YANGON—Lawmakers, lawyers and activists slammed the rising number of civilian deaths during or immediately following military detention amid recent fighting in Rakhine State this week.
Since early this year, 14 civilians who held on suspicion of having ties to the Arakan Army (AA) have died while in or immediately after military detention, including seven villagers from Kyauk Tan shot dead in military custody.
In the latest case, 28-year-old Ko Zaw Win Hline (also spelled Hlaing elsewhere) from Shwe Tun Phyu village in Mrauk-U died on Monday, days after being arrested by the military—the second of a group of eight men to die after being detained in Mrauk-U’s Pauktaw Pyin Village by the army in late June. On June 24, a 23-year-old man died as the military was taking him to the hospital.
On his deathbed, Ko Zaw Win Hline told relatives he had been tortured and severely beaten by soldiers during interrogations. He died in a hospital in Sittwe after vomiting up blood.
The last words he reportedly uttered—“Don’t give me water, Mom. I will not last long. My organs are badly damaged. I can’t breathe. Don’t give me water, Mom. I have to go”—were widely shared on Facebook, sparking an online campaign demanding justice.
Ma Htoot May, an Upper House lawmaker from Rakhine State, said the civilian deaths and reported tortures while in detention are “totally unfair and against the rule of law.”
“Do they have the right to torture to death?” she asked rhetorically.
The lawmaker said if the military arrests civilians on suspicion, they must investigate in accord with the law as detainees are innocent until found guilty in court.
“[We’re?] calling for justice because there is injustice. It needs to be investigated and all of those who are responsible for [the death of detained civilians] must be held accountable,” Ma Htoot May said.
Human rights activist Ko Moe Thway also condemned the military for possibly violating the Constitution and international human rights conventions.
Article 21(b) of the Constitution states that no citizen can remain in custody for more than 24 hours without court permission.
The activist noted that, according to Ko Zaw Win Hline’s account, civilians were severely tortured and held for days.
Another Rakhine State lawmaker, U Pe Than, called on the military to stop torturing detainees and follow the laws regarding the interrogation of civilians—even if they are suspected of supporting the AA.
If this continues, he said, it will harm the military’s dignity and only lead to a growing hatred of them among the public.
“We don’t want such incidents to happen again, not only in Rakhine but in every state and region,” U Shwe Paw Sein, chairman of the local relief group the Rakhine Ethnic Congress said, calling on the government and the military to bring justice.
“The deaths sadden us. And for deceased families and relatives, it is a great loss for them,” he said.
Six Arakanese youths held a demonstration in central Sittwe on Tuesday demanding justice for the dead civilians. They held posters with the slogans, “We want justice for the dead civilians in custody,” “Stop fighting and Make Peace Now!” and “Stop Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, and Torture!”
In the following days local police sought and opened lawsuits against the youth protestors.
The ruling party lawmaker Ma Zin Mar Aung, from Yangon Region, also urged that action be taken.
“Whichever organization did this, they need to explain it and take responsibility for these cases,” she said; if not, the lawmaker added, it will worsen the fragile situation in the conflict-torn state.
On Wednesday, military spokesperson Brigadier-General Zaw Min Tun told local media outlet 7Day that the Myanmar military follows a no-torture rule during interrogations, adding that any violators would be prosecuted under civilian and martial law.
He added that the military was aware of speculation that Ko Zaw Win Hline died during torture by army personnel.
“All I can say is that every citizen has the right to lodge a legal compliant if they feel they were mistreated,” he said.
Lawyer U Thein Than Oo said the deceased families can complain and ask for an investigation under the 1959 Defense Services Act and Penal Code Articles 330 and 331, which discuss causing grievous hurt to extort confessions during interrogations.
The lawyer said that, under the law, the military can’t detain civilians for more than 24 hours and must transfer the case to police for any detention beyond that.
“Even if they died in the hospital, they were hospitalized after being arrested. They [the military] need to explain and examine that,” said U Thein Than Oo.
But, said veteran lawyer U Kyee Myint, there is no history of civilians winning cases against the military.
“But what we can do right now is, we need to collaboratively object to this and call for respect of the [existing] laws repeatedly,” he said.
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