Several dissidents who spoke critically of the junta takeover of Myanmar’s democratically elected government have died in detention and were given crude autopsies before their bodies were returned to their families, prompting observers to call for a probe into the circumstances surrounding their deaths.
Zaw Htun, also known as the Poet Khet Thi, was arrested by junta security forces in Sagaing region’s Shwebo township and sent for interrogation on May 9, after months of taking part in nationwide protests against the military’s Feb. 1 coup and calling for resistance to the regime through his poetry.
Less than 24 hours later, his family was informed of his death and told to collect his body at a hospital in the region’s largest city Monywa. His wife said that authorities informed her Zaw Htun had died from a health condition, but she found his body covered in bruises and missing its internal organs, leading her to believe he had been killed in custody.
Bo Kyi, secretary of the Thailand-based rights group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), said his organization had seen “a number of such cases” in the aftermath of the military putsch, as security forces have killed 861 people in violent crackdowns on mass protests and detained, charged, or sentenced more than 4,800.
“They cut the body open and sew it back very crudely,” Bo Kyi said, adding that it is unclear why “they have to remove some internal organs without families’ consent.”
“Usually, it is done to the bodies of people they arrested a day earlier that died during interrogation. They then return the disfigured bodies to the families the next day,” he said.
“I think they are trying to instill fear in the public. They are sending a message about what will happen to those who resist their rule.”
Zaw Htun’s death followed those in March of Khin Maung Latt, the election campaign manager for the ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) party for Yangon city’s Pabaedan township, and Zaw Myat Linn, an NLD member who ran a vocational training center in Yangon’s Shwe Pyi Tha township.
The two men were arrested on March 6 and 8 respectively and their families were informed of their deaths the following day, although authorities provided little information about the circumstances in which they died. The bodies of both men were returned to their families at Mingalardon Military Hospital in northern Yangon, had been cut open and sewn up crudely, and exhibited signs of trauma—including multiple bruises and wounds.
Khin Maung Latt, 58, was a devout Muslim and the father of Sithu Maung, one of the NLD’s two Muslims to be elected in the country’s November 2020 elections, which the junta has claimed were won by the NLD because of widespread voter fraud, although it has yet to produce credible evidence. Zaw Myat Linn was an outspoken critic of the military coup who was well-respected in his home township.
In a related case, 18-year-old medical student Khant Nyar Hein was shot dead by junta security forces during an anti-coup protest in Yangon on March 14 and his family members said that they had to plead with authorities not to perform an autopsy on his body before returning it to them.
“I heard the authorities say they planned to perform autopsy on my son’s body, Khant Nyar Hein’s father told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“I begged them not to cut open his body. My son died young, and his body was intact. We preferred to cremate my son’s body that way. So, we managed to avoid that.”
‘Outrageous and unacceptable’
Win Kyi, a senior member of the NLD party, called the killing of protesters and the mutilation of their bodies “totally unacceptable, both legally and morally.”
“They are killing people arbitrarily and, on top of that, they are taking out their internal organs and sewing them back up with hideous stitches,” he said.
“They are supposed to handle the bodies of victims with respect. I can only imagine how tragic this is for the surviving family members.”
Phil Robertson, deputy director of New York-based Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, condemned the arbitrary detention and torture of dissidents and agreed that autopsies should not be conducted without the consent of family members.
“Removing internal organs would require permission from either the deceased person before they died or the family,” he said.
“Intrusive actions by the authorities to remove organs from the body for whatever reason is of the deceased person without permission is outrageous and unacceptable.”
Robertson called for an investigation into deaths such as those of Zaw Htun, Khin Maung Latt, Zaw Myat Linn, and Khant Nyar Hein.
“The problem, of course, is that Myanmar’s military is trying to cover everything up,” he said.
Efforts by RFA to contact the military’s Information Committee about the deaths in custody and unauthorized autopsies went unanswered Friday.
Reported and translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.