Aung Soe Htike tried to ask for an explanation when police in Yangon handcuffed him and put him in a car one evening in November of last year.
But instead of answering, the small business owner said the officers told him to shut up.
He told VOA he was taken to a police station, where two or three men waiting for him in a back room locked him in.
It was only when they showed him CCTV footage of a man stealing a phone that he understood why he was there. The thief in the video looked similar to him; he and the thief were wearing shorts.
He said he told the officers they had the wrong man, but it was of no use.
For about four hours, Aung Soe Htike alleged, uniformed and plain-clothed police subjected him to violent interrogation techniques that he described as torture.
Aung Soe Htike’s case is one of dozens in the past year that have revealed the methods Myanmar’s military-controlled police force uses to extract confessions.
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a local rights group, said “physical and mental torture” is “systematic” across Myanmar’s interrogation centers.
“They made me sit in a stress position, they accused me of theft, they swore at me, they beat me,” said Aung Soe Htike. At one point, he added, an interrogator held him in a choke hold and told him “you will die tonight” before forcing him to confess.
His wife and some friends came looking for him at the station, and finally managed to secure his release after convincing the township police colonel that he had been wrongfully arrested.
Police at Yangon’s Ahlone township station declined to comment on the incident when contacted by VOA.
Colonel Myo Thu Soe, a spokesperson at Myanmar Police Force headquarters, said he was unaware of Aung Soe Htike’s case but that police interrogations were “transparent” and interrogation rooms were monitored with CCTV cameras.
“Torturing suspects is not allowed under police regulations,” he said.
The Myanmar National Human Rights Commission, a nominally independent body tasked with investigating abuses, handled 29 allegations of torture by police last year, including five where suspects died in custody.
Commissioner Yu Lwin Aung said he has passed Aung Soe Htike’s case to the home affairs ministry, which oversees the police force, with a recommendation that they take action against the officers involved. The ministry’s spokesperson could not be reached for comment.
But Aung Soe Htike said there has been little progress, and is not confident an internal investigation will deliver justice.
Daw Aye is still waiting for answers after her son, Aung Aung, died in police custody in September last year.
When she visited him in prison before his court hearing, she told VOA, he recounted officers kicking him in the chest and back and Tasering him during interrogation.
He was arrested on suspicion of stealing a car battery, a crime she says he was innocent of. Then as he emerged from a police van at court two weeks later, he collapsed and was dead within hours.
Yu Lwin Aung said the human rights commission has referred this case to the home affairs ministry but has yet to receive a response.
It’s a similar story for Tin Tin Aye, who said she watched as a group of police beat her son, Khaing Min Wai, when they arrested him in June.
They took him to a police station, and the next morning she saw his dead body at the hospital, with marks and cuts on his face, she told VOA.
Mon Mon Cho, a lawyer who is advising Tin Tin Aye, said accountability is key to preventing more cases like this in the future.
“The government must take action against these violent people,” she said.
Even though a civilian government came to power for the first time in decades following a huge electoral victory in 2015, the country’s military-drafted constitution still puts the generals in charge of three key ministries, including home affairs.
For Aung Soe Htike, ending the military’s grip on the police is key to tackling a culture of violence and impunity. Until that happens, efforts to train officers in human rights will fall flat, he said.
The European Union is spending 30 million euros on a five-year project launched in 2016 to help Myanmar’s police become a “modern” force that “adheres to international standards, respects human rights and maintains gender awareness.”
But Aung Soe Htike said, “It doesn’t matter how much money the EU spends on them, it won’t make a difference unless the Myanmar Police Force is separated from the military.” (VOA)
The search operation along with some shooting incidents by government soldiers caused more than 500 local residents to take sanctuary on the grounds of Aung Mingalar Monastery, while more than 2,000 sought safety inside the Shwe Phaung Tin Monastery compound
Thousands of fearful villagers have fled communities in Myanmar’s war-ravaged Rakhine state, where a Myanmar military unit has been conducting door-to-door searches for rebel ethnic soldiers, residents of the affected villages said Wednesday.
The searches for Arakan Army (AA) troops took place all day in Myo Chaung and Pan Myaung villages on the border between Mrauk-U and Minbya townships in the northern part of the state where hostilities between the two militaries have escalate since late last year, they said.
“Yesterday was really bad,” said Kyaw Myint, a resident of Pan Myaung village. “They [government soldiers] started from Myo Chaung village with their search [for AA fighters] and reached the edge of Pan Myaung village. The government soldiers changed to civilian clothing and entered the village firing their guns. All the villagers ran for their lives.”
The search operation along with some shooting incidents by government soldiers caused more than 500 local residents to take sanctuary on the grounds of Aung Mingalar Monastery, while more than 2,000 sought safety inside the Shwe Phaung Tin Monastery compound, they said.
“An IDP [internally displaced persons] camp has been opened in Shwe Phaung Tin monastery compound, Kyaw Myint said. “It’s already harboring a large number of people.”
When Myanmar soldiers entered villagers’ homes, they beat some, detained others, and stripped more then 130 of them of their shirts and made them stay outside in the burning sun, said Abbot Pyinnyar Wontha of Shwe Phaung Tin monastery. He said he does not know how long the monastery can host the IDPs.
“Then they asked where the AA soldiers were located,” he said. “Now the villagers are scared of the soldiers and have fled their homes.”
