Months after they narrowly escaped being murdered by junta-aligned soldiers, Ko Aung Aung* and Ko Moe Kyaw* still bear gruesome scars across their necks. Yet they are the lucky ones, two among three survivors of extrajudicial killings carried out by the Shanni Nationalities Army that saw five others murdered on a single night in Kachin state’s Se Zin village.
In all, a group of approximately 100 people arrested en masse in Se Zin last year are believed to have been killed by security forces between August 2022 and January 2023 while others died due to horrific prison conditions, according to local rights monitors, a witness, and the accounts of the two survivors who spoke with RFA.
The detainees ranged in age from a 14-year-old boy to a 67-year-old man. All were arrested in August 2022, following a raid in Se Zin in which junta soldiers razed hundreds of homes.
Ko Aung Aung’s and Ko Moe Kyaw’s unlikely survival offers a unique window into the lawlessness that has become a norm under the military regime.
“When we arrived at the scene, we were forced to sit on our haunches. Then I heard sounds of hitting and [people] falling down together with stones. We were being killed. I thought they were beating us, but I did not think they were cutting throats,” Ko Aung Aung told RFA months later.
The rare accounts also shed light on extrajudicial murders, which campaigners say is a matter of increasing concern with nearly 20,000 people currently in custody in prisons across the country.
“The Se Zin incident is extremely horrible. It is an international crime,” said a Kachin analyst who has researched the incident and corroborated the accounts shared by the two survivors. He asked not to be named for fear of his safety.
“It is just one example and many similar incidents are happening. It is because the violators of human rights are repeatedly unpunished and they have enjoyed impunity.”
‘They came in and beat us with iron sticks’
In early 2022, Ko Aung Aung arrived in Kachin state’s Se Zin village looking for work. The 39-year-old hoped the gold mines of Hpakant township might provide the subsistence wages he had struggled to find in his native Sagaing region.
Ko Moe Kyaw, 23, had arrived around the same time and for much the same reason. Like Ko Aung Aung, he found work at a gold mine digging the earth.
The two were among the hundreds of thousands who work in the gold, jade and rare earth mines that dot this mineral-rich land.
But the jobs come with no small risk. Mine collapses are common, as are landslides, and the environmental and health costs are steep. The dangers lie outside of the mines, too. Kachin state has always been among the most lawless parts of Myanmar, with gangs, militias and the government’s military forces vying for the region’s wealth.
Since the coup, such fighting has only intensified, and post-coup clashes between the military and those against its rule, such as the People’s Defense Force, have added a new level of chaos.
Starting in July 2022, weeks of fighting between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) against junta forces and their allies in Hpakant township resulted in thousands of displaced civilians. After the KIA and PDF seized both a junta camp and SNA military camp, the junta launched airstrikes on Se Zin village and set fire to more than 400 homes.
At least 15 people were killed, and the military detained some 400 people in and around Se Zin — rounding them up in a monastery where they were questioned about their ties to the anti-junta forces.
Approximately 100 of them were then brought to the local police station.
“When we arrived at the police station, we were forced to lie face down and beaten. They asked us whether we had connections with the PDF and when we said no, they beat us again. After putting us in the cell, they came in and beat us with iron sticks,” Ko Aung Aung recounted.
The intervening months brought worsening horrors. Though RFA can not corroborate their accounts, the survivors said they were treated brutally, given scant food and only one liter of water each day to split among 10 prisoners. Ko Moe Kyaw and Ko Aung Aung said they shared a small cell with 13 others, four of whom died of fever in the months after their arrest. Two others were allegedly killed by police in December, including a 14-year-old who was beaten with a stick until his shinbone protruded from his skin.
The four who died in custody were taken away by a car and thrown into the Uyu river, according to Ko Moe Kyaw. Other detainees who arrived later were beaten to death because there was no place for them in the police station.
All the while, men were taken from their cells each night, never to return.
