At two in the morning on December 24, Pray Meh was awakened by the sound of drones flying over in her village in Hpruso township in Myanmar’s southeastern Kayah State. Since clashes between anti-coup forces and the military erupted in May, the buzzing of drones has become a familiar sound.
Pray Meh, who is from the predominantly Christian Karenni ethnic group in a majority-Buddhist country, usually enjoys a festive Christmas with her community. But this year, the February 1 military coup and the resulting armed conflict left residents with no will to celebrate in a state where roughly half of the population is Christian. Pray Meh had planned to go to a nearby church to pray for peace.
But before she could even eat breakfast on Christmas Eve, she had to cancel that plan too.
“I received a call that soldiers were coming into the village,” she told Al Jazeera. “I stopped cooking and started packing some clothes to flee.”
By midday, smoke plumes were rising, and rumours were circulating that soldiers had killed local civilians. Sheltering in a nearby village, Pray Meh anxiously waited for updates.
“I couldn’t get any information that night. The only thing I knew was that there was the thick smoke,” she recalled.
Her worst fears were confirmed the next morning on Christmas Day: The military had set fire to more than 30 civilians in their vehicles, leaving the bodies burned beyond recognition.
“When I heard the news, I felt like I had no energy and my whole body was falling. My bones had gone weak,” said Pray Meh. “We couldn’t be happy on Christmas.”
For security reasons and because of the risk of reprisals, Al Jazeera is using a pseudonym to identify Pray Meh.
‘Massacre of innocent civilians’
After enduring months of deadly military crackdowns against their nonviolent protests, civilian armed resistance have accelerated since May. Some people have joined existing ethnic armed organisations, while others have formed new anti-coup forces.
According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which monitors the situation in Myanmar, as of Thursday at least 1,382 people have been killed in Myanmar since the February 1 coup. More than 11,200 pro-democracy protesters have been arrested during the same period.
In Kayah State and neighbouring townships in southern Shan State, the Karenni Nationalities Defence Force (KNDF), made up of several newly-formed armed groups, and the Karenni Army, an ethnic armed rebel organisation, have been waging non-traditional warfare tactics to counter the military’s force.
In response to armed resistance across the country, including in Kayah and southern Shan, the military has attacked entire communities with airstrikes, arson, and indiscriminate shelling and gunfire, all the while blocking civilians’ access to basic necessities — following the so-called “four cuts” strategy it has used for decades to destroy the support base of ethnic armed organisations.
As of December 19, more than 150,000 civilians remain displaced across Kayah State and Pekon township in southern Shan State, according to data collected by the Karenni Civil Society Network.
Statement condemning the attack and asking for international support from the National Unity Government of Myanmar.
— MiMi Aye (@meemalee) December 27, 2021
Fighting began escalating in Hpruso township and other parts of Kayah State on December 22, a spokesperson from the KNDF told Al Jazeera, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
On the morning of December 24, KNDF forces intercepted a convoy of military forces as they advanced towards Hpruso town, according to a KNDF statement released that day.
The statement said that more than four hours of clashes ensued, and that the military set vehicles on fire and arrested 10 civilians.
In an effort to secure the release of the civilians, four members of a local armed unit under the command of the military, went to the area to negotiate with the military. Instead of getting them released, the men were tied up and shot in the head, according to the KNDF statement.
A KNDF spokesperson told Al Jazeera that the military might have killed the four men to “get rid of witnesses”.
Later that night, the KNDF released photographs of the four men on its Facebook page. Then on Christmas morning, they also released more photographs of the burned bodies and accused the military of setting on fire 35 civilians, including women and children, calling it a “massacre of innocent civilians”.
Al Jazeera contacted military spokesperson Zaw Min Tun but he could not be reached for comment.
The Mirror Daily, a military-run media outlet, reported that soldiers had intercepted seven vehicles travelling towards Moso town on December 24.
According to their version of the incident, the vehicles’ passengers included armed recruits with local armed resistance groups. They allegedly did not stop their vehicle, and instead shot at the soldiers with guns and grenades, following which they had been “arrested dead”.
The KNDF spokesperson, however, dismissed the military’s claim that the people in the vehicles were firing weapons, calling it “a lie without a single piece of evidence”.
On Monday, the KNDF and Karenni State Police announced that they were jointly investigating the killings.
