Myanmar government rebuts massacre reports as 'conspiracy'

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A man rides a motorbike on an empty street near a railway station Friday, Dec. 10, 2021, in Mandalay, central Myanmar. Streets were seen empty in Mandalay Friday as people participated in a "silent strike" to mark International Human Rights Day. Many offices, shops and restaurants were closed and people stayed indoors in protest of the military takeover. (AP Photo)

BANGKOK – Myanmar’s military-installed government has described as “fake news” reports that its troops were involved in a widely reported massacre in the country’s northwest in which soldiers allegedly rounded up and killed 11 civilians whose charred bodies were later discovered by fellow villagers.

The denial was published Friday as opponents of the military's February takeover put on a show of strength, with citizens staying off the streets in cities and towns in what was called a “silent strike.”

A report in the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper accused “the nation-destroying media” of spreading a video that it said misrepresented the massacre as having been carried out by Myanmar security forces.

“The initial on-ground investigation revealed that such a video file was not (at all) related to undertakings of the Tatmadaw and that it was a conspiracy to tarnish the image of the Tatmadaw,” the report said, using the formal name for the country’s military. It gave no further details about the killings.

“The video has been immediately and widely circulated on social media because of a conspiracy by local and international connections,” the report said.

Photos and video of smoldering corpses in Done Taw village in Sagaing region circulated widely, sparking outrage. They were said to be have been taken shortly after the men were killed and their bodies set on fire.

Independent media in Myanmar, generally forced to operate underground due to government restrictions and intimidation, issued accounts of the killings based on interviews with witnesses and residents of the area. Their reports said it was believed to have been in retaliation for an attack on government forces by members of a local unit of the People’s Defense Force, a lightly armed militia that confronts security forces.

Opposition to military rule has been widespread and constant since the army ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. There has been an upsurge in violence since security forces used lethal force to crush peaceful demonstrations, but much of the resistance remains nonviolent.

In an action designed to coincide with International Human Rights Day, streets in cities and towns around the country appeared to be deserted Friday as people overwhelmingly heeded a call to stay home. Row of businesses and markets were shut in the largest city, Yangon, and normally jam-packed roads were empty of traffic. There were similar scenes in the second-largest city of Mandalay.

The “silent strike” provided a cover of safely expressing opposition to the military authorities, and was due to last for six hours, ending in late afternoon.

Resistance activities have been taking place in the cities and the countryside, but the fighting is deadliest in rural areas where the army has unleashed greater force. In recent months the fighting has been sharpest in Sagaing and other areas of the northwest.

Friday’s newspaper story, which was headlined “Press Release on Misinformation and Disinformation Appearing on Social Media,” accused unnamed countries “wishing to disintegrate Myanmar” of inciting bloodshed to spread hatred and to escalate the conflict.

“In such doing, they provided fake news about the casualties of security forces in order to inspire and motivate terrorists and their supporters,” it said, referring to allegations of killings by the army.

It alleged there was a conspiracy “spending a huge amount of money and providing technical support to spreading misinformation across social media in synchronization domestically and internationally.”

The same newspaper report cited an incident on Sunday in which a military vehicle deliberately plowed into a small group of non-violent pro-democracy protesters in Yangon, the country’s biggest city. Witnesses said that at least three people appeared grievously injured, and photos showed them lying in the street. News reports said it appeared that three to five people had been killed in the attack.

The report accused the protesters of consisting of “terrorists, and would be transforming into terrorism,” said that security forces ”have to undertake counterterrorism measures."