When the soldiers from Myanmar’s notorious army reached the village of Nanneint, the residents fled. Some took refuge in the basement of a nearby Buddhist monastery.
“They thought the soldiers wouldn’t kill monks and people inside the monastery,” said one resident, Khun Htwe, who fled to another village.
But the monastery was no sanctuary. Last Sunday, ethnic rebels fighting the military regime said they had found the bullet-riddled bodies of 22 people there, slaughtered by the army.
A gruesome video taken by a fighter with the Karenni Nationalities Defence Force, posted on Facebook, shows the victims lying on bloodstained ground or slumped against the monastery wall, which is pockmarked with dozens of bullet holes. Among the dead are three monks in saffron robes.
“It appears they were lined up and shot in the head,” Khu Ree Du, a rebel soldier who saw the bodies, said by telephone.
Since the army — which has a long history of atrocities against civilians — seized power two years ago, a resistance that began with peaceful protests has become an increasingly well-armed rebellion. Analysts who follow the conflict say the army is coming under pressure as the rebels gain strength and that it is resorting to even bloodier tactics, like the killings near Nanneint.
“Now we are talking beheadings, disembowelings and massacres, and this clearly reflects frustration and fury at field level in the military,” said Anthony Davis, a Bangkok-based security analyst with the Jane’s group of military publications.
“It also reflects a broader strategy based on terrorising the resistance’s civilian support base — which is to say, most of the population.”
Ye Zaw, a doctor, said on Thursday that all 22 victims at the monastery had been tortured, some cut or burned with cigarettes.
Most were shot in the head at close range, said Ye Zaw, who examined the bodies for the shadow National Unity Government, which considers itself Myanmar’s legitimate government. Its human rights minister, Aung Myo Min, said the victims were all civilians and called the killings “a war crime committed by the military”.
The junta’s spokesperson, Maj Gen Zaw Min Tun, said in a statement that clashes began in the Nanneint area earlier this month, when “terrorists” from outside the region took up positions and the military tried to drive them out.
“Misinformation was disseminated that villagers were killed,” he said. The general declined to take calls from The New York Times. (Story continues below)
Anti-government demonstrators armed with slingshots clash with security forces during a protest in Yangon in March 2021. The resistance is much better armed now, in some cases with sophisticated weapons smuggled in from Thailand. (Photo: The New York Times)
Resistance much better armed today
The conflict raging now is a far cry from the early resistance to the February 2021 coup. In those first months, protesters fought soldiers and police with slingshots and air guns made with plastic pipe.
After the demonstrations were crushed, many protesters left the cities and allied themselves with armed ethnic groups that had battled the military for decades. Together, the ethnic armies and the more recently formed People’s Defence Force now hold much of the countryside, while the military controls the major urban areas.
Factories in two areas held by ethnic armies manufacture assault rifles and grenade launchers, which have been spreading throughout the country, Davis said. Other weapons, including M16s and M4s, are smuggled across the border from Thailand.
Drawing on the expertise of engineers and tech experts who fled to rebel-held territory, a cottage industry has sprung up to produce roadside bombs and adapt drones to drop explosives on enemy targets, Davis said.
“What we have seen over the past year is a remarkable improvement in the level of organisation and weaponry now used by resistance forces,” he said. “It is still David and Goliath, but David is looking increasingly cocky and combative.”
The Tatmadaw, as the army is called, is perhaps most infamous for its ruthless campaign against Rohingya Muslims in 2017, which killed at least 24,000 people and drove more than 700,000 across the border into Bangladesh, where most still live in squalid refugee camps.
During the protests against the coup in 2021, soldiers and the police gunned down demonstrators and bystanders, including young children. Many were shot in the head. Last October, military jets bombed a concert in Kachin state and killed 80.
With the Tatmadaw facing an increasingly well-armed resistance, the regime placed 40 townships under martial law in February, adding to the 10 that already had been. The declaration sent troops the message that anything goes, Davis said.
Since then, there has been a surge in military atrocities, including the beheading, disembowelment or dismemberment of nearly two dozen rebels and civilians this month in Sagaing Region.
“All these crimes are not mere human rights abuses,” Myanmar’s ambassador to the United Nations, Kyaw Moe Tun, who was appointed before the coup, said in a speech to the General Assembly in New York on Thursday.
“They are part of the military junta’s systematic, widespread and coordinated attacks against the civilian population.” He held up photos of the bodies at the Nanneint monastery.
But Davis said the resistance was now too big and well armed for the Tatmadaw to bring it to heel with increased brutality.
“The military is a large and robust organisation, but it is also severely undermanned and overstretched, and obviously that creates vulnerabilities,” he said. “It is hard to see politically or militarily what more they can bring to the fight.”
'This is the forgotten war'
Tom Andrews, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, called for a coordinated international approach to the conflict, like the coalition supporting Ukraine against Russia’s invasion. “This is the forgotten war,” he said in an interview.
For soldiers to massacre monks and other civilians in a monastery is a sign of how far the junta is willing to go in terrorising the population, Andrews said.
“They are losing ground, and they understand they are losing ground,” he said.
He cited a leaked memo from a December meeting of senior junta officials, who concluded that the resistance was beyond their control and that rebel attacks would escalate this year. The document was posted online by a Burmese-language news outlet, Khit Thit Media.
According to the memo, officials said the resistance forces’ capabilities had grown so dramatically that instead of sneak attacks, they were staging artillery assaults with makeshift 107mm rocket launchers. Officials also complained they were having trouble gathering intelligence and that money budgeted to pay informants was going unspent.
“The response of the junta to their increasingly perilous position is to double down on brutality,” Andrews said. “What they don’t realise is that it has the opposite effect of what they intend. It is increasing the resolve of the people to oppose the regime.”
In a statement on Thursday condemning the Nanneint massacre, the National Unity Government and groups allied with it urged the international community to impose sanctions blocking the sale of jet fuel, weapons and technology to the junta.
Nanneint, a village just 80 kilometres east of the capital, Nay Pyi Taw, is in a part of Shan state that has largely remained under the military’s control. During the fighting there, military jets bombed the village, said Khun Htwe, the villager. Soldiers burned about 60 houses, he said.
“The Myanmar army treats the people as enemies,” he said. “The Myanmar military will kill anyone if their interests are affected.”
- This article originally appeared in The New York Times