Myanmar’s armed forces killed at least 25 people in a confrontation with opponents of the military at a town in the centre of the Southeast Asian nation, villagers said on Sunday, as people increasingly take up arms against the generals who seized power in a coup five months ago.
A spokesman for the military did not respond to Reuters news agency calls requesting comment on the violence at Depayin in the Sagaing region, about 300km (200 miles) north of the capital, Naypyidaw, which took place on Friday.
The state-run Global New Light of Myanmar said that “armed terrorists” had ambushed security forces patrolling there, killing one and wounding six. It said the attackers retreated after the security forces retaliated.
Myanmar has been plunged into chaos by the February 1 coup against elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, with protests flaring across many parts of the country and key workers including doctors and nurses joining a mass civil disobedience movement.
In some areas civilians have formed “defence forces” to take up arms against the State Administration Council, as the generals dub themselves, often using hunting rifles or makeshift weapons cobbled together from household items. Some of the groups have been founded in association with a National Unity Government established by the elected administration that was overthrown by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
The latest violence took place on Friday in Depayin township in the central Sagaing region, about 300km (200 miles) north of the capital, Naypyidaw.
One Depayin resident, who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals, told Reuters that four military trucks dropped off soldiers at the village early on Friday.
Young people from a local People’s Defence Force, formed to oppose the generals, took up positions to confront them. However, they only had makeshift weapons and were forced back by the security forces’ heavier firepower, the resident said.
“There were people dying at farms and by the railroad. They (soldiers) shot everything that moved,” said another resident, who said his uncle was among the dead.
‘Shot in the head’
A total of 25 bodies had been collected after the fighting, both residents said.
Other residents told the AFP news agency that military trucks entered their area and opened fire on a village near the jungle hoping to flush out members of the local defence force.
“We heard the shooting of artillery 26 times,” said a villager, who added that the defence force fighters tried to retaliate but could not fend off the attack.
“They shot everyone who they saw on the road and in the village. They did not just have one target,” he said.
The Depayin People’s Defence Force said on its Facebook page that 18 of its members had been killed and 11 wounded.
About two dozen ethnic armed groups have fought for decades in Myanmar’s borderlands, but Depayin is in the heartland of the ethnic Bamar majority, which also dominates the armed forces.
State-run media offered a different account of the skirmish, saying the military was patrolling the area when it was ambushed.
Soldiers fended off “armed terrorists” and later found “four mortars and six percussion lock firearms”, reported the Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper, which did not give a death toll in the village.
Villagers waited until Saturday to venture out of their homes to assess the casualties, said a member of the local defence force who helped to organise the collection of bodies.
“We firstly got nine dead bodies and buried them,” he told AFP, adding that eight more were found by a different team and also buried the same day.
On Sunday, they found a further eight bodies.
“I noticed from their bodies that most of them were shot in the head,” he said – an observation that another man who helped move the dead confirmed to AFP.
Violence since the coup has driven more than 230,000 people from their homes, according to the United Nations. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which has been tracking the post-coup crackdown, says at least 888 people have been killed by security forces since February with nearly 5,200 in detention.
The military has disputed the figures, but has not given its own estimates.
It has claimed its power grab was necessary because of alleged fraud in last November’s election, which was won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party in a landslide. Its claims have been dismissed by the electoral commission.