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Anatomy of a massacre

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Noise from the nearby pagoda roused Aung and his family before dawn on April 9. Peering out his window, he saw dozens of soldiers shouting and cursing as they streamed onto trucks, rifles slung across their chests. It was barely 4 a.m.

The engines of dozens of vehicles revved to a start and took off, with soldiers following on foot. Suddenly, Aung’s power cut out, plunging his neighborhood in the city of Bago into darkness. Aung tried to check Facebook and WhatsApp, hoping others would know what was going on, but mobile Internet was down, too.

He hurried his wife and two young sons into a small bedroom where they huddled together, determined not to be seen or heard. The sound of gunshots pierced the silence. The family emerged briefly some 14 hours later, peeking out their windows when they heard the rowdy chatter and din of the engines return.

The soldiers were back. With them were dozens of limp, bloodied bodies, piled up on the flatbed trucks.

Aung and his sons watched as the uniformed men dragged the dead like sacks of rice into the monastery compound, a place Aung associated with calm and peace. Some victims were still breathing, the life slowly draining out of their bodies. One soldier kicked a corpse several times, Aung said.

“It was horrifying to see,” he said. Aung and other witnesses interviewed for this article spoke on the condition that they be identified only by parts of their names, citing concerns for their safety.

By the end of that day, the Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, and police officers had killed at least 82 people, according to groups tracking protest deaths — making it the deadliest single crackdown since the military seized power. A Washington Post investigation of that day’s events reveals the use of counterinsurgency tactics, specialized military units and military-grade weaponry against civilian protesters — resulting in a high number of casualties.

The Post reviewed roughly 15,000 videos and images captured by civilians, as well as data showing the number of people killed since Feb. 1, to reconstruct the massacre in Bago. Interviews with seven eyewitnesses and analysis of geolocated videos and photos from Bago reveal that heavy weaponry was used against protesters. Analyses of Internet data and troop movements show a sophisticated level of planning by the military to crush the uprising.

The Post also analyzed nearly 20,000 TikTok videos of Myanmar security forces across the country, including soldiers from the elite Light Infantry Divisions and police officers. The clips offer a glimpse at the mind-set of the soldiers, who are seen advocating violence against civilians and celebrating deaths of protesters.

Taken together, the videos demonstrate a pattern of behavior and tactics in line with previous massacres in Myanmar, including the 2017 Rohingya crackdown that is being investigated by the International Court of Justice as genocide.

“It is very systematic [and] the pattern of violence is very, very clear,” said Tom Andrews, the United Nations’ special rapporteur for Myanmar and a senior human rights fellow at Yale Law School, who reviewed The Post’s materials.

“These are crimes against humanity,” he said, noting especially the premeditation before the attacks in Bago.

A spokesman for the military government did not respond to requests for comment.

Strategic location

When the military seized power, it sparked a crisis in a country whose democratic progress six years earlier was heralded as a foreign policy victory by the Obama administration. Within days, demonstrations spread through Myanmar. The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, a nongovernmental organization that maps global crises, recorded 4,700 anti-coup demonstrations by the end of June, 98 percent of them peaceful.

The security forces soon turned to deadly weapons, turning cities into bloody battlefields. In parts of Yangon and Mandalay, the largest cities, the military imposed martial law — giving the generals total control, including over the judiciary and law enforcement.

By early April, as the risks associated with protesting grew, only a few pockets of large-scale resistance remained. One of these was in Bago, a city along Myanmar’s main highway connecting Yangon with the capital, Naypyidaw, and Mandalay.

Hoping to defend their city against the military, protesters built makeshift bunkers out of sandbags and other materials. Some were the height of two-story homes and ran across major streets and intersections. Tens of thousands took up positions in these fortifications during the day, protest leaders said, while a smaller group stayed at night alongside volunteer medics.

Protesters built mobile barricades like the one seen in this video shared on March 20 throughout the city. The barricades were moved from one place to another depending on necessity, residents told The Post.

Angered by the armed forces’ brutality toward peaceful demonstrators, some residents began to adopt violent tactics. They launched homemade bombs at military-linked targets and armed themselves with homemade guns. In early April, less than a week before the Bago massacre, videos showed the city’s residents carrying crude arms, as seen in this TikTok video posted on April 3.

