The leader of an anti-junta paramilitary force in Myanmar’s Sagaing region on Friday confirmed reports that his group had killed 10 people in a November incident and vowed to accept responsibility if an inquiry launched by the shadow National Unity Government (NUG) finds him accountable.
The statement by Boh Thanmani, the leader of a People’s Defense Force (PDF) group in Sagaing’s embattled Yinmabin township, prompted calls for the NUG to conduct a thorough and transparent probe of the matter to avoid confusion over the role of self-styled prodemocracy paramilitaries who claim to be protecting civilians from the military regime’s troops in Myanmar’s remote border regions.
In a letter dated March 14, another anti-junta group calling itself the “Local Defense Force” (LDF) claimed that Yinmabin PDF fighters had killed 21 residents of the area since October 2021, including ten of its members during one incident in November.
An investigation into the claims by RFA’s Myanmar Service confirmed the killings in November, which sources in the area said were carried out by three Yinmabin PDF members, although their names and ranks were not immediately clear.
The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said a joint force of fighters from the two groups had collaborated to plant a landmine ambush for junta troops in Kani township’s Lar Poet village, but the explosive went off prematurely and nearly killed members of the PDF. The PDF then arrested the four LDF members involved in the joint force, and when an LDF leader and five of his fighters went to free them, the PDF killed them and the four detainees to “get rid of the evidence,” they said.
RFA could not independently confirm the other 11 killings alleged in the LDF letter and was unable to contact the families of the victims.
In response to inquiries by RFA, several PDF groups in the area claimed in a joint statement that “13 people, including Boh Thanmani” were responsible for the 10 deaths in November. The names of the other dozen alleged perpetrators were not provided.
Boh Thanmani is a former monk named Ashin Sopaka who was known for his anti-military protests in recent years. After Myanmar’s military seized power in a Feb. 1, 2021 coup, Ashin Sopaka renounced his monkhood and adopted the alias to become a leader of the PDF.
When contacted by RFA, Boh Thanmani confirmed the claims in the LDF letter and said he is fully cooperating with the NUG’s investigation of the killings.
“This incident took place in November last year. Some of these things happen without the knowledge of the leaders. Directives have now been issued to prevent such incidents in future,” he said.
“If these cases are proved to [involve murder], the perpetrators will be held accountable and will be punished. But this will only work if there is a proper, systematic investigation after the revolution.”
No rule of law
Since the February 2021 coup, junta forces have killed at least 1,687 civilians and arrested nearly 9,800, mostly during peaceful protests of military rule, according to the Bangkok-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP). The military has launched several offensives against PDF paramilitary groups and ethnic armies in the country’s border regions, and reports have surfaced of junta troops looting and burning villages, arbitrarily detaining noncombatants, and raping and killing civilians.
Boh Thanmani said that there is little that can be done while the junta remains in power because there is no rule of law in effect amid the political chaos.
“Even if one is to be imprisoned, which prison are we going to? There is no prison for us yet,” he said.
The former monk told RFA that no leader of the Yinmabin PDF had given an order to kill the 10 LDF members in November and said his group “even provide[s] proper care to prisoners captured during engagements.”
“Some comrades from the lower ranks might have lost their temper and committed the killings. These kinds of crimes can happen during wartime,” he said.
“I have agreed to face the consequences if I’m found guilty under the law and given a jail sentence.
NUG commission of inquiry
When asked about the killings, NUG Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Defense Naing Htoo Aung told RFA that a commission of inquiry had been set up online to investigate the murder in December last year, and that its findings were presented to NUG Interim President Duwah L’Sheila and Prime Minister Manh Win Khaing Than on Thursday.
“According to the commission, there may have been some arbitrary arrests and activities,” he said.
“We will continue to take the necessary steps to ensure that justice is done in accordance with the law. Even though it’s a revolutionary period for the NUG at present, if there are any violations of the law, we will act in accordance with the law. We will continue to adhere to the principle of accountability.”
He said he was unsure whether the NUG plans to issue a statement on the commission’s inquiry into the killings.
Naing Htoo Aung’s comments came days after United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet warned that Myanmar is “caught in a downward spiral of violence” in her first report to the U.N. Human Rights Council since the coup, citing reports of military abuses she said, “may amount to crimes against humanity.”
But the report also noted that since the NUG announced the formation of the PDF as a forerunner to a “Federal Democratic Armed Forces” in May 2021, there have been “reports of hundreds of targeted killings of individuals perceived as being pro-military, for most of which no party claimed responsibility.”
It noted that while several iterations of a NUG-issued code of conduct for PDFs contain provisions based on international standards, including the Geneva Conventions, “serious long-standing issues … including forced recruitment, child recruitment and landmine use by anti-[junta] actors, continue to be reported.”
Bachelet cited reports that, since May, 543 individuals have been killed because of their alleged support for the military, including 166 local administrators or their family members, 47 members of the pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party, and 214 purported military informants.
“It is not possible to attribute most of those deaths to particular actors, but anti-coup armed elements claimed responsibility for 95 incidents,” her report said.
Call for accountability
The killings in November mark the first confirmed “massacre” by a local PDF group since the NUG announced the formation of the paramilitary organization last year.
Than Soe Naing, a political analyst, told RFA that the junta is likely to use the incident as propaganda against the PDF, which it refers to as a terrorist organization that is responsible for many of the reported abuses attributed to the military in Myanmar’s border regions.
He called on the NUG to thoroughly and transparently investigate the incident to ensure that it does not negatively impact the image of the anti-junta resistance at home or abroad.
“This case could cause division among the ranks of the PDFs. The NUG’s image could also be severely tarnished if Western diplomats and lawyers question why such extrajudicial killings are being carried out – acts not unlike those by the junta’s security forces,” he said.
“I hope that the NUG government will address this issue effectively and decisively. If they don’t do that, there will be misunderstandings, not only domestically but also internationally.”
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