Released into hell
Finally, on the night of Jan. 19, it was their turn. Ko Moe Kyaw, Ko Aung Aung and six others were pulled from their cells for interrogation and handed over to Shanni Nationalities Army forces. Unlike many other ethnic armed organizations that have long fought Myanmar’s military, the SNA has in recent years aligned itself with the junta, as it is in opposition with the KIA.
Once in the SNA soldiers’ custody, the men were tied to motorcycles and driven into the jungle.
“Our mouths were sealed with tape, our eyes were covered with cloth, and our hands were tied behind our backs by three ropes,” Ko Aung Aung recounted to RFA.
Upon arrival, they were brought to what appeared in the dark to be a ditch of sorts.
“I was forced to sit on the edge of a knoll and hit twice on the back of my head and when I fell down, my throat was cut. [A guy] sat astride me to cut my throat when I was lying on my back.”
Nearby lay Ko Moe Kyaw, who said he believed the drunkenness of the soldiers saved him from worse injury.
“They were heavily drunk, so they could not cut my throat deeply. Others fell down on their backs. I fell down in a prone position,” he told RFA.
When the soldiers departed, the three survivors took stock of their surroundings.
“One man got up first and said if you are not dead, get up. Then, one had to sit and the other stood. One took off the cloth covering his eyes and his mouth. We also cut each others’ ropes with our mouths to untie them,” said Ko Moe Kyaw. “Since we could not go anywhere, we slept beside the dead bodies that night.”
By the light of day, they discovered their would-be grave was the open pit of a former gold mine. As they sought help, Ko Aung Aung, the most seriously injured of the three, nearly passed out due to the heavy bleeding.
They made it to an undisclosed safe location, where a doctor working with the Civil Disobedience Movement, or CDM, treated their injuries.
“Each had an injury on the back of their heads. There were also cuts on their necks,” the doctor told RFA. On his Facebook page, he posted images of the men’s wounds as well as the accounts of their near-death experience.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity for security reasons, a Se Zin resident said prisoners at the police station were regularly pulled out to be murdered.
They “were killed by cutting their throats.… It was like cutting a chicken’s head off,” he said. Over the course of the months he occasionally saw others who escaped alive.
“One man’s injury was so severe that I did not dare to look at it. It was a deep cut under Adam’s apple. The other one was just beaten.”
SNA spokesperson Col. Sai Aung Mein and military spokesperson Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun could not be reached for comment while Win Ye Tun, Kachin state’s Military Council Minister for Social Affairs and spokesperson, said he had no knowledge of this incident.
A similar pattern
While the accounts shared by the two survivors cannot be fully verified, they share commonalities with war crimes recorded across Myanmar as junta soldiers utilize torture, mutilation and beheadings to terrify the civilian population.
Two videos recently obtained by RFA from a civil society group that has been recording human rights violations in Kachin state show similar atrocities being carried out by security forces.
The first video was found on the phone of an SNA soldier who was arrested by the KIA. In an interview with the civil society group, the soldier said it had been shared by his trainer.
The video shows an SNA soldier and a man in plain clothes, both armed, repeatedly stabbing two unmoving men lying on the ground.
In the background, voices can be heard giving orders in Shanni, Kachin and Burmese languages, telling the soldiers to put the knife into the heart.
Tony Loughran, a former British Special Forces medic who reviewed the footage, pointed out the fact that neither victim is struggling or shouting. The immobility of the victims, he said, led him to believe the recording showed a training session.
“They were trying to teach him to cut the jugular and the carotid here, okay. But he had the wrong angle. He was upward of the body. So he was looking to the camera for directions all the time.”
In the second video obtained by RFA, six men in plain clothes holding guns cut the throat of an unarmed man and kick him into a pit. In the video, they can be heard speaking Burmese.
Miemie Winn Byrd, a former U.S. Army officer who reviewed the footage, told RFA there could be no circumstances in which such actions by a soldier would be justified.
“This was not a military operation, but a murder. This is war crime.”