On April 5, two unidentified men on motorcycles threw a homemade bomb into the Bago headquarters of MyTel, a military-operated telecommunications company. No casualties were reported, and witnesses told local media the bomb did not detonate. State media referred to the incident as a “violent” activity carried out by “terrorists.”

Day of terror

Phones across Bago began buzzing furiously on the evening of April 8 with news of an impending military operation. Most residents dismissed it as rumor, witnesses told The Post in interviews. Front-line protesters and medics took their positions at the barricades as usual. Then, their mobile Internet shut down — leaving them in a communications blackout.

Data collected by the IP Observatory, a research group at Australia’s Monash University that monitors the quality of Internet service around the world, shows the military blocked the Internet in Bago for increasingly longer periods in the days preceding April 9. Most days, the Internet was shut down overnight from 1 a.m. to 6 a.m. On weekends, the blockage lasted until 9 a.m., probably in anticipation of demonstrations. But as protests continued, the eight-hour offline period would extend to Mondays and Tuesdays.

“It seems [the military] got more nervous, or more ambitious with their appetite for this practice,” said Simon Angus, an associate professor with the Monash IP Observatory. After the massacre, the Internet shutdowns continued from 1 a.m. to 9 a.m. daily. The military restored full Internet access to the city 19 days later.

The data reveals that the military gave “orders most likely on a weekly, or perhaps daily, basis to the Internet service providers, given the pattern that emerges by day of the week,” Angus said.

Photos and eyewitness accounts show troops making their way toward the makeshift barricades along MaGaDit Road, a main north-south thoroughfare in Bago intersecting with the highway. Among them were soldiers from the Bago-based Light Infantry Division 77 — one of the elite military divisions that also led the 2017 crackdown against Rohingya Muslims — whose troops were stationed in Shin Saw Pu pagoda, near Aung’s home.

Myanmar security forces are positioned near Shin Saw Pu pagoda in the early morning of April 9.
Myanmar security forces are positioned near Shin Saw Pu pagoda in the early morning of April 9.

Military troops began attacking the first, smaller barricades where only a few protesters were stationed, before steadily moving south along MaGaDit Road. Using geolocated videos and measurements of shadows to estimate the time of day, The Post found that troops fired at several of these defense barricades, forcing protesters to retreat farther south.

Soe, a 24-year-old volunteer medic stationed at the defense barricade on Hmor Kan 17 Street and MaGaDit Road, said her team received their first wounded person around 6 a.m. He had been shot in the neck.

“At the first glance, we knew he was dead,” Soe said. “But his friend who carried him to our clinic was very upset and told us to save him.”

The friend, she said, soon accepted there was nothing that could be done and slung the body across his shoulder. But more and more injured began arriving, and the sound of gunfire became louder. Soe’s team was forced to retreat, leaving about 10 slain protesters behind.

“It was like the front line of war,” she said. “We are not medics who are trained for such a battlefield. We are just freshly graduated doctors and medical students.”

Zaya, a front-line protester also at a defense barricade along the same road, said he and others there heard the sounds of heavy weaponry around 9 a.m. The wall, which withstood gunfire for hours, began to shake and collapse. Soldiers then rushed forward, he said, shooting indiscriminately.

“They were killed like goats in a slaughterhouse,” he said.

The editor from Hantarwadi Media posted to Facebook at 10:23 a.m. that all the protester strongholds had been seized by the military, and that they were surrounded on all sides. Each time protesters were forced to move south, more troops were waiting for them.

Richard Horsey, senior adviser on Myanmar to the International Crisis Group who also reviewed The Post’s materials, said this tactic of “herding people into a ‘kill zone’ where troops are in position to trap and fire on an enemy” is “aimed at eliminating an opponent.”

“This is standard operating procedure for Myanmar’s light infantry shock troops, but totally inappropriate — and potentially a crime against humanity — when used against civilians,” he added.

To the east of MaGaDit Road, the military similarly advanced on protesters at a key defense post on San Daw Twin Road.

At The Post’s request, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s Language Technologies Institute ran the April 9 videos from Bago through a program developed at the university to detect the weapon type based on a data set of thousands of gunshot videos. At one of the northern barricades along MaGaDit Road, Junwei Liang, one of the researchers, concluded the military fired lethal, supersonic bullets, probably from a rifle, at the protesters.

