Two more people have died under suspicious circumstances while undergoing interrogation by security forces in Myanmar, bringing to 32 the total number of such deaths since the military seized power in a coup d’état six months ago.
In nearly all the cases, authorities have blamed the deaths on COVID-19, despite markings on the bodies of decedents that are consistent with torture. Family members have also been given limited access to view the remains of their loved ones before they are cremated or buried.
The latest to die in police custody was Htet Ko Oo, who was arrested on July 19 in connection with the bombing of the Shwe Nandaw (Golden Palace) jewelry shop in Myanmar’s largest city Yangon. The July 8 incident was the second in less than a month targeting a business owned by Thet Thet Khine, the junta’s minister for social welfare, relief and resettlement.
According to Burma VJ, a website formed by a group of citizen journalists that documents human rights abuses by Myanmar’s military, Htet Ko Oo died on July 31 after being severely beaten during an interrogation session. The website said that authorities never informed his family members of his death and that they only learned of it after seeing a report on social media.
RFA was unable to contact Htet Ko Oo’s family for comment on Tuesday.
Lan Ko Thang, a resident of Sagaing region’s Kalay township, was arrested along with a friend on July 29 while returning home from the Chinese border, where he had labored as a migrant worker for nearly a year. Police had set up a checkpoint to control the spread of the coronavirus following a surge in cases in China and claimed to have “found weapons” on him after stopping the bus he was riding on for an inspection.
Lan Ko Thang died a day after his arrest at an area interrogation center and his family was informed that the cause of death was COVID-19, even though his body exhibited signs of heavy trauma, a relative told RFA’s Myanmar Service, speaking on condition of anonymity citing fear of reprisal.
“When we asked how he died, the military said he died of COVID, but our brother had a lot of injuries all over his body,” said the relative.
“There was a big wound on his head and one of his legs and one of his arms were broken. There were beating marks on his back and leg. There were also marks on his neck, as if he had been strangled. We are furious.”
RFA was unable to verify police reports that Lan Ko Thang was armed, but a resident of Kalay called him “calm and quiet,” adding that it was “totally impossible” that he would have had any weapons on him.
Lan Ko Thang is the fifth person to die from suspected torture while in custody in Kalay since the military ousted Myanmar’s National League for Democracy (NLD) government in a Feb. 1 coup. Government troops have engaged in a major offensive in the region with members of the People’s Defense Force (PDF) militia, formed to protect the public from the military.
A resident of Kalay, who declined to be named, said the rise in arrests and deaths from torture during interrogation has made residents “very insecure.”
“These days, many houses are being raided and people are being arrested. It’s not safe even on the streets in the afternoon. People are always scared,” they said.
“I don’t know where [the troops] are getting all their information. They search any house they want without a warrant. Most of those arrested were kept in detention without any reason. Troops have been stationed at the city gates for some time. People have been arrested there too.”
Veteran lawyer Kyee Myint told RFA that any death that occurs during an interrogation should be considered wrongful and families of victims are entitled to file a lawsuit seeking compensation. Family members have said they were unaware of how to file a complaint against the military and questioned what kind of justice they could expect if they did.
On Feb. 1, the military overthrew Myanmar’s democratically elected government, claiming voter fraud had led to a landslide victory for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party in the country’s November 2020 election. The junta has yet to provide evidence of its claims and has violently suppressed nationwide demonstrations calling for a return to civilian rule, killing 946 people over the past six months.
Last month, the family members of those killed or maimed by junta soldiers urged the Netherlands-based International Criminal Court (ICC) to prosecute those responsible for the death or dismemberment of their loved ones. They say the military’s leadership must be held to account for its actions, which they believe fall under the court’s jurisdiction according to its founding treaty, the Rome Statute.
Under the statute, the ICC can accept cases related to four main crimes—genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes of aggression. The actions by the junta would most likely fall under crimes against humanity—which include murder, rape, imprisonment, enforced disappearances, and torture as part of a large-scale attack against any civilian population.
Aung Myo Min, human rights minister for the shadow National Unity Government (NUG), recently told RFA that torturing someone to death and not providing the actual cause of death is “a grave violation” of a person’s right to life.
He said the NUG is systematically collecting data on extrajudicial killings and plans to bring the perpetrators to justice at the ICC.
Before the ICC will investigate a case, the Office of the Prosecutor must determine whether there is sufficient evidence of crimes of sufficient gravity falling within the ICC’s jurisdiction, whether there are genuine national proceedings, and whether opening an investigation would serve the interests of justice and of the victims.
After gathering evidence and identifying a suspect, the prosecution requests that the ICC judges issue an arrest warrant or summons against a suspect and—based on summations presented by the prosecution, the Defense, and the Legal representative of victims—the judges decide if there is enough evidence for the case to go to trial.
Attempts by RFA to contact junta spokesman Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun for comment went unanswered Tuesday.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.