Wednesday marks the 15th anniversary of the notorious Depayin Massacre. On May 30, 2003, at least 70 people were killed after a mob directed by elements of Myanmar’s former military regime attacked a National League for Democracy (NLD) convoy, which included pro-democracy leader and current State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, traveling through Sagaing Region in northwest Myanmar.
No action has been taken against the perpetrators to date. The Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA)—the military-backed mass organization that would later transform into the Union Solidary and Development Party (USDP)—is said to have been implicated in the massacre.
In this interview published June 13, 2003, Zaw Zaw Aung—a survivor of the massacre who was head of the NLD’s youth wing for Mandalay Region at the time, and was part of the NLD convoy—describes the incident.
How many people greeted the NLD motorcade at Kyi village? Did you hear any opposition voices in the crowd that came to welcome you?
I estimate about 3,000. It could have been 4,000 or 5,000. People were on the road, and we spoke to them. I did not hear any opposition voices.
So Daw Aung San Suu Kyi addressed the people, for how long?
About 10 minutes.
Where did you go after Kyi village?
We did not go very far. About 200 feet from the villagers. The cars behind had not caught up with us yet. We could see the villagers and they had not dispersed. Then, two monks and three laymen stood in front of Dqw Aung San Suu Kyi’s car, stopping it from proceeding. They asked her to speak to the people.
They were not where the other people had assembled?
They could have joined them if they wanted. Instead, they stood and waited at a distance.
Stood and waited, then asked for a speech?
Yes, they asked her to step out and speak. It was late. We had to go on to Depayin also. So, the NLD member who was in Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s car said, “Honorable monk, it is very late and there is no time. Please excuse your disciples.” But the monks did not leave.
They were looking back and said that the people in our gang were useless. We got out of the car and stood around to protect Daw aung San Suu Kyi. Then the monk said, “My people will be following up. Listen to a monk’s words. Try your best to preach to them.” We requested them to let us pass but they insisted that we stay. Then, the place was lit up by car headlights and we saw about seven cars.
What sort of cars?
All sorts. Trucks that carry goods and earth, Dina cars. People descended from those cars and without saying anything they beat up the villagers. Because the headlights were on we could see all that was happening. There were a lot of monks who did the beating up. A lot of [lay] men too.
So monks came out of those cars?
When people were being beaten up some of the villagers screamed and fled. They were chased by some of the monks. Others came around to our side, surrounded us and without saying anything just thrashed at us. We noticed that these monks had pieces of white cloth tied around their right hands.
Can we accept them as genuine monks?
How can that be? When they beat up the villagers and our party who were acting peacefully? We heard and we saw for ourselves how they continued thrashing even those who were dead on the ground. Innocent people were beaten to death. Genuine monks will not do that.
So, they beat up the villagers first, then went between the villagers and the NLD party and proceeded to beat them up?
Yes, they beat up NLD members. The villagers fled and some could have fallen in with the NLD members. Our numbers were small. But whether our numbers were small or large, no one had any weapons. Our leaders gave strict instructions that even if attacked we were not to respond with violence.
So they continued to brutally beat up all the NLD members who were in the motorcade?
To kill and mutilate was their purpose. So much so that if they saw a body moving they went for it saying, ‘There is still sign of life—beat, beat.’ Not with just one stick. They went through the crowd with two or three sticks in hand and thrashed at fallen bodies.
They responded to groans or pleas for mercy with more severe thrashings. At that time we were very afraid for our lives. So we lay very still and did not move. At that time these were the words they uttered: “We have built roads, we have built bridges. You do not talk about these things. What has your Aung San Suu Kyi done for the country? You want to be under the authority of the Kala’s [foreigner’s] wife.”
What about Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s car?
Very soon after all this started, five cars—including hers and U Tin Oo’s vehicle—drove off to the front. The Youth Wing security car and our Mandalay Region car did too.
So they escaped from Kyi village and you were left behind? And the beatings took place for how long after they had driven off?
More than two hours.
We have heard that women also accompanied Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. What happened to them?
Yes, the women wore pinni [home spun material associated with Burma’s independence struggle and later the NLD]. The men also wore pinni. They [the thugs] announced that they did not want to see any pinni and ordered all to remove their pinni clothing. They snatched and pulled off the pinni clothing from the fallen bodies and those within their reach.
The girls asked not to have their clothes pulled off but they forced them and grabbed and tugged and removed their clothes. Some of them had their gold chains snatched. I saw this with my own eyes. Not satisfied with this, they grabbed and took away their handbags also.
So Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s car got away. Then again at Depayin the same thing happened?
Yes. The young people from Depayin fled and I met them. They were beaten up with spears, wooden, bamboo and iron rods. They saw students with hands tied being led away and having their cycles confiscated.
Our information is that gunshots were heard at Depayin.
Yes. We heard the gunshots. It was between midnight and 1 a.m. We were deeply worried for our Aunty Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Uncle U Tin Oo. Without any shooting here [in Kyi village] about 20 or so died and sustained injuries. With shooting it could have been worse. More could have died.
How did you escape? After you escaped what did the USDA do?
I was lucky. I escaped without any injury. I fled and crossed the paddy fields to Monywa. Though I was not hurt, I was shaken and very distressed. It was about 10:30 p.m. [when I returned]. I saw a person on a cycle. Looked like he came to see the spectacle.
He stood and looked at the dead and after some time he departed. Then about 12:45 a.m., three Hino buses arrived without any passengers. They saw the injured and fallen, some dead and the line of cars. They turned back and left.
So those injured and the dead were left lying there?
Yes, I saw some being taken away in cars.
In the end what happened?
We were not steady on our feet. I looked on. At about 12:45 a.m.—I had my watch on so I knew the time—members of the police force, the fire brigade, and local authorities put the injured and dead bodies into motor vehicles.
Then what astonished me most was that our car, which was heading west for Depayin, was pushed so that it appeared to be heading south and shoved down the ditch. Another car was pushed into the ditch. This was a deliberate act to fabricate a different scenario. I witnessed this with my own eyes.
To make it look like two cars collided? These were the cars in which NLD members traveled?
Yes, to appear that way. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I remember this very clearly. Then some of the cars with injured people drove off towards Depayin. Some cars went in the other direction. About 30 people remained. I cannot say definitely if they were the police or the USDA members because they all were in the same uniform.