The Karenni State Police, which was established in August, is made up of more than 200 police officers who went on strike from their posts under the military administration and joined a nationwide civil disobedience movement. The group is seeking to provide security for civilians across the state, its information officer told Al Jazeera, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
The information officer said that the investigation team was facing many challenges gathering evidence, but was “trying to take action and let the world know about the inhumane killings committed at Christmas time”.
‘Badly burned bodies’
On Wednesday, the KNDF spokesperson told Al Jazeera that the investigation team had received reports of 37 missing people, including two children under 12. But he had not yet confirmed whether all 37 had been burned. Fear of being shot at by the military, however, had left the investigation team unable to retrieve the bodies until Monday afternoon.
Medical doctors with the investigation team conducted forensic analyses on 31 bodies and concluded that they had been shot before they were burned, according to the KNDF spokesperson. He said that four more bodies were so badly burned that detailed analyses were not possible.
With the bodies unidentifiable, determining who the victims were has been based largely on missing person reports, as well as what evidence could be found at the scene.
The KNDF spokesperson said none of the victims was known to be from any armed revolutionary groups, and none was carrying weapons.
Those reported missing include the staff at a local health-focused humanitarian group, seven villagers and displaced people who were likely coming back from buying food, and the owner and 10 workers of a company that transported petrol.
On December 29, community members buried the burned bodies and held a funeral for them.
— Aung Myo Min (@aung_myo_minn) December 27, 2021
Residents in the area told Al Jazeera that the killings cast a heavy gloom over an already dreary Christmas.
“People are devastated and terrified,” the KNDF spokesperson said.
“[The military] are showing their cruelty over Christmas in every possible way. They might think that by doing all these things in predominantly Christian areas, that people will obey them out of fear and that they will be more likely to succeed, but they are totally wrong. The revolution will accelerate because of their cruel actions. They will face the consequences.”
A church leader told Al Jazeera that due to ongoing fighting and displacement, no one had planned to hold any celebrations, but after receiving news of the Christmas Eve killings, even prayer services were cancelled.
“Christmas is usually a beautiful cultural celebration, but this year, everything is silent,” he said.
“When we saw the pictures [of the victims]…we all had tears in our eyes. We couldn’t say Merry Christmas anymore. Christmas was very dark for us….The presence of the burned bodies was there around us.”
Fear of more attacks
As residents of Hpruso township mourn the deaths, they also remain in fear of further attacks as they struggle to meet their basic food and survival needs in an area where temperatures drop below 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit) during the winter.
The KNDF spokesperson told Al Jazeera that as of Monday, an estimated 30,000 people across the state of Kayah have been displaced.
Pray Meh said her entire village had fled, with some staying in nearby villages and others hiding in the forest.
“The weather is so cold here and we couldn’t bring blankets. We tried to go back to the village to pick up some necessities but the military was firing shells,” she said.
When Al Jazeera spoke with her on Monday evening, she said she felt unsafe and could hear military jets flying overhead.
A volunteer nurse based in Moso confirmed that the town’s residents had scattered to nearby villages and into the forest, with no one staying behind.
“I fled to a nearby village with just a backpack…When I reached the village, they were also preparing to flee because they could hear gunfire, so we fled again,” she said.
She continues to receive calls from other villagers requesting aid, but is having trouble locating or helping them.
On Sunday, she and her teammate reached some villagers who were sheltering in the forest under tarpaulin tents.
“We could still hear gunfire while we were providing healthcare,” she said.
The church leader interviewed by Al Jazeera said that churches in the area are also continuing to try to reach displaced people and provide aid, even though churches have repeatedly come under attack for doing so.
“It has become a part of life for us, to live in this situation,” said the church leader.
United Nations agencies and international governments have released a flood of statements of concern and calls for investigation and accountability in response to the incident.
On Thursday, the United Nations Security Council also condemned the killings and called for accountability, while reaffirming its members’ “support for the people of Myanmar and the country’s democratic transition” and their “strong commitment to the sovereignty, political independence, territorial integrity and unity of Myanmar”.
But the church leader from Kayah said that now is beyond the time for more statements.
“We need action. We pray for that every day. Every morning and evening we pray for the end of this cruelty, this evil regime. But we also need action from the outside world to help us.”
Awng Myat Pasi contributed to this report.
(This article was supported by a grant from ARTICLE 19 under Voices for Inclusion, a project funded by the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs.)