A Myanmar military court has jailed seven soldiers for five years each with hard labour for murdering five ethnic minority villagers in June, state media said on Friday, in a rare prosecution of military personnel.
The seven, including four officers, will serve their time in civilian prisons, said a report from a court martial in northeastern Myanmar.
[caption id="attachment_16453" align="alignleft" width="450"] Buddhist novice monks walk past soldiers in Lashio on May 30, 2013
Soldiers have often been accused of serious human rights abuses in Myanmar's long-running wars with ethnic armed groups, but the allegations are rarely acknowledged, let alone heard in court.
Sai Kaung Kham, an activist who helped residents of northern Shan state's Mong Yaw village demand justice for the June killing of their family members, said he was surprised the military had taken action at all.
“The fact they have been sentenced to imprisonment is better than nothing," he said.
Myanmar's army ran the country for almost five decades before initiating a transition to civilian rule that saw Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi take power in April.
Military leaders, keen to build military-to-military ties with Western armies, have made efforts to present the still-powerful army as a responsible partner in country's transition.
After the killings in Mong Yaw, one of the military's highest-ranking officers held an unprecedented news conference in July to say that soldiers were responsible for the deaths of five residents.
Lt Gen Mya Tun Oo said at time the military would support the victims' families.
On June 25, soldiers entered Mong Yaw – populated mainly by members of the Shan and Palaung ethnic groups, and rounded up dozens of men they suspected of aiding the Ta'ang National Liberation Army, a Palaung militia that has been fighting government forces in the area for several years, witnesses have told Reuters.
Five badly beaten corpses were later pulled from shallow graves and identified as missing villagers.
The military has not accepted responsibility for the deaths of two other men killed fleeing the village on a motorcycle.
During the trial, the accused admitted their involvement in the killing. The army invited 15 residents from the remote village of Mong Yaw to witness the court martial at a nearby military base on August 9.
"The judge read the murder case reports and asked for confessions from the soldiers, who admitted they were responsible," Sai Kaung Kham had said.
[caption id="attachment_16451" align="alignleft" width="644"] Lt Gen Mya Tun Oo
Both the news conference by one of the country's most senior generals and the invitation to villagers to attend the military trial were unprecedented. The army has occasionally acknowledged troops have been at fault in previous incidents, but has usually done so in vaguely worded official statements.
Knifed to death
Mong Yaw lies in a distant corner of Shan State, where thousands of people have been displaced by decades of fighting between the military and ethnic insurgents.
Three officers and three lower-ranking soldiers have admitted murdering the villagers, according to the witnesses present at the court martial on August 9.
The seventh serviceman, the highest-ranking of those on trial, said he did not order the soldiers to "kill" the villagers, but to "clear them out."
The soldiers said they had arrested and interrogated five men and found two of them were related to a local ethnic armed group. They said they asked their superiors for further instructions.
The low-ranking soldiers then proceeded to kill the villagers, acting on orders. "They were worried that if they let the three villagers go back, they would tell others they had been tortured," the soldiers told the court martial.
Before killing them, the soldiers dressed some of the men in camouflage trousers, Sai Kaung Kham and other witnesses said.
Aye Lu, the wife of Aik Sai who was one of the men killed, said that at the court martial one of the soldiers admitted knifing her husband to death.