The student, a politician, and a UK-trained dancer: Claims of torture and death in custody under Myanmar's military rule

·8-min read

The death of a 21-year-old man detained by Myanmar's security forces was likely due to "homicidal violence", a Sky News investigation has found.

Sky News has been looking into allegations of abuse in custody by authorities in the Southeast Asian country for the last three months.

More than 7,700 people have been arrested since the military seized power in February, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners Burma (AAPPB), and allegations of abuse by junta security forces in central Myanmar are rife.

Sky News has uncovered evidence that points to the widespread harassment, torture, and killing of prisoners.

WARNING: This article contains some graphic descriptions of violence and abuse. The names of all of the witnesses have been changed for their protection.

In May, Zin Ko Tun was reported dead by his family after reportedly being detained by military forces.

Ko Yan Win, who knew him well, said the former student was part of an armed resistance fighting junta soldiers when he was shot in the arm and captured on 12 May.

He said: "When the military invaded [the] town and started attacking, the residents decided to defend themselves and their town. There was also a civilian defence force. He joined them.

"Shoot-outs were happening within the town. He was arrested as an insurgent, so the military would torture him, definitely."

The last known photo of Zin Ko Tun alive shows him sitting in front of a tree with five others.

That evening, state TV broadcast news of the capture of six alleged terrorists.

The photos aired show five of the group pictured under the tree, but Zin Ko Tun is missing. The following day, his family were called and told to collect his body.

Ko Yan Win saw his remains.

"There were wounds on the body which are the signs of being tortured," he said. "When I found the injury on the back of his head, the area was really soft. I found some injuries around his abdomen and lips.

He claims Zin Ko Tun's student union tattoo had also been removed.

Described as a "clever" son and "adored" friend, Zin Ko Tun had been studying engineering at college and was dreaming of working in Japan when Myanmar's military overthrew the democratically-elected government in February.

Following the coup, Sky News is told he first joined peaceful mass protests in Mandalay, before taking up arms with other villagers.

Photos of his body seen by Sky News show string around his wrists, as well as dark marks on some areas of his skin.

Sky News asked Physicians for Human Rights to examine the material we had collected in an attempt to find out what happened to Zin Ko Tun.

Forensic pathologist Dr Karen Kelly wrote a detailed report, concluding: "It is my opinion that Zin Ko Tun's cause of death is more likely than not due to homicidal violence."

A homicide is the death of one person at the hands of another.

Dr Kelly explained that, ideally, forensic pathologists would carry out a thorough post-mortem examination on the body, which in this case wasn't possible.

Relying on photographic evidence limits some of the conclusions which can be made.

For example, clothing cannot be removed to look for evidence of torture in unexposed areas.

Despite this, Dr Kelly said she was "very confident" in her belief this death was a homicide.

"He was a previously healthy 21-year-old. The gunshot injury appeared not to be life-threatening because there are photos of him with it bandaged and alive, and so to me, this would indicate that there was some element of homicide to this death…because he was arrested by the military and there obviously is a concern, and I'm very concerned, that they caused his death," she explained.

Confirming claims that he was tortured is more difficult without access to Zin Ko Tun's body.

"If we were able to actually see the body, clean the body and look for injuries, we would most likely have significant evidence [of torture]," Dr Kelly said.

In addition to Zin Ko Tun, other suspicious deaths listed include that of the National League of Democracy (NLD) politician Khin Maung Latt, 58, who died in custody following his arrest in March.

Friends reported his body was covered in multiple injuries, while officials said he fainted.

There's also the death of another NLD official, activist Zaw Myat Lynn, a few days later.

State media claimed the 46-year-old fell on a steel pipe trying to evade arrest, but campaigners believe he was killed.

Poet Khet Thi died less than a day after his arrest in May.

He is one of a number of alleged murders being documented by campaigners at Fortify Rights.