Security forces had been photographed in Bago before April 9 along MaGaDit Road armed with the MA-1, the Tatmadaw’s standard rifle.

Witnesses told The Post that security forces used these rifles to try to bring down the massive sandbag barricades erected by protesters, and turned to rocket-propelled grenades when those failed. Several protest leaders said they were able to hold their positions against the gunfire but abandoned their posts immediately once they heard the sounds of heavier weapons.

“We all were expecting only bullets from them, not RPGs,” said Myo Ko, a 25-year-old protester who was at one of the barricades. “We were not even able to help each other.”

While The Post could not independently confirm the photos were taken in Bago, the photos were first posted online on April 9 and the metadata on the images are consistent with the time of the Bago attacks.

Rifle grenades are small munitions that fit over a barrel and explode on impact, according to Brian Castner, a weapons analyst for Amnesty International’s Crisis Team. “It’s only designed to kill,” he said. The munitions are different from rocket-propelled grenades, though the two are often confused because they share a similar silhouette, he added.

The shell from an exploded rifle grenade found in Bago following the military crackdown.
The shell from an exploded rifle grenade found in Bago following the military crackdown.
An unexploded rifle grenade found after the massacre. (Obtained by The Washington Post)
An unexploded rifle grenade found after the massacre. (Obtained by The Washington Post)

LEFT: The shell from an exploded rifle grenade found in Bago following the military crackdown. RIGHT: An unexploded rifle grenade found after the massacre. (Obtained by The Washington Post)

Front-line protesters, meanwhile, were armed with slingshots and crude, homemade guns, which they started carrying as early as April 3. At several barricades on the morning of the massacre, protesters tried unsuccessfully to defend themselves with these weapons.

“There was no way to resist or push back against the soldiers because we had only air-pressure guns at the best,” Zaya said. “Your comrades were lying on the streets with gunshot wounds, and you couldn’t do anything.”

Erasing evidence, silencing survivors

By early afternoon, the barricades were destroyed and more than 80 people had been killed. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, more than a quarter of the deaths occurred along MaGaDit Road. Soldiers, however, continued a campaign of terror for two days — going from house to house finding suspected protesters.

A photo taken in the aftermath showed the civilian defense post on San Daw Twin Road completely destroyed.

The remains of a civilian defense post along San Daw Twin Road that was destroyed on April 9.
The remains of a civilian defense post along San Daw Twin Road that was destroyed on April 9.
What's left of another of the several outposts cleared by forces during the assault on Bago.
What’s left of another of the several outposts cleared by forces during the assault on Bago.

LEFT: The remains of a civilian defense post along San Daw Twin Road that was destroyed on April 9. RIGHT: What’s left of another of the several outposts cleared by forces during the assault on Bago.

Myo Ko, the protest leader, said more than 100 police officers and soldiers raided his home, destroying everything in sight. They took motorbikes, sacks of rice, documents and cash, he said, replicating a pattern of looting common elsewhere in the country. Then they locked the gates so he could not return.

That same night, Aung once again saw soldiers in the pagoda on the move, this time loading bodies back onto the trucks and transporting them to a different location. After the trucks left, he said, soldiers removed the blood with water and soap.

“At around 11 p.m., the compound looked as if nothing happened there,” he said. “There was no blood nor no dead bodies left there.”

The military claimed that two members of the security forces and two rioters were injured, and only one was killed.

Hantarwadi Media’s Facebook page has not been updated since April 18.

Satellite imagery taken by Maxar Technologies on April 23 shows empty streets and no sign of the barricades.

The photos and videos that emerged from Bago in the wake of the massacre capture only a small percentage of the brutality and bloodshed, said Benjamin Strick of Myanmar Witness, a team collecting and investigating evidence of possible human rights incidents across Myanmar.

As the military restricted the Internet and increased monitoring of protesters, video and images shared from Myanmar became self-censored, he said. Fewer videos of demonstrations and military violence were filmed and shared with groups like his, he said, and photos were blurred to hide faces.

“Reviewing this footage is really scary to see because you feel like the carnage continues and you can’t see what happens, yet I feel like the people in Bago were so desperate to get the message out,” Strick said. Months on, his team still did not have a full picture of what happened in the city that day, he added.

Father’s sons

As the killings were taking place on the ground in Bago and elsewhere, some among the security forces were making their loyalties clear on social media — offering both insight into and evidence of the military’s thinking.

