try to do our best for their families." Another officer told reporters the five died during "interrogation."
Rights group Amnesty International urged that the soldiers responsible be tried in a civilian court.
""This case is an important reminder of the need to reform the military and judicial systems in Myanmar," said Rafendi Djamin, Amnesty International's director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific. "Although it is important that steps are taken to ensure those responsible for serious human rights violations are held to account, military tribunals are not the solution. The authorities in Myanmar must take immediate action to ensure that human rights violators can be effectively tried before independent, civilian courts - anything less would only serve to perpetuate the cycle of impunity."
In Mong Yaw village, where the killings occurred, community activist Sai Han said: "Our lives are not secure in this region. These killings are too common here. We want the new government to end this and investigate the truth about the killings."
More than a dozen ethnic minority groups have been struggling for decades for greater autonomy from Myanmar's central government. The government of Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's party, which in March succeeded a military-backed regime, hopes to begin the process of achieving a comprehensive peace by meeting with minority leaders at a historic conference in August.