Myanmar military said to kill hundreds in Sagaing, Magway after blocking internet

Observers say the junta hoped to cover up crimes ahead of offensives in the two regions.

Myanmar military said to kill hundreds in Sagaing, Magway after blocking internet
The smoking remains of homes destroyed by the Myanmar military in Khin-U township's Ngar Tin Gyi village, Sagaing region, April 4, 2022.

Myanmar’s military killed nearly 800 civilians and burned down almost 26,000 houses in Sagaing and Magway regions in the year since authorities cut off internet access to townships where anti-junta armed resistance is strongest, according to an investigation by RFA Burmese.

In compiling data based on witnesses and local reports, RFA found that at least 643 people were killed in Sagaing and 132 in Magway within the year ending Sept. 15. A total of 20,524 houses were destroyed by fire in Sagaing and 5,427 in Magway over the same period.

Beginning on Sept. 15, 2021, the authorities cut off internet access to the Sagaing townships of Kani, Salingyi. Pale, Budalin, Wuntho, Pinlebu and Kawlin — areas where junta troops have faced some of the fiercest opposition to military rule — and then launched an offensive in the areas.

Local anti-junta People’s Defense Force (PDF) paramilitaries said authorities did the same on March 3, in some 20 other townships in the region, including Khin-U, Myaung, Tabayin, Indaw, Taze, Tamu and Homalin.

The leader of the Khin-U Support Organization, a PDF group based in Khin-U, said the internet shutdowns were part of a bid by the military to black out reports of oppression and killings by junta troops.

“The internet was cut off mainly for their military purposes and was politically motivated,” he said. “We had to deal with many situations where we could not communicate as easily as before. They had an advantage in communications but from a military point of view, it did little for them.”

He said many people in the townships had lost their lives or their homes as a result of the military offensives, while the internet shutdown blocked access to education, healthcare and income for countless others.

Beginning on Sept. 23, 2021, authorities also shut down internet access in the Magway townships of Gangaw, Myaing and Tilin.

A resident of Gangaw’s Hnan Khar village said that, since then, the military has been raiding the township on a monthly basis.

“Military columns came to our villages once or twice a month after the internet was cut off,” said the resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing fear of reprisal.

“As there was no flow of information, the people couldn’t be warned [ahead of the raids] and were caught offguard, arrested, tortured and killed. We saw junta soldiers doing whatever they pleased — killing people and burning down villages.”

The resident said villagers have no way to send out photos and videos of the military's crimes because of the internet shutdown, and that people have been deleting the evidence from their phones because keeping the images leaves them vulnerable to arrest.

Attempts by RFA to contact junta Deputy Information Minister Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Htun for more information on the situation in Sagaing and Magway regions went unanswered Wednesday.

Villagers protest the junta with a banner reading 'You may cut the communications, not our revolutionary spirit.' The multi-village protest was held by residents from Yinmarbin and Salingyi townships, Sagaing region, Myanmar, June 5, 2022. Credit: Citizen Journalist

Aung Myo Min, minister of human rights for Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government (NUG), said the military’s use of internet access as a tactic constitutes a violation of human rights.

“Blocking the internet is a violation of human rights, and doing so to cover up their crimes is a much more serious one,” he said. “They are using it as a strategy, with the aim of blacking out information and committing various crimes and violence against the people.”

Veteran journalist Myint Kyaw told RFA that while the junta may have blocked access to the internet solely to gain a military advantage, doing so severely impacted people’s everyday lives.

“They should have considered the fact that it would hurt tens of thousands of people living in these regions — their social lives as well as their access to health and education,” he said.

“In a world where access to the internet is seen as a basic right, this point becomes more important and I think we need to investigate this action.”

Political observer Than Soe Naing said that, try as they might, junta leaders cannot cover up military atrocities.

“They are trying to prevent the people and the international community from learning of their crimes and the violence being visited on the regions’ inhabitants,” he said. “The reality of the situation is that they can’t do that in today's world.”

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said earlier this month that there are at least 528,300 people displaced by conflict in Sagaing and 98,100 in Magway.

In Chin state, where opposition to the junta is also strong, the military has cut off access to the internet everywhere except the capital Haka, residents say. Authorities have also cut internet lines in Kayah state’s Hpruso and Hpasawng townships.