Myanmar Junta Mixes Violence With Extortion in Onslaught Against Protesters
Army-controlled media provide a death toll that is a fraction of a reputable NGO's tally.
Security forces in Myanmar are increasingly robbing and extorting money from civilians during raids to arrest suspected anti-junta protesters and striking workers, victims and witnesses told RFA.
The junta’s forces have maintained pressure on protesters with violent beatings of demonstrators opposed to the military overthrow of the democratically elected government on Feb. 1. Troops are also shaking down protesters and their families.
More than 80 people were killed in the brutal crackdown on anti-coup protesters in Bago on Apr. 9 in the deadliest incident since the coup took place. Witnesses said 57 bodies were taken away by police and soldiers who have been asking families of those killed in the Bago to pay money in return for the bodies.
“The families of victims have been asked to give 120,000 kyats [U.S. $84] if they want to get the body of someone who died in the violence,” said a volunteer social worker, who declined to give his name, in an earlier report. “But if they go there just to look at it and not ask for the body, then they are not charged any fee.”
Some people who paid money to take home bodies from the city morgue had to promise security forces that they would not mention the matter to anyone, he added.
Junta authorities in Yangon are not only asking for payments for dead bodies, but also requesting payment to release detained protesters.
One former detainee told RFA that his family had to pay 300,000 kyats (U.S. $210) in cash to authorities for his release, and then give them a 150,000-kyat bottle of liquor the next day.
“So, it turned out to be a total of 450,000 kyats,” he said, adding that police had smashed his car windshield and beat him up as they took him and others to the police station.
The former detainee also said that police forced him and the others to kneel on the station floor with their hands behind our backs while officers and soldiers kicked and beat them.
“It was lucky for us that our friends found out where we were,” he said.
Competing for stolen cell phones
Soldiers and police are also stopping motorbike drivers and checking their cell phones for photos of the protests or communication with protesters, said a homemaker in Yangon’s Thanlyin Township.
“If they don’t find anything on the phones, they asked how much money the drivers have, then they ask for it,” she said. “Many of my friends have had the same experience.”
The woman said that when she and her friends go shopping, they don’t carry much cash.
“We have to do our shopping in a hurry and go home as quickly as possible,” she said. “People do not want to face them [security forces] or talk to them at all.”
In Sagaing region’s Chaung-U township, security forces have taken cash, cell phones, jewelry, and watches from residents when ransacking their homes and destroying furniture, locals said.
A town resident said about 60 or 70 security forces entered his home in late March, arrested his mother, and beat his brother.
“They shot at the CCTV cameras and took all the money we had withdrawn from the bank — about 15 million (U.S. $1,017) in cash,” the person told RFA.
“They ransacked the house and took my father’s Rolex watches, an iPhone 10, a Samsung phone, and a few pieces of jewelry.” Security forces then arrested all the members of the family but released them the next day, he added.
In Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-largest city, soldiers compete with each other to see who can confiscate the most cell phones and motorbikes from civilians, said a resident who overheard troops talking near a downtown betel nut shop.
“‘How many phones did you get? I got four,’ one said,” according to the resident. “And the other one said, ‘I got five.’”
The resident also said that he had followed army trucks from a distance on his motorbike as the vehicles entered the town’s palace compound, which has been turned into a military base.
“In the trucks were motorcycles — expensive ones from Thailand that cost about 2 million-3 million kyats each,” he said. “I think they were coming back after a crackdown on protesters.”
Sowing confusion over death toll
Beyond shaking down civilians, the military also appears to be trying to sow confusion about the death toll from 11 weeks of protests and brutal attacks on demonstrators, with army-controlled media accusing a monitoring group of inflating casualty figures.
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a rights group based in Thailand, said as of Tuesday, 738 people had been killed in violent crackdowns, and 3,300 people had been detained by security forces.
State-owned television and newspapers, now under army control, this week reported that only 258 people were killed between Feb. 1 and April. 15, while the AAPP had a figure of 726 for the period. The junta said 247 of the 258 victims were killed when security forces fired back after being assaulted by protesters.
The Irrawaddy online news outlet quoted San Min, who is charge of documentation at AAPP, as saying that the 21-year-old outfit verifies each reported death in raids, crackdowns, interrogations, and shootings.
“We have listed the death toll thoroughly, so the numbers will never be inflated,” San Min was quoted as saying. “Actually, the numbers are believed to be higher than the recorded lists as there are many cases [in which] we don’t have information.”
