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Myanmar's military junta massacred teenagers, mutilated their bodies and burned down homes as they raided Myin Thar village last week in their campaign to quell a renewed pro-democracy uprising, eyewitnesses told The Telegraph.
Deadly violence has escalated once again over the past week in Myanmar, seven months after a sudden military coup. It follows a public call last Tuesday by a shadow government for a nationwide revolt or “people’s defensive war” against military rule.
Two days later, soldiers on motorbikes descended on Myin Thar, in the country’s central Magway region, hunting for the improvised armed resistance groups that have sprung up across the Southeast Asian nation’s villages and towns in recent months.
As they began torching homes and firing heavy artillery, villagers fled to the surrounding forests, protected by a small group of volunteers, including teenage boys, who remained behind to hold the troops back. They were armed with homemade rifles that malfunctioned in the rain.
Daw Nu Ma, 45, escaped with her 12-year-old son, while her eldest, Thet Tun Aung, 17, vowed to defend the village alongside friends he had known from kindergarten. “He said the junta’s soldiers would come and kill us if he didn’t go,” she said.
But when she later called his phone from her hiding place, a soldier answered. “Then I knew for sure that my son is dead,” said the devastated mother.
The teenager, a gifted biology student, had been her pride and joy. “When my son passed 10th grade, I had high expectations. Now that my son is dead, all hope is gone,” she said. “That day I was running into the forest with my young son in my arms, and my eldest son was dying by the stream.”
Thousands of civilians have been forced to take shelter in pitiful conditions in jungles as the army steps up its assaults on ethnic militia groups in borderlands and against a growing patchwork of “people’s defence forces” (PDFs) that have formed in urban areas since the February coup.
For decades, the military has unleashed its ruthless tactics against ethnic minorities, and has been linked to alleged crimes against humanity during its crackdown on the Rohingya community in Rakhine State in 2017.
Now, the same extreme violence is being inflicted on a much wider section of the population.
In Myin Thar, eyewitnesses spoke of troops chasing down villagers on motorbikes, mutilating children and tying up and beating old people who were too sick to run. Up to 20 people were reported to have been killed.
One resident, U Myo San, 45, said his 16-year-old nephew Nyein Sithu was among the young people who died.
“I have to grind my teeth with anger. The corpses of children are not good to look at, everything is disfigured,” he said.
“We turned one of the children's dead bodies and there was nothing left in his head, his brains were falling out. Most children are disfigured. Some of their intestines were falling out, and bones were broken,” he said of the harrowing aftermath of the carnage.
The recovery of their loved ones’ bodies had been made even more terrifying by the prospect that soldiers could have booby-trapped them with landmines, he said.
“We were afraid because we knew that they might plant landmines under corpses.When we went to pick up them up we went one by one, the next person followed in the footsteps of the one who was in front.”
Fearing the return of the troops, the villagers were left with little choice but to put the bodies on an open log pyre and burn them.
The Telegraph contacted the military for comment.
The junta’s brutality, which has claimed close to 1,100 lives since February, does not appear to have deterred Myanmar’s people in their push to restore the country’s fledgling democracy.
The resistance movement was further buoyed last week by a video appeal by the National Unity Government – a shadow government set up by pro-democracy leaders – for armed insurgency.
The video by Duwa Lashi La, the NUG’s acting president, went viral on social media as he urged civil servants to strike, ethnic armed groups and militias to target the regime’s assets and security forces, and for soldiers to defect.
"This revolution is a just revolution. A necessary revolution for building a peaceful country and an establishment of a federal union," he said.
The NUG has indicated its call is a last resort after its more peaceful overtures failed to make headway.
The shadow government, which includes MPs ousted by the coup, is struggling to secure international recognition as the legitimate representatives of Myanmar. Its envoy to the United Nations is still fighting a junta bid to unseat him as the General Assembly gets underway.
But the move appears to have unsettled pro-democracy allies like the UK and US. “We strongly condemn the junta's coup & brutality; we call on all parties to engage in dialogue. Further violence will harm vulnerable communities,” tweeted Pete Vowles, the UK ambassador designate to Myanmar.
“Violence is the cause of the suffering of the people of Myanmar, it is not the solution,” said Chris Sidoti, a member of the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar, a panel of international experts. “We empathise with the NUG, but we fear for what will happen as a result of this decision.”
But in an interview, he said the NUG position was a reflection of the low-level violence that had already been occurring for months and a sign of its “intense frustration” at not being able to engage the military in dialogue and “not getting any meaningful support” from the international community.
“At the very least, the people of Myanmar were entitled to expect that there would be a resolution from the United Nations Security Council and an imposition of an arms embargo on the military. That has not come,” he said.
Experts say there has been an uptick of violence on both sides, with reports of firefights between PDF forces and troops, the bombing of offices and assets linked to the junta and targeted killings of suspected informers and regime officials.
“They [NUG] do still have codes of conduct that hold for the engagement of PDF forces against military forces, mandating they can’t attack unarmed civilians or use torture,” said Hunter Marston, a Canberra-based Southeast Asia specialist.
“I think it’s clear that they are trying to distinguish this from the military’s mode of combat, the emphasis being on the word defensive,” he said.
The NUG’s battle cry was intended to “send a signal of morale to the people who have been under attack for so many months but also to encourage defections,” he added.
According to the US-ASEAN Business Council in early September, the number of military defections had doubled over the last month, reaching 1,500 from about 800 in June.
Captain Tun Myat Aung, was one such defector who switched sides after being sickened by the violence. “Soldiers no longer see the people as people...Whether people are protesting or in an armed rebellion, they are seen as destroying the state,” he said. “What [the army] is doing is a war crime.”