Myanmar’s military, which ruled the country for half a century before making way for a nominally civilian transition that began in 2010, remains the most powerful institution in the country but also the most secretive and insular. The success of operations like the one in Bago and elsewhere in the country hinges on the willingness of soldiers and police to follow instructions from commanders, and open fire against their own people.

The Post reviewed TikTok videos recorded by 200 police officers and soldiers in the wake of the February coup, most of them younger men. While it is not possible to geolocate these videos or connect them to specific massacres, they offer unique insight into the thinking of the military’s foot soldiers, and show why defections remain rare. These videos appear to display an unwavering loyalty to military commander Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, and in many cases, an enthusiasm for violent crackdowns against protesters.

Hundreds of the videos reviewed across these accounts contain violent language and threats, many of them sexually explicit, interspersed between videos of lip-synced duets and daily life. Soldiers and police officers celebrated the deaths of protesters, while others threatened female protesters with sexual violence. Many of these videos included emoji, music and other effects that are a hallmark of TikTok’s platform.

In a TikTok video posted a week after the coup, a soldier said while his gun was “not to shoot at people,” he threatened he could not “control [his] finger anymore” if his tolerance was tested.

A video posted in early March shows soldiers organizing items they took from protesters, including dozens of helmets and handmade shields.

Several accounts shared posts that mocked the “pots and pans” protest, a nightly ritual where civilians would bang these household items to show solidarity with protesters and their opposition to the military coup. (Obtained by The Washington Post)

In language consistent across multiple accounts, soldiers characterized themselves as “sons” of the commander in chief, whom they call father. They threatened “daughters” — the female protesters who support Aung San Suu Kyi, the ousted civilian leader now detained by the military. Several tried to conceal the patches on their uniforms, but occasionally the badge would peek through, revealing soldiers from notorious Light Infantry Division units.

In one video uploaded in March, a Tatmadaw soldier with a patch that suggests he is a member of Light Infantry Division 99, tells his followers to “get f — ed” if they do not accept military rule. Other videos show soldiers looting possessions from protesters and forcing detained protesters to mock themselves and others in the pro-democracy movement. One popular account with more than 20,000 followers regularly posts threatening messages against protesters and in one video shows an animated video game character decapitating Suu Kyi.

The Post downloaded these videos on June 10. At the time of publishing, 160 of the 197 of these accounts were still online.

U.N. officials and human rights groups say this type of dehumanizing language heightens the schism between the Tatmadaw and the rest of the population, and is a hallmark of the build up to large-scale crackdowns.

Such language “makes it possible for them to engage in these acts of brutality,” said Andrews, the U.N. official. “It enables them psychologically to do so.”

Taking up arms

On April 9, about 50 protesters from Bago who had survived the attacks fled to nearby villages, alongside other residents. Some, including 31-year-old Zaya, eventually made it to Karen state, a region controlled by an ethnic armed group that has spent decades at war with the military.

There, he trained for about two weeks and returned to Bago. He told The Post he was part of a team that assassinated a protest leader suspected of switching sides and joining the military.

“We have pretty strong members. With support from the people, I think it will not be that difficult to retake Bago,” he said.

These sentiments are reflected across the country. Community-drawn militias are striking back, attacking military targets and those aligned with the Myanmar security forces. The Tatmadaw has not released the total number of soldiers killed by militia attacks. In a speech on Aug. 1, Min Aung Hlaing said “violent protesters” were killing civilians and causing instability.