During the search, Myanmar soldiers took away four villagers — Khin Maung, 30, and Kyaw Aye Maung, 25 from Myo Chaung village and Soe Win Naing, 22, and Maung Myint Hlaing, age estimated to be about 30, from Ywa Thit ward — for supposedly having connections to the AA, residents and family members said.
“They took two villagers from Myo Chaung village and two from Ywa Thit ward,” Kyaw Myint said. “We haven’t heard anything from them since.”
Kyaw Kyaw Hla from Aung Mingalar Monastery said the government troops fired indiscriminately at the villagers.
“The soldiers entered the villages and did whatever they wanted,” he said. They fired their guns at random and apprehended the villagers for questioning. They caused so much panic.”
The Myanmar Army views Rakhine villagers as AA sympathizers, Kyaw Kyaw Hla said.
“So, they brutally questioned the villagers if they found them in the village,” he said. “They got angrier if they were not in the village. They said they would torch the houses if nobody was found in the village.”
The AA, a Buddhist Rakhine military fighting for autonomy in the state, was branded a terrorist organization by the Myanmar government after it carried out deadly attacks on police outposts in the state early this year, leaving 13 dead. A similar assault on another police outpost in early March killed nine officers and wounded two others.
RFA’s Myanmar Service was unable to reach Colonel Win Zaw Oo, commander of the Western Regional Military Command to confirm the arrests.
RFA was also unable to contact AA spokesman Khine Thukha to confirm if AA members were hiding in villages on the border between Minbya and Mrauk-U townships.
Meanwhile, the influx of residents of Pan Myaung and Myo Chaung villages who have left their homes has stretched the two monasteries housing them to their limits.
Abbot Pyinnyar Wontha said he does not know how long the Shwe Phaung Tin monastery can host the IDPs.
“We requested that they go back home in one or two days, but their numbers have swelled to over 2,000 since yesterday,” he said.
Mrauk-U villagers still missing
One month has passed since the families of six people in Mrauk-U township were detained by the Myanmar military during clashes with the AA, and haven’t been heard from since.
Maung Win Sein, 35; Aye Thein, 33; Maung Shwe Soe, 29, from Thar-Zi village; Sein Thar Kyaw, 46, from Taung Oo village; and Hla Htun Chae, 61, from Yan-Aung-Myae village — disappeared on Feb. 19 during an intense battle in the township’s Yan Chaung region.
Myo Min Zaw, 19, from Kya-Nat-Kan village in Kyauktaw township, north of Mrauk-U, also went missing the same day. Tun Nu, the head of the township’s Taung Min Kular village also went missing during the skirmishes.
Their family members, who insist that the men have no ties to the AA, said they filed missing person reports at a local police stations but have heard nothing since.
RFA was unable to reach the police stations in Mrauk-U and Kyauktaw townships.
Oo Myint Htay, wife of Maung Win Sein, said a stranger with a mixed Myanmar-Rakhine accent answered her husband’s cell phone when she called his number.
“He told me not to call him if it’s nothing urgent,” she said. “With all the fighting going on, I was very worried because it was not my husband answering the phone and a stranger was answering it. I called the second time but no one answered. Since then, the phone has been turned off so it can’t receive calls anymore.”
Dar Sein, wife of Hla Htun Chae from Yan Aung Pyin village, said her husband was arrested by the Myanmar military’s 22nd Division.
When she went to the army compound to inquire about her husband after he didn’t come home from cattle herding, she found him being tied up, she said.
“They tied my husband up,” she said. “When I got there, my husband Hla Htun Chae asked me to redo his sarong.”
After a while, he was summoned by the captain, and soldiers asked Dar Sein to go home.
“I said I’d go home with my husband because he has hypertension and is not in good health,” she said.
“The soldiers told me not to worry and asked me to leave,” she said. “I left and haven’t heard from my husband since then.”
‘They had done it’
Hla Htun Chae is the only one of the missing men confirmed to be detained by the military, while the fate of the remaining villagers remains unknown.
Some believe the missing men may be among three charred bodies discovered in a valley east of Yan Aung Pyin village on Feb. 21.
“I went there to investigate with the village head and elders of Kyar Nat Kan, but we saw only the piles of ashes,” said Sein Hla Maung, head of Yan Aung Pyin village. “It was where military troops had been stationed, so we concluded that they had done it.”
RFA could not independently confirm that the charred bodies found near Yan Aung Pyin village were the work of the government troops.
A spokesman for Myanmar military’s information committee told RFA on Feb. 25 that soldiers apprehended the local residents only as part of investigations and that they have not forcibly detailed any civilians. The AA also denied detaining them.
Tun Thar Sein, a lawmaker who represents Mrauk-U township in the Rakhine state parliament, said state officials should inform the families about their missing relatives.
“The state government is responsible for protecting its local citizens,” he said. “The government needs to give explanation to the family members of those who have been missing for a month.”
AA joins talks
The AA is one of a handful of ethnic armies fighting the government military in some of Myanmar’s ethnic minority areas.
The Myanmar government’s peace commission has invited eight organizations that have not signed a nationwide cease-fire — including the AA and its political wing, the United League of Arakan — to attend collective peace discussions for the first time on Thursday.
Some delegates from the various groups and a Chinese representative arrived in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw on Wednesday.