When the young farmhand returned to his village in Myanmar, he found the still smoldering corpses in a circle in a burned-out hut, some with their limbs tied.
The Myanmar military had stormed Done Taw at 11 a.m. on Dec. 7, he told the AP, with about 50 soldiers hunting people on foot. The farmhand and other villagers fled to the forest and fields, but 10 were captured and killed, including five teenagers, with one only 14, he said. A photo taken by his friend shows the charred remains of a victim lying face down, holding his head up, suggesting he was burned alive.
“I am very upset, it is unacceptable,” said the 19-year-old, who like others interviewed by the AP asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal.
The carnage at Done Taw is just one of the most recent signs that the Myanmar military is reverting to a strategy of massacres as a weapon of war, according to an AP investigation based on interviews with 40 witnesses, social media, satellite imagery and data on deaths.
The massacres and scorched-earth tactics — such as the razing of entire villages — represent the latest escalation in the military’s violence against both civilians and the growing opposition. Since the military seized power in February, it has cracked down ever more brutally, abducting young men and boys, killing health care workers and torturing prisoners.
The massacres and burnings also signal a return to practices that the military has long used against ethnic minorities such as the Muslim Rohingya, thousands of whom were killed in 2017. The military is now accused of killing at least 35 civilians on Christmas Eve in Mo So village in an eastern region home to the Karenni minority. A witness told the AP that many of the bodies of the men, women and children were burned beyond recognition.
But this time, the military is also using the same methods against people and villages of its own Buddhist Bamar ethnic majority. The focus of most of the latest killings has been in the northwest, including in a Bamar heartland where support for the opposition is strong.
More than 80 people have died in killings of three or more in the Sagaing region alone since August, according to data from the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, or AAPP, a group that monitors verified arrests and deaths in Myanmar. These include the deaths of those in Done Taw, five people in Gaung Kwal village on Dec. 12 and nine in Kalay township on Dec. 23, part of a trend that has made Sagaing the deadliest region in Myanmar.
The military is also reprising a hallmark tactic of destroying entire villages where there may be support for the opposition. Satellite imagery the AP obtained from Maxar Technologies shows that more than 580 buildings have been burned in the northwestern town of Thantlang alone since September.
The violence appears to be a response to the local resistance forces springing up across the country, but the military is wiping out civilians in the process. In Done Taw, for example, the military moved in after a convoy hit a roadside bomb nearby, but the people killed were not part of any resistance, another villager told the AP.
“They were just normal workers on the betel-leaf plantation,” the 48-year-old welder said. “They hid because they were afraid.”
As fresh soldiers have flowed into Chin state, residents have reported troops putting down protests with live rounds and brutal beatings. A teacher in the town of Mindat said many fled early on, but she was determined not to be forced out.
Then the military fired artillery into the town so the “houses would shake like an earthquake,” she said. Her cousin, a member of the PDF, was killed by a sniper and his body boobytrapped, the teacher said.
That evening, villagers tried to move the body from a distance with a stick. The body blew up.
“We didn’t get back a body,” she said. “Instead we had to collect pieces.”
She fled to neighboring India in October.
A half-day’s drive west from Mindat lies Matupi, a town with two military camps that is now bereft of its young people, according to a college student who fled with her two teenage brothers in October. She said the military had locked people into houses and set them alight, hid bombs in churches and schools, killed three protest leaders she knew and left bodies in the middle of roads to terrorize people.
Yet the resistance has spread, she said.
“People are scared of the military, but they want democracy and they are fighting for democracy,” she said from India, where she now lives. “They are screaming for democracy.”