At least 22 people, including three monks, were killed at a monastery in Myanmar’s Southern Shan State on Saturday as local insurgent groups and the military-backed junta accused each other of carrying out a massacre.
Myanmar has been mired in political violence since military leader Min Aung Hlaing seized power in a 2021 coup that upturned any hope the Southeast Asian nation of 55 million people would become a functioning democracy.
The coup was followed by a brutal military crackdown against pro-democracy protesters that saw civilians shot in the street, abducted in nighttime raids and allegedly tortured in detention.
Since the coup, at least 2,900 people in Myanmar have been killed by junta troops and over 17,500 arrested, the majority of whom are still in detention, according to advocacy group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).
The coup has also resulted in a surge in fighting between the military and a raft of resistance groups allied with long-established ethnic militias in a country that has been plagued for decades by insurgencies.
Resistance groups have repeatedly accused Myanmar’s military of carrying out mass killings, air strikes and war crimes against civilians in the regions where fighting has raged, charges the junta repeatedly denies – despite a growing body of evidence.
The latest allegation of an atrocity emerged last week in Shan State, the remote and mountainous northeastern chunk of Myanmar that borders China, Laos and Thailand.
Photos and a video taken of the incident, provided by the Karenni Nationalities Defence Force (KNDF) and verified by CNN, showed at least 21 bodies piled up around the Nan Nein Monastery, located in the village of Nan Nein in Pinlaung Township.
Many were seen wearing civilian clothes and had multiple gunshot wounds. Among them were also three bodies dressed in saffron orange robes, traditionally worn by Buddhist monks.
In the video provided by the group, visible bullet holes could be seen on the walls of the monastery.
The bodies were seen lined up and slumped against the monastery’s walls with pools of blood on the ground below.
Both the KNDF and Myanmar’s military agree fighting took place in the area but two competing narratives have emerged in the aftermath of the killings at the monastery.
“The Burmese military killed three monks and 19 civilians on 11 March,” KNDF spokesman Philip Soe Aung told CNN. “Our troops arrived at the monastery on 12 March and saw the dead bodies.”
Fierce fighting had taken place between local insurgent groups and Myanmar’s military in an area near Nan Nein Village last week.
That fighting spilled over with the military shelling and launching airstrikes directly at the village forcing the civilians to take refuge in the nearby monastery, Soe Aung said.
Describing the carnage, Soe Aung said: “These civilians and monks were tortured and executed by the Burmese military.”
“The monks did not want to leave their monastery so civilians and monks stayed there together,” he continued.
Because of the way the bodies were discovered lined up in front of the monastery, Soe Aung suggested that they were killed by “a hit squad.”
The victims were all unarmed and many bodies showed signs of “torture and beatings” with “sustained bullet wounds to the head,” he added.
Myanmar’s junta spokesperson Major General Zaw Min Tun dismissed accusations the military was responsible.
In comments carried by the state run newspaper Global Light of Myanmar on Tuesday, he blamed “terrorist groups” for the violence at the monastery, naming the Karen National Police Force (KNPF), the People’s Defence Force (PDF) and the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), an administration uniting ethnic groups in the state.
Zaw Min Tun claimed fighters opened fire after “the Tatmadaw (cooperated) with the local people’s militia and took security measures for the region.”
“When the terrorist groups violently opened fire… some villagers were killed and injured. (Others) ran away.”
But Soe Aung, the Karenni Nationalities Defence Force spokesman, told CNN “military outposts” were scattered along the route leading to the village. But he said there were no PDF or KNDF armies in the village or the monastery.
“It is not our policy to put fighters in the village because it could bring conflicts to the civilians,” he said.
The area has seen fighting for several weeks, he added – most of it concentrated in surrounding jungle and mountain areas.
The Myanmar military’s attack on the Nan Nein Village also included a “bombardment” involving air strikes, according to the KNDF.
In a separate statement to CNN, a spokesperson for the Karenni Army (KA), the armed wing of the KNPP, confirmed that fighting broke out in Nan Nein Village on 10 March “between the military and combined forces of KA, KNDF and the PDF troops.”
Myanmar’s military and junta spokesperson did not respond to CNN requests for comment.
The junta’s coup toppled the government of democratically elected civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was later sentenced to 33 years in jail following a string of secretive and highly-politicized proceedings.
Aung Myo Min, spokesman for the National Unity Government that represents the ousted civilian leadership, called the latest attack in Nan Nein village “a terror campaign” and said the country was in the “worst situation” right now.
“In the past three months, there has been an increasing number of civilians killed. The number of mass killings committed by the military has increased and… the military has been using more forms of violence against the people,” he said.
“The casualties in this massacre… it’s very clear that they are civilians (and) not involved in any kind of opposition movement against the military,” he added.
Myo Min described the killings as “cold blooded” and said they fit a pattern of the Myanmar military routinely attacking civilians.
Asia deputy director of Human Rights Watch Phil Robertson called for stern action.
“Every day across the country, Myanmar’s military and police are committing brutal acts that constitute crimes against humanity. Massacring civilians in a hail of bullets at a Buddhist monastery shows the desperate savagery of a regime wholly divorced from the Burmese people,” Robertson said.
“Governments around the world should recognize that Myanmar’s military junta government does not care about words,” he added.
“It must be hit by a global arms embargo imposed by the UN and the kind of decisive sanctions needed against the Tatmadaw and its business interests… that keep this atrocious, rights abusing military in the field – massacring civilians without remorse.”