People train at a camp in Myanmar's Karen state, a region controlled by an ethnic armed group that has spent decades at war with the military.
People train at a camp in Myanmar’s Karen state, a region controlled by an ethnic armed group that has spent decades at war with the military. (AFP/Getty Images)
This photo taken on July 7, 2021 shows a member of the Karenni People Defense Force (KPDF) holding a homemade gun adorned with the words “Spring Revolution” in Myanmar script as he takes part in training at a camp near Demoso in Kayah state. — In their camp hidden in the forested hills of Kayah state near the Thai border, Myanmar anti-junta volunteers practice firing their homemade weapons, do physical training, and play guitar in between skirmishes with the military. (Photo by STR / AFP) / To go with 'MYANMAR-POLITICS-MILITARY-COUP, PHOTOESSAY' (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)
This photo taken on July 7, 2021 shows a member of the Karenni People Defense Force (KPDF) holding a homemade gun adorned with the words “Spring Revolution” in Myanmar script as he takes part in training at a camp near Demoso in Kayah state. — In their camp hidden in the forested hills of Kayah state near the Thai border, Myanmar anti-junta volunteers practice firing their homemade weapons, do physical training, and play guitar in between skirmishes with the military. (Photo by STR / AFP) / To go with ‘MYANMAR-POLITICS-MILITARY-COUP, PHOTOESSAY’ (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images) (STR/AFP via Getty Images)
This photo taken on July 7, 2021 shows a member of the Karenni People Defense Force (KPDF) preparing their weapon as another plays guitar during their down time while taking part in military training at their camp near Demoso in Kayah state. — In their camp hidden in the forested hills of Kayah state near the Thai border, Myanmar anti-junta volunteers practice firing their homemade weapons, do physical training, and play guitar in between skirmishes with the military. (Photo by STR / AFP) / To go with 'MYANMAR-POLITICS-MILITARY-COUP, PHOTOESSAY' (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)
This photo taken on July 7, 2021 shows a member of the Karenni People Defense Force (KPDF) preparing their weapon as another plays guitar during their down time while taking part in military training at their camp near Demoso in Kayah state. — In their camp hidden in the forested hills of Kayah state near the Thai border, Myanmar anti-junta volunteers practice firing their homemade weapons, do physical training, and play guitar in between skirmishes with the military. (Photo by STR / AFP) / To go with ‘MYANMAR-POLITICS-MILITARY-COUP, PHOTOESSAY’ (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images) (STR/AFP via Getty Images)
This photo taken on July 6, 2021 shows members of the Karenni People Defense Force (KPDF) taking part in military training at their camp near Demoso in Kayah state. — In their camp hidden in the forested hills of Kayah state near the Thai border, Myanmar anti-junta volunteers practice firing their homemade weapons, do physical training, and play guitar in between skirmishes with the military. (Photo by STR / AFP) / To go with 'MYANMAR-POLITICS-MILITARY-COUP, PHOTOESSAY' (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)
This photo taken on July 6, 2021 shows members of the Karenni People Defense Force (KPDF) taking part in military training at their camp near Demoso in Kayah state. — In their camp hidden in the forested hills of Kayah state near the Thai border, Myanmar anti-junta volunteers practice firing their homemade weapons, do physical training, and play guitar in between skirmishes with the military. (Photo by STR / AFP) / To go with ‘MYANMAR-POLITICS-MILITARY-COUP, PHOTOESSAY’ (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images) (STR/AFP via Getty Images)
People train at a camp in Myanmar’s Karen state, a region controlled by an ethnic armed group that has spent decades at war with the military.

As Myanmar’s economy collapses and anarchy takes hold, the Tatmadaw continues to operate with impunity. In a June report, the International Crisis Group said armed resistance to the Myanmar coup could displace thousands and exacerbate the humanitarian crisis. Meanwhile, the country’s health-care system is on the brink of collapse as coronavirus infections and deaths rise rapidly — including in jails. Activists and former politicians locked up since the coup are without adequate treatment for the highly transmissible delta variant.

“People have lost hope that the international community will do anything meaningful to stop this horror, so they are trying to defend themselves and their families,” Andrews said.

More and more are joining local militias, Zaya said, angered in particular by the junta’s handling of the country’s spiraling coronavirus outbreak. The Bago People’s Defense Force, he said, has formed its second brigade and now has more than 1,000 members who have completed military training.

But even as he continues his fight against the Myanmar military, he carries the scars of his experience in Bago.

“It is very hard to get rid of these thoughts. I can’t sleep and have to be drunk to fall asleep,” he said. “But I noticed I fall asleep easily after I have killed a soldier or police officer.”

About this story

Three Myanmar journalists whose names The Washington Post is withholding for safety reasons contributed to this report.

Satellite imagery ©2021 Maxar Technologies.

Project editing by Nadine Ajaka, Reem Akkad and David Crawshaw. Photo editing by Karly Domb Sadof. Graphics by Júlia Ledur and Atthar Mirza. Graphics editing by Chiqui Esteban and Tim Meko. Design and development by Yutao Chen. Copy editing by Frances Moody.

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