Editor’s note: This story contains descriptions that some readers may find disturbing. Reader discretion is advised.
The conflict engulfing Myanmar in the wake of the 2021 military coup has led to the deaths of hundreds of civilians and ordinary people who took up arms to fight junta troops, who have raided and razed villages, bombed them from the air and rounded up hundreds for detention, torture or immediate execution.
These are the stories of four people – a young couple, a veteran photographer and a nurse – who died last month.
CONFLICT BROUGHT THEM TOGETHER
The young couple was giddy with excitement on the eve of their wedding.
Ma Cho, 24, and her fiance Ko Pay, 19, were comrades-in-arms in the anti-junta resistance, and were finally going to receive their parents’ blessing to be married.
It was Friday, Feb. 17, and the lovers planned to spend the night with relatives in Thea Taw village in Myanmar’s Magway region before tying the knot in a ceremony the following day.
Myanmar’s civil conflict had brought the couple together. In the early days following the February 2021 military coup, Ko Pay – then 17 – participated in peaceful protests in the streets.
But after the junta violently cracked down on dissent, he decided to join the Southern YSO People’s Defense Force as part of the armed resistance in May of that year, according to Aung Maung, the head of that PDF.
Ma Cho had recently joined the group as well and the two fell in love during basic training. Photos show them holding hands and smiling.
Instead, it all turned into a nightmare.
Shot in the leg
After they reached their village on that Friday, a unit of junta soldiers raided the village.
The couple fled, but in the rain of gunfire, Ko Pay was shot in the leg and seized by the troops, who dragged him back to the village, said Aung Maung.
“Ma Cho followed him, pleading with the junta soldiers that he was her fiance – the kind of love that makes two people inseparable, even in the face of danger,” he said. “Ma Cho could have escaped but she did not ... and the two were caught.”
The junta soldiers interrogated the couple for information about the PDF and tortured them when they resisted, Aung Maung said.
“The junta soldiers beat and tortured Ko Pay. They slapped Ma Cho in the face, kicked and hit her,” he said. “The couple was severely tortured.”
Ko Pay was killed first, in front of Ma Cho. Then they killed her by slitting her throat with a knife, Aung Maung said.
Horrified family members found their bodies and prepared them for burial on Saturday, which was supposed to be their wedding day.
Video shows friends and family members wailing in grief near what appeared to be a funeral pyre, smoke wafting up into the sky.
Ma Cho was described by those who knew her as “a brave revolutionary soldier who could bear the same level of fatigue as the men” in training and fearless as a porter carrying military equipment in the midst of battle.
Ko Pay’s friend and fellow paramilitary fighter, who gave his name as ABC, called the couple “passionate soldiers” who “fought together hand-in-hand.”
“They shared the same revolutionary spirit, so they were very dear to each other,” he said. “Although Ko Pay left Ma Cho behind in safety, she followed him to die together as a loving couple.”
Aung Maung said he would fight to avenge their deaths.
“We will use this sadness as positive energy,” he said. “We are going to continue the unfinished business of Ko Pay and Ma Cho in fighting against the military junta.”
Several junta soldiers suddenly arrived at the home of 52-year-old photographer Aung Win Htut on the evening of Feb. 19. They fired shots into the air and beat him in front of his family before bundling him into a private car, saying they needed to take him away for questioning.
His family waited anxiously in their home in Myanmar’s second-largest city, Mandalay.
It was unclear why Aung Win Htut had been arrested. He was a supporter of the National League for Democracy, whose government was removed by the military’s 2021 coup, but he hadn’t been particularly politically active. Besides running a photo studio, he had an ethnic Shan noodle shop in the city.
Three hours passed with no word.
Finally, at around 9 p.m., a call came from authorities in Mahar Aung Myay township explaining that there had been a mistake and asked that someone pick him up on his release, a friend told RFA..
“But when the family arrived, Aung Win Htut was dead,” the friend said.
His family has not revealed what condition the photographer’s body was in when they collected it or whether there were any signs of torture, out of fear of reprisal. A brief funeral service was held for him on Feb. 21, but it was a private affair and limited to close relatives.
