Sunday, August 20, 2017

Villagers afraid to break silence over militia murder allegations

Activists have accused a government-backed militia in southern Shan State of responsibility for the death of an area resident on May 23.

U Aung Naing, KNG commander in chief. (Matthieu Baudey/The Myanmar Times)U Aung Naing, KNG commander in chief. (Matthieu Baudey/The Myanmar Times)

Ko Tha Lo, 33, was found dead in the Moe Bye area of Pekon township – near the border between Shan and Kayah states – on May 23. Covered in cuts, bruises and other wounds, his body was found in the kitchen of a Kayan National Guard (KNG) soldier.

Residents said it is the third death involving KNG soldiers to occur in the Moe Bye area in the past three months. None of the cases have been investigated by police, while residents are afraid to speak out publicly against the powerful militia.

Friends of the victim, who asked not to be named, said Ko Tha Lo was taken into custody by the KNG at about 7pm following a family dispute. “He was home, cooking for his daughter, when three soldiers came to take him in. We heard a lot of screams and sounds of struggle,” one told The Myanmar Times.

“He was always fighting with his father-in-law, arguing about his wife’s family sending her to work in Thailand without consulting him. His father-in-law got scared and asked the militia to deal with him.”

A cousin of Ko Tha Lo said the alarm was raised by his four-year-old daughter, who was present when he was taken. “She was the first to cry for help and tell people her father was being tortured and taken away by soldiers,” the cousin said.

KNG commander U Aung Naing confirmed that the victim was taken into custody. He described the death as a suicide. “He was very depressed, always drunk, doing drugs, constantly crying over his wife leaving him. He bothered everyone, so we tried to reason with him. During the night he escaped, fell and knocked himself on a wall. It is clear he committed suicide and the family knows.”

Ko Tha Lo’s father said that he believed his son committed suicide due to depression and alcohol abuse.

However, wounds on the body indicate otherwise. Several witnesses also reported seeing Ko Tha Lo tied up at a KNG barracks in Pwe Kon 3 quarter, which is home to the group’s headquarters. He was allegedly caught trying to escape and was beaten by five men.

While residents in the area initially confirmed this, they later changed their story and insisted it was suicide.

Activist Ko Kah Lee Staw, a member of the local activist group Kayan New Generation Youth (KNGY), said they were afraid of the KNG.

“We can’t be satisfied with their story because there is no evidence,” he said. “Everyone here is scared of the KNG – no one dares to talk.”

Both the KNGY and prominent Kayan activist Ko Bedhu said police were ignoring the death.

“A man was tortured and killed and no one investigated the cause of death. No medical staff saw the body. We want the culprits to be brought to justice. Rule of law has to be established here,” the group said in a statement.

Ko Bedhu said that the KNG had been allowed to operate with impunity in the area, and its soldiers had been linked to three deaths in the past three months.

“The people here are subjected to human rights abuses and local authorities just close their eyes. The KNG has the weapons, so even the police avoid dealing with them,” he said.

The KNG, a breakaway group from the Kayan New Land Party, was formed in 1992. They transformed into a pro-government militia in 1993. Despite having just 100 men under arms, the KNG unofficially rules the Moe Bye area, running profitable business like sawmills and construction firms.

While KNG commander U Aung Naing said meetings are being held to discuss these recent killings, civil society groups said there had so far been no dialogue.

Regardless, he said his organisation had no questions to answer over Ko Tha Lu’s death. “As long as the families are satisfied, there is no problem.”