In Myanmar, Atrocities Rise as Army Comes Under Pressure

When the soldiers of the notorious Myanmar army reached the town of Nanneint, the residents fled. Some took refuge in the basement of a nearby Buddhist monastery.

“They thought that the soldiers would not kill the monks or the people inside the monastery,” said one resident, Khun Htwe, who fled to another village.

But the monastery was not a sanctuary. On Sunday, ethnic rebels fighting Myanmar’s military regime said they had found the bullet-riddled bodies of 22 people there, massacred by the army.

A gruesome video taken by a Karenni Nationalities Defense Force fighter, posted on Facebook, shows the victims lying on the blood-smeared ground or slumped against the monastery wall, which is punctured with dozens of bullet holes. Among the dead are three monks in saffron robes.

“It looks like they were lined up and shot in the head,” Khu Ree Du, a rebel soldier who saw the bodies, said by phone.

Since the Myanmar army, which has a long history of atrocities against civilians, seized power two years ago, a resistance that began as peaceful protests has turned into an increasingly well-armed rebellion. Analysts following the conflict say the army is under pressure as the rebels gain strength and is turning to even bloodier tactics, such as the killings near Nanneint.

“Now we are talking about beheadings, disembowelments and massacres, and this clearly reflects the frustration and anger at the field level in the military,” said Anthony Davis, a Bangkok-based security analyst with Jane’s military publishing group. “It also reflects a broader strategy based on terrorizing the resistance’s civilian support base, that is, the majority of the population.”

Ye Zaw, a doctor, said Thursday that the 22 victims at the monastery had been tortured, some cut or burned with cigarettes.

Most were shot in the head at close range, said Dr. Ye Zaw, who examined the bodies for the shadow Government of National Unity, which is considered Myanmar’s legitimate government. His human rights minister, Aung Myo Min, said all the victims were civilians, calling the killings “a war crime committed by the military.”

The junta’s spokesman, Major General Zaw Min Tun, said in a statement that fighting 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.

“Wrong information was spread that the villagers were killed,” he said. The general refused to take calls from The New York Times.

The conflict now raging is a far cry from the initial resistance to the February 2021 coup. In those early months, protesters fought soldiers and police with slingshots and air pistols made from plastic tubes.

After the demonstrations were suppressed, many protesters left the cities and sided with armed ethnic groups that had fought the army for decades. Together, the ethnic armies and the more recently formed Public Defense Force now control much of the countryside, while the military controls the main urban areas.

Factories in two areas controlled by ethnic armies make assault rifles and grenade launchers, which have spread across the country, Davis said. Other weapons, including M16s and M4s, are smuggled across the border from Thailand.

Drawing on the experience of engineers and technology experts who fled into rebel-held territory, a cottage industry has sprung up to produce improvised explosive devices and adapt drones to drop explosives on enemy targets, Davis said.

“What we have seen over the past year is a marked improvement in the level of organization and weaponry now used by resistance forces,” he said. “He’s still David and Goliath, but David is looking more and more 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 the majority still live in miserable refugee camps.

During the 2021 anti-coup protests, soldiers and police shot dead protesters and bystanders, including young children. Many were shot in the head. Last October, military planes bombed a concert in Kachin state, killing 80 people.

With the Tatmadaw facing increasingly heavily armed resistance, the regime placed 40 municipalities under martial law in February, adding to the 10 he already had. The statement sent the message to the troops that anything goes, Davis said.

Since then, there has been a rise in military atrocities, including the beheading, disembowelment or dismemberment of nearly two dozen rebels and civilians this month in the 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 systematic, generalized and coordinated attacks of the military junta against the civilian population.” He held photos of the bodies in the Nanneint monastery.

But Davis said the resistance was now too large and well armed for the Tatmadaw to subdue with any further brutality.

“The military is a large and robust organization, but it is also severely understaffed and overburdened, and obviously that creates vulnerabilities,” he said. “It’s hard to see politically or militarily what else they can bring to the fight.”

Tom Andrews, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, called for a coordinated international approach to the conflict, such as the coalition supporting Ukraine against Russia’s invasion. “This is the forgotten war,” he said in an interview.

For soldiers to slaughter monks and other civilians in a monastery is a sign of the lengths the junta is willing to go to terrorize the population, Andrews said.

“They are losing ground and they understand that they are losing ground,” he said.

He quoted a leaked note from a December meeting from senior junta officials, who concluded that the resistance was out of their control and that rebel attacks would intensify this year. The document was posted online by a Burmese-language media outlet, Khit Thit Media.

According to the memo, the officials said the capabilities of the resistance forces had grown so dramatically that instead of sneak attacks, they were staging artillery strikes using improvised 107mm rocket launchers. Officials also complained that they were having trouble gathering intelligence and that money budgeted to pay informants was not being spent.

“The junta’s response to their increasingly dangerous position is to redouble the brutality,” Andrews said. “What they don’t realize is that it has the opposite effect to what they intend. The determination of the people to oppose the regime is increasing.”

In a statement on Thursday condemning the Nanneint massacre, the Government of National Unity and allied groups urged the international community to impose sanctions that block the sale of jet fuel, weapons and technology to the junta.

Nanneint, a village just 50 miles east of the capital Naypyidaw, is in a part of Shan State that has largely remained under military control. During the fighting there, military planes shelled the village, said Mr. Khun Htwe, the villager. The soldiers burned some 60 houses, he said.

“The Myanmar army treats people as enemies,” he said. “The Myanmar army will kill anyone if their interests are affected.”