Weeks later, many questions still remain, including why Aung Win Htut was even targeted in the first place.
However, those close to Aung Win Htut said his sudden death was unexpected as he hadn’t been suffering from any health condition, and suggested that the authorities were to blame.
They also questioned why he had even caught the attention of the junta. He only used social media to post pictures and videos of himself playing the guitar and singing.
One friend who had known Aung Win Htut for nearly 20 years described him as “kind-hearted” and always helpful with technical issues related to photography. Others called him “a beautiful soul” and expressed disbelief that the authorities could show such little regard for him and his family.
But Bo Bo Oo, the deputy chairman of the NLD in Yangon’s Sanchuang township, said that cases like Aung Win Htut’s are becoming all too common for members of his party in the aftermath of the coup.
According to the NLD’s human rights research department, junta forces have killed at least 84 party members and officials and arrested at least 1,232 others since the military takeover two years ago. Of those killed, 16 died after interrogation, eight in prison, one by execution, and 60 others “for no reason.”
NURSE WHO REFUSED TO SUPPORT JUNTA
It was late in the evening on Jan. 29 and May Zun Moe was exhausted.
The 28-year-old nurse had just finished assisting a PDF fighter give birth in the Bago mountains just north of Yangon, and she was looking forward to some well-deserved rest back home in Okpho township.
May Zun Moe, whose name translates as “Rains of May and June,” had quit her job as part of the Civil Disobedience Movement after the coup, joining thousands of other government employees – teachers, civil servants and medical staff – who protested against the military by going on strike.
But when she returned to Okpho under escort, junta troops manning a military checkpoint in Tein Nyunt village just east of the township stopped her vehicle and shot and killed the two PDF members accompanying her.
They took her into their custody for abetting the armed resistance, sources close to her family told RFA.
Over the next two-and-a-half weeks, soldiers repeatedly tortured May Zun Moe at the junta’s local Military and Security Affairs unit – the secret police – in Okpho, according to a resident of the township, before raping her, killing her and burning her body.
“After all of them had raped her, they made her undress, blindfolded her and made her run away. Then they shot her dead,” said the resident, speaking on condition of anonymity, citing fear of reprisal.
“They took her body into the bushes after that and burned it with gasoline and some wood, but her body from the neck to the hip wouldn’t burn and the fire went out. Without burying her, they left her there.”
On Feb. 16, residents of Okpho discovered her remains near the woods leading to the mountains.
“Some dogs had eaten her flesh … we found pieces of her body with her ribs gnawed by dogs,” the resident said. “Her underwear was missing.”
Compassionate, with strong convictions
May Zun Moe had received a certificate from Yangon Nursing Academy in 2014 after graduating from Pyay University with a major in Myanmar Literature.
Those who knew her described her as a compassionate, hard-working nurse who held strong convictions and was deeply opposed to military rule. She was the first health worker in Okpho to join the Civil Disobedience Movement after the takeover and regularly treated members of the local armed resistance when they were injured, PDF members said.
“May Zun Moe, our beloved nurse, used to take care of our members when they were sick and exhausted from their work as porters,” a woman with the 5th Battalion of the Okpho Township PDF told RFA.
“Seeing that, we female members grew to love her and regard her as our own sister,” she said. “We are saddened and heartbroken.”
Human rights group say Myanmar’s military is using rape as a weapon of war and has also targeted health workers. The shadow National Unity Government says around 70 doctors and nurses in the movement have been killed, more than 700 injured, and some 900 arrested since the coup.
May Zun Moe’s death has left her friends and family members devastated. Her husband, Aung Zin, was arrested by the junta in early 2021 and sentenced to three years in prison for incitement and no one has had the strength to tell him she was killed.
After May Zun Moe’s arrest, soldiers came to search her home in Okpho’s Aye Mya Thar Yar ward and her family is now in hiding.
“Her father was so traumatized by the news of her death that he fell into a state of shock,” a close friend of the family, who declined to be named out of security concerns.
Calls by RFA to Tin Oo, the junta’s economic minister and spokesman for Bago region, seeking comment on May Zun Moe’s death went unanswered. (KB/RFA)