Since the Myanmar military staged a coup 8 weeks ago, activists say it has killed more than 800 people. An open source investigation released Wednesday from the Human Rights Center and the Associated Press shows Myanmar's military tried to use the killings to terrorize the country. Nick Schifrin speaks to Alexa Koenig, executive director of the Human Rights Center, about the killings and motives.
Since the Myanmar military overthrew the government and staged a coup eight weeks ago, activists say security forces have killed more than 800 people.
Now an open source investigation released today from a human rights organization and the Associated Press reveals how the Myanmar military has sought to use those killings to terrorize the country.
Nick Schifrin reports.
Thanks to brave local journalists and activists, the world has witnessed the horror, of the crackdown in Myanmar. Much of it is so violent, we can't show it to you without blurring the video, activists shot, their bodies taken away, soldiers beating demonstrators, security forces killing demonstrators, and then dragging their bodies through the street.
And now the Human Rights Center Investigative Lab at Berkeley and the AP found the Myanmar military used dead bodies, corpses who were killed indiscriminately as a tool of war to try and control an entire population.
Alexa Koenig is the center's executive director. She is also a professor at Berkeley School of Law. And she joins me now.
Professor Koenig, welcome to the "NewsHour."
What did you investigate? And what did you find?
In the wake of the February 1 military coup in Myanmar, we partnered up with the Associated Press to try to get a sense of what was happening on the ground.
We were beginning to hear a number of stories from sources, from social media that there was widespread violence. We all know about the protests that were taking place.
So, one of the things that we began doing here at the Human Rights Center Investigations Lab is combing social media for videos, for photographs that could help tell that story. We began scraping that information. We ended up with about 2,000 to 3,000 tweets, and combing through those tweets to get a sense of any patterns of behavior that we might see.
And what quickly kind of bubbled up to the surface was the fact that we were seeing civilians or what looked to be civilians being shot by what appeared to be military in broad daylight, often dragged into the backs of trucks.
And then we were hearing from some of our sources on the ground and through additional reporting that many of these bodies, when they were returned, and if they were returned to families, the families were being told a very different story about what had happened to their loved one than what they could see in front of them.
So, they may be told, for example, that this individual had had a heart attack, when there was evidence of potential torture.
For those of us who have been covering this for the last few months, watching these horrific videos, it often seemed like the killings were random.
But were they, in fact, not random at all, and instead designed to terrorize?
I think it really depends on what you mean by random.
I think that, a lot of times, when you see these kinds of apparently discriminatory — indiscriminate killings, the very randomness of that can be an act of psychological warfare, designed to create a sense of widespread vulnerability among populations, a widespread sense of fear.
I think it certainly raises the possibility that you or your loved one could be killed at any time in broad light — in broad daylight with potential impunity.
And so I think there's a lot of attention brought to physical acts of warfare, the droppings of bombs, mass killings, et cetera, but less so about the ways that psychology can be utilized to really terrorize populations.
I want to highlight a particular video from your investigation that ,unfortunately, we have actually aired on the "NewsHour" before.
Security forces in a pickup truck stop as a white motorbike drives by. A member of the security forces fires from just a few feet away. Two men escape, but one has been shot through the neck. We now know that man was Kyaw Min Watt. He was only 17. And his family says he was not a demonstrator.
And when the military hospital released him, it claimed the cause of death was — quote — "fall from motorcycle."
How did you confirm this incident? And what does it tell you?
We certainly used satellite imagery to try and pinpoint the location where this particular incident occurred and to verify the surrounding context around it.
I believe the Associated Press also did additional reporting to check with their sources and see if they could ascertain more information and more details. I believe the family, as you know, has also said that, of course, what they we're told around this particular incident was that their loved one died from falling off the bike.
I think that is obviously in direct tension with what we see, which is the shooting of the particular individual and — or at least the shots ringing out and him falling to the ground while the two others run off.
You also highlighted this video from the report, a demonstrator's dead body being loaded onto a military truck.
What did the military do with the bodies of the people it killed?
Another pattern that seems to have come to light from this investigation is the frequent cremation of many of the people who have been taken by the military off the streets in Myanmar.
For many families and households, that would not be the cultural practice that they would engage in. And it, of course, means that they don't have a chance to see their loved one's bodies and to say goodbye.
For some people, they were disappeared and never heard from again. And then, of course, we have that third cluster of individuals who were returned to their loved ones, but with stories that didn't match what they were seeing about what had likely transpired while their loved one was in custody around the time of death.
And, finally, the Myanmar military has cracked down before, of course, 1988, 2007, and killed thousands.
The difference this time, of course, is that we have video. Will that help those who are seeking justice against this regime?
We certainly hope so.
I think one trend that we're seeing in international criminal justice, national war crimes tribunals is an increasing use of content that's pulled from social media to help prove the facts of a particular case.
We have had a couple of instances in the International Criminal Court where videos pulled from Facebook, for example, have been used in international arrest warrants. And, increasingly, we're seeing tools like the Berkeley Protocol, which is a tool that was just released to help war crimes tribunals understand how to use this kind of content, as a foundation of evidence to shore up what survivors are saying is happening in their communities.
Alexa Koenig, thank you very much.
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Nick Schifrin is the foreign affairs and defense correspondent for PBS NewsHour, based in Washington, D.C. He leads NewsHour's foreign reporting and has created week-long, in-depth series for NewsHour from China, Russia, Ukraine, Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, Cuba, Mexico, and the Baltics. The PBS NewsHour series "Inside Putin's Russia" won a 2018 Peabody Award and the National Press Club's Edwin M. Hood Award for Diplomatic Correspondence. In November 2020, Schifrin received the American Academy of Diplomacy’s Arthur Ross Media Award for Distinguished Reporting and Analysis of Foreign Affairs.
As the deputy senior producer for foreign affairs and defense at the PBS NewsHour, Dan plays a key role in helping oversee and produce the program’s foreign affairs and defense stories. His pieces have broken new ground on an array of military issues, exposing debates simmering outside the public eye.
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