CHIANG MAI, Thailand – The Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, has denied wrongdoing in the killing of a man in Ler Mu Plaw area, Papun district, Karen State, claiming he was a rebel fighter dressed in civilian clothes.
In a statement released early Wednesday, it said Tatmadaw troops “shot at two fleeing plainclothes men who were suspected of being involved in sabotage attacks and planting mines,” adding that it “captured one of the men dead.”
However, according to a tribute by the Karen Environment and Social Action Network on Monday, Saw O Moo, 42, was an indigenous community leader working in environmental preservation, providing support to recently displaced people in his community. He was shot dead late in the afternoon of April 5, while giving a lift to a Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) soldier as he made his way home on his motorcycle.
The KNLA soldier, Saw Hser Blut Doh, escaped after the shooting. He had been assigned to provide security and protect Karen civilians in the Ler Mu Plaw area, the network said.
The family and friends of Saw O Moo have demanded to be allowed to retrieve his body.
The statement from the Tatmadaw’s True News Information Team said that Saw O Moo, who it identified as Saw Ka Lo Par, in line with his ID card (although it is the same person), tried to flee when security forces demanded he stop for an inspection. It did not say when the incident happened. The Irrawaddy contacted the Defense Ministry about the case on Wednesday, but the spokesperson was unavailable to comment..
The military said Saw O Moo was found to be in possession of a video camera, memory cards, a recorder, and grenades.
Saw Soe Doh, a spokesman of the Mutraw (Papun) Emergency Assistance Team, told The Irrawaddy that Saw O Moo “is just a Karen indigenous community leader,” who unfortunately gave the KNLA soldier a lift on his motorbike on his way back home. He was returning from a meeting to organize humanitarian assistance for some 2,300 people who have been displaced as a result of recent fighting, he said.
“As the Karen National Union and its armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army, are no longer unlawful associations after signing the NCA in 2015, we don’t think (Saw O Moo) was violating any laws,” he said, adding that locals in the area do not believe they are dong anything wrong by hanging around with the KNLA soldiers.
On a related topic, the Tatmadaw’s statement said there had been a misunderstanding among locals about the Tatmadaw’s reconstruction of a 15-mile-long road from Khay Mu to Ler Mu Plaw, as the work was intended to provide for more convenient use of the road for locals and to ease military administrative tasks. It also claimed the Tatmadaw Southern Command had issued prior notification to the KNLA on 11 occasions before starting to re-build the road on Mar. 4.
Tensions have escalated in the last month in the area controlled by the KNU/KNLA’s Brigade 5.
As it is one of the bigger ethnic armies, the KNU/KNLA’s relationship with the Tatmadaw is seen as an indicator of the health of the peace process.
The Tatmadaw also blamed the KNU/KNLA for releasing a statement on Apr. 2 about the postponement of a planned meeting between KNU/KNLA and Tatmadaw representatives in Bago region, late last month.
The military said the ethnic armed force had been so worried that the road work was part of preparations to launch military operations that it attacked the troops first. It said some Tatmadaw soldiers had been killed by mine explosions and in attacks launched by KNLA units, but it did not reveal the number of fatalities.
On Wednesday, the network of Myanmar human rights defenders urged the government and the international community “to effectively protect” civilian rights workers, especially those who are providing assistance to displaced people in armed-conflict areas.
A joint statement by the Human Rights Defenders Forum (HRDF) and Rights for All expressed their condolences over the death of Saw O Moo, who, they said, had been an active peace and environmental activist since 2006.
“Protection of human rights defenders working in armed-conflict zones is really necessary, as there could be arbitrary arrests and killings,” said U Aung Myo Win, a director of Equality Myanmar and a steering committee member of the HRDF.
“As the conflict zones lack the rule of law, we have heard of civilians and rights defenders being arrested as well as arbitrary killings, such as the case of the freelance journalist Ko Par Gyi [who was killed by the Tatmadaw in 2014],” he added.
Myanmar also lacks the laws and mechanisms to protect rights defenders, U Aung Myo Min said. “Therefore, it is as if armed forces in these areas have a license to freely kill civilians, humanitarian workers and rights defenders.”
At present, only local organizations can individually gather evidence while institutions like Myanmar National Human Rights Commission need to work with them, added the human rights educator.
Despite viewing the MNHRC as lacking the capability to deal with complaints related to the armed-conflict zones, U Aung Myo Min added that, “We can now send our complaints to the MNHRC, but the question remains as to whether we will see any effective action taken in such cases.”