RFA — which tallies reported deaths by verifying names, ages, and other details from witnesses and family members — has a count of over 700 deaths.
In a big wave of arrests on Tuesday, at least one person was killed, and more than 90 protesters were arrested during nationwide crackdowns on anti-junta demonstrations, witnesses said.
A white vehicle dumped the body of a 40-year-old man at a garbage dump near a housing complex at 6 a.m. in Mandalay’s Chanmyathazai township, where junta forces were stationed, said an aid worker who declined to give his name.
“There were cuts on the front and back of his head that must have been injuries from a rifle butt,” he said. “An X-ray showed a broken shoulder bone, while there were other multiple injuries on his back.”
“Local residents said that the body was thrown out of a white vehicle,” he said, adding that no one had claimed the remains.
Aluminum plant workers arrested
Among those arrested Tuesday, 25 were from Yangon city, 50 from Shwebo in Sagaing region, one from Kanbalu township in Sagaing region, more than 20 people from Nyaung Oo in Mandalay region, and eight from Shwepyitha township in Yangon region.
In Yangon, soldiers arrested former political prisoner Tin Maung Oo and Ni Ni, owner of the Thurein Aluminum Works in Bahan township, along with seven factory workers, including four women, witnesses said.
The soldiers surrounded the site around 11 a.m. and made the arrests. Men in bomb-disposal outfits later exploded a receptacle the size of a breadbox on the road in front of the workshop before leaving, they said.
In Shwepyitha township, seven youths were arrested by the military for throwing lit torches at a nearby police station on Monday, residents said.
But one local told RFA that there were no fires at the police station and that authorities arrested the young people without any evidence.
Groups of young protesters in the township have been continuing their demonstrations though the area is under martial law, residents said.
Security forces arrested Aung Myo Htet of the Myanmar Institute for Strategy and Policy (ISP-Myanmar) in Kanbalu township, Sagaing region, Tuesday afternoon, a relative said.
The former journalist of The Voice journal and former editor of the Thanintharyi Journal had “left his home in the village to go to a tea shop with internet access in town and got arrested,” the family member said.
It wasn’t immediately clear why Aung Myo Htet was arrested, but a tweet posted by Keren Khin said that a family member indicated that he sometimes took photos of protests.
In the Sagaing region town of Shwebo, authorities arrested at least 50 youths during a protest Tuesday, a resident said.
“Young protesters ran into the Daw Hla fish depot and escaped out the rear, but more than 20 men and women found in the depot were arrested,” he said. “In addition, nearly 20 people in a cold drinks parlor were arrested by police after their cell phones were taken and checked for photos.”
In Kani township, Sagaing region, a former member of parliament said about 8,000 people had fled their homes amid an army raid during which residents from 20 villages were arrested.
Locals said the military was conducting house-to-house searches following reports that a car and driver who rammed into protest leader Wai Moe Naing’s motorcycle was found and arrested by villagers.
More than 700 soldiers in 27 military vehicles arrived in the villages on Wednesday to search the communities, locals said.
One resident told RFA that four military vehicles entered the village and opened fire, forcing all children and senior citizens to flee.
Arrests in Mandalay
In Mandalay, soldiers raided the apartment of Dr. Tay Za San, a well-known protest leader, on Wednesday, he wrote on his Facebook page, adding that armed men dressed in plainclothes took part in the search. He has been charged under Section 505(a) of the Penal Code.
Junta forces also arrested more than 20 villagers Monday night in Mandalay’s Nyaung-U township, according to locals.
A villager said the arrests were in connection to the recent killings of a man from Mee Laung Phya North village and a man from Le Kan village.
“The body of one man was found not in the village but between Mee Laung Byar village and Nyaung-U,” he said. “The arrests are in connection with that.”
“We have two villages here, north and south,” he added. “They are still searching around, but I’m sure at least 20 were arrested from the north village today.”
The two dead men were informers working for the military, and the information they gave soldiers resulted in the earlier capture of many dissidents, they said. RFA could not confirm the reports.
Meanwhile, six men from Ganga village in Nyaung-U township were arrested by police and soldiers on Monday.
“They raided the village around 3 a.m. or 4 a.m., and six people were detained for questioning,” said one resident.
Authorities later released five of the men after they paid 120,000 kyats each, he said.
“But villagers said the NLD [National League for Democracy] village chairman was not released, and his whereabouts are unknown,” he added.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.