"He was detained along with his wife and held in custody for one night, and his body was returned to the family the next day," explains senior human rights specialist John Quinley.

"He was quite healthy from our understanding. Relatives told us they viewed his body. The body was given back and there was signs of torture throughout."

According to their research, there have been thousands of arbitrary arrests since the coup, with many people being "harassed, beaten or abused in military custody" and during arrest.

They've already documented cases in more than 20 townships and believe the abuse is widespread.

"The military has given police and military orders to arrest people and to kill people in the streets," he said.

"So we see this as a planned systematic attack against anyone who's fighting for democracy, for human rights and against the military dictatorship.

"The junta is trying to create an environment of fear and intimidation so people will not speak out."

More than 1,000 people have been killed by security forces in the last six months, according to AAPPB.

Many have been shot in the street at protests, others have been taken from their houses at night.

"We were forced to kneel down, with our hands on our heads in the street," Shwe Mon, a female protestor who was detained in one of Myanmar's notorious interrogation centres, told Sky News.

"They were pointing guns in my face when they found us, and I was also beaten as I was arrested."

She describes systematic abuse to both women and men.

"In the interrogation centre, the male detainees' building was just next to us," she said. "We were always hearing those screams and tortured sounds.

"I also witnessed one woman who was the same age as me. There were bruises all over her swollen face and bleeding wounds on her mouth. She took off her blouse to show bruises on every inch of her body. She couldn't even chew the food well.

"I've seen lots of similarly tortured civilians in there."

Her account is supported by another former detainee, Aye Mya.

"I talked with one young woman, she was beaten up so badly by the soldiers when she got arrested," she said.

"Both the soldiers and police continued to abuse her at the police station, like brutally kicking at the woman's private parts. They used a police baton and a metal broom stick to beat her up. The police even sat on her back while torturing her."

Following their arrests, both women were brought to Shwe Pyi Thar interrogation centre on the edge of Yangon.

It's too dangerous Sky's team in Myanmar to visit the site, but according to former detainees, there are four main buildings: one for men, one for women, one for security, and a secluded building.

"If one was brought to that building, they blindfolded and handcuffed the person first," Aye Mya said.

"Physical abuse like beating up detained civilians occurred in there.

"If they didn't like someone's attitude or suspected anything, a person was blindfolded, handcuffed then sent to the secluded building for further investigation."

The women's building was described as a simple hut with wooden beams, where detainees said they had to wash in toilet water. Food and drinking water was provided, but there were no beds or blankets, "just one thin mattress".

Aye Mya said: "There was a woman. She looked a mess and there were so many wounds.

"Her jaw was broken, also her nose and cheekbones and one of her eyes was black but she could see.There were bruises everywhere, especially on her buttocks.

"She needed a proper hospital, but the medics only gave her a few drops of betadine antiseptic mixed with water."

UK-trained dancer Khin Nyein Thu, 31, is the woman Aye Mya is describing.

She was arrested at home in April, hours after a series of bombs exploded at a nearby local government office.

Military-run TV aired details of her arrest, accusing her of being a bomb maker.

In the photo broadcast, her face appears to be badly disfigured.

"You can see her face was almost unrecognisable," said her godmother, Thant Tun, who is a nurse in Manchester.

"These injuries are sustained by a significant blow to the face…The cheek was very swollen, eyes were bruised on both sides. The nose looks slightly deformed."

She said her family feared for Khin Nyein Thu's life when they first saw the photos. They heard nothing while she was in the interrogation centre until she was allowed to call home after nearly three weeks.

In June, state media broadcast an edited confession where Khin Nyein Thu seemingly admits a range of crimes, including making weapons and arson.

Her godmother says she's surprised by the confession and fears it may have been coerced.

Khin Nyein Thu's now being held in the notorious Insein Prison with thousands of others.

Myanmar's military regime hasn't responded to any of the allegations Sky News put to them.

Questions over deaths and violence being carried out by security forces continue to go unanswered.

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