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19 civilians massacred by junta forces in Sagaing region

Military junta soldiers massacred 19 civilians in two townships in northwest Myanmar’s Sagaing region after detaining them, residents said, in the latest slaughter of civilians in the country’s nearly three-year civil war.

Piles of corpses of all 19 people were discovered on Sunday near the Five Mile bus terminal located at the convergence of Kawlin, Wuntho and Pinlebu townships, local residents told Radio Free Asia.

The dead had lived in Wuntho township and Kawlin township, both of which had been seized by anti-regime People’s Defense Forces, or PDFs, made up of ordinary people who have taken up arms against the junta, which took control of the country in a February 2021 coup d’etat.

Junta soldiers, already pushed back by recent advances by rebel groups, have resorted to brutality to stop residents from providing support to the PDF, residents said.

The military column that killed the civilians was headed from Paungbyin township to Kawlin and Wuntho townships, resistance forces and residents said. 

They were found dead on the night of Jan. 5, the same day of their arrest, residents said, though Radio Free Asia has not yet been able to confirm the deaths with the ruling military council.  

Displaced civilians from Kawlin township in northwestern Myanmar’s Sagaing region are seen Nov. 2, 2023. (Kawlin Info)
Displaced civilians from Kawlin township in northwestern Myanmar’s Sagaing region are seen Nov. 2, 2023. (Kawlin Info)

The shadow National Unity Government has been operating Kawlin township’s administrative, legislative and commercial sectors since resistance forces captured the township on Dec. 3, 2023. 

In coordination with Operation 1027, a series of defensive attacks by an alliance of three ethnic armies in northern Shan state launched on Oct. 27, joint forces comprising the Kachin Independence Army and local PDFs have captured Kawlin, Mawlu, Khampat and Shwepyiaye towns in Sagaing region.

Signs of atrocities

The bodies of five residents from Kawlin, whose hands and feet were tied, were collected and buried on Sunday, according to an official from the local PDF. 

The bodies were those of a father and two sons, female rice merchant Khin Sein, and driver Tun Phaw Hlaing, he said. The adults were between the ages of 30 and 50.  

“One of the five bodies we took away yesterday had been shot many times in the abdomen very closely,” said the official who declined to be named to ensure his safety. “Another body was found with serious injury to the head.”

Some 5.56-millimeter cartridges made by Myanmar’s military defense industry were found near the bodies, he said. 

RFA could not reach junta spokesman Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun or Sai Nai Nai Kyaw, the spokesperson for Sagaing’s ethnic affairs minister, for the comment on the massacre. 

Junta forces attacked civilians in Kawlin and Wuntho townships to try to recapture Kawlin township from the local PDF, said a Wuntho resident on condition of anonymity.

“They have threatened the locals with killing possible informants of the resistance forces when they advanced on Kawlin,” the person said. 

Civilians displaced by fighting in Myanmar are seen on the move in Salingyi township, Sagaing region, Nov. 26, 2023. (RFA)
Civilians displaced by fighting in Myanmar are seen on the move in Salingyi township, Sagaing region, Nov. 26, 2023. (RFA)

Kyaw Win, the UK-based executive director of the Burma Human Rights Network, said the mass killings of civilians is a war crime and a crime against humanity.

“Military troops have also committed similar crimes across the country,” he said.

Women and children

Deadly attacks by junta soldiers have taken their toll on civilian women and children in Myanmar. 

In December alone, nearly 40 women and children lost their lives, with most killed by airstrikes, artillery shells and gunshots, according to the Burmese Women’s Union. 

Of the 33 women killed, 22 had been arrested by the military junta, the women’s rights umbrella organization said. The women who died in the attacks included six in Sagaing region, six in Rakhine state, four in Mandalay region, two in Mon state, three in Magway, four in Bago region, four in Shan state, three in Kayin state and one in Chin state.

“A total of 15 women died during bombardments in December, 17 women were killed by artillery shelling, and one died from a gunshot,” said Wai Wai Myint, an official from the Burmese Women’s Union. 

Six children between the ages of 1 and 7 years old died in airstrikes by junta forces, including three in Sagaing’s Paungbyin town, one in the region’s Pale township, and two in Nyaunglebin township in Bago region. 

Aye Myint Aung Aung, a leading member of the Women Alliance Burma, a group that emerged from protests following the 2021 coup, said women and children are not safe in conflict-torn areas of Myanmar.

“The military council will show no mercy to any civilians, and has targeted them,” she told RFA. “Along routes [traveled by] military columns, they raped and killed women. These soldiers did not even have compassion for the children.”

RFA could not reach a spokesman for the junta for comment on women and children casualties. 

In all of 2023, nearly 400 women were killed and over 540 were arrested by the military council, according to the Burmese Women’s Unions.

Translated by Aung Naing for RFA Burmese. Edited by Roseanne Gerin and Malcolm Foster.