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Myanmar resistance fighters burned alive stokes outrage

Two young men in shackles are interrogated by armed men. As villagers look on, the men are suspended from a tree and set on fire. Their screams are heard over the flames as a unified cheer goes up among observers.

Video footage of this atrocity has gone viral in Myanmar, fueling outrage in a nation already hardened to the depravity of war after three years of increasingly bloody conflict since the Feb. 1, 2021, military coup d’etat. 

Sympathizers have circulated artwork on social media to pay tribute to the men who died, Phoe Tay, 23, and Thar Htaung, 22. The art includes symbolic images of two stars hanging from a tree under a campfire.

The video shows their deaths in graphic detail. They were captured Nov. 7, 2023, in fighting between pro-junta forces and resistance fighters at Myauk Khin Yan village in Magway region’s Gangaw township. 

According to a local official from the administration of the shadow National Unity Government, the video was taken by a villager who fled the area on Dec. 12 and Dec. 13. It’s unclear who first posted the video that began circulating widely this week.

The two young men were members of the local Yaw Defense Force that attacked positions held by junta troops at Myauk Khin Yan and then retreated when reinforcements from the pro-junta Pyu Saw Htee militia arrived, according to the YDF. The two young men were left behind after they both sustained leg wounds.

The YDF said every household in Myauk Khin Yan was told to send one person to witness the executions.

The video starts with the two young men being questioned by armed, uniformed soldiers while shackled at the legs and their hands tied behind their backs.

The video then shows them dragged in chains to a nearby tree where they are hung as a fire is set just underneath. A crowd of people in civilian clothes can be seen in the background. Sporadic laughter from people apparently located closer to the violence can can be heard in the video.

Local sources, who declined to be name for safety reasons, said Phoe Tay was a first year university student and Thar Htaung was enrolled at a secondary school. Both were apparently enrolled in the resistance force.

Radio Free Asia spoke to the father of Phoe Tay. The father, Myint Zaw, already knew of his son’s death but has not seen the video – partly because he lacks adequate internet access in his village. He voiced horror and anger. 

“Yes, it is Po Tay, my son,” Myint Zaw said. “He is gone. His life as a human is over. At that time, they were tortured. There was blood on the head. I didn’t witness it, but I learned that he was beaten on the head, beaten on the knees.”

“We could not retrieve the body. Nobody could go there because Myauk Khin Yan is the stronghold village of Pyu Saw Htee [pro-junta militia],” he said.  

Myint Zaw said of the video: “I haven’t watched it. But there are reports about it, and many people are talking about it.”

“His friends in the village are horrified by it,” he said. “People are deeply hurt. They cannot accept such an act.”

Online outrage

Since the coup three years ago, reports of torture, beheadings and burning of corpses by junta forces have become commonplace, but the graphic nature of the Nov. 7 video has triggered a wave of revulsion in Myanmar and beyond – and sympathy for the dead. 

Hundreds of people have commented on Facebook and others have posted online images and memes that feature the two young men.

“I could no longer watch that video. How merciless they were,” said Facebook user Ko Zaw, who lists himself as a resident of Kuala Lumpur. “May you two avoid such a fate in your next lives. Please have compassion with each other, Myanmar citizens.” 

Burmese social media has seen an outpouring of AI-generated art tributes to Phoe Tay and Thar Htaung after the nature of their deaths became public. (Clockwise from top left: AIMasterPieces, Christine Ang, ChanHlong, Hein Htut Aung, Crd-AungYeWin and UKhaing)

Among the social media artwork are images depicting two stars hanging from a tree, a phoenix rising from the ashes and two young men looking down into a cloud-covered valley.

“Whenever I check my phone, I see your faces, brothers,” said Facebook user and Bangkok resident Thein Lin Aung, who added that the amount of graphic photos and videos being reposted was bordering on the reckless.

“Even those without any blood relationship feel such a heavy pain,” he wrote. “Please think about their parents, families and relatives.” 

‘Justice must be sought’

RFA’s calls this week to junta spokesperson Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun for comment on the video went unanswered. 

But the junta-appointed Information Ministry claimed in a statement on Wednesday that the video was fabricated by militia groups and the two young men were killed by a rival People’s Defense Force.

“The illegal subversive media is only circulating fake news at the right time to mislead the public and the international community that the security forces are carrying out such inhumane and brutal acts of terrorism, which are being committed by the terrorists from the so-called PDFs,” the ministry said.

NUG spokesperson Nay Phone Latt told RFA that the NUG’s Ministry of Home Affairs has started building a case against the alleged perpetrators.

However, several sources told RFA that village residents have expressed their fear of identifying the culprits. After the killings, nearly 200 people fled the village because they felt threatened by Pyu Saw Htee militia members, local people said.

Gangaw township includes a significant number of supporters for the military junta and members of the Pyu Saw Htee militia, which the military has supplied with weapons and provided with training.

Aung Myo Min, the human rights minister for NUG, noted that some of the perpetrators in the video weren’t wearing a military uniform. He described the killings as “an act of evil which no human can accept … Justice must be sought for it.”  

Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for Asia, said: “There are really unknown words in humanity for the persons who did this.”

“These two men should have been handed over to the proper authority for investigation, not to be burned alive while the camera was rolling in order to produce a film intended to intimidate others,” he said.

Edited by Matt Reed and Mat Pennington.