Myanmar junta troops said to have held preschoolers as ‘human shields’ after raid

Anti-junta paramilitaries on Monday freed some 100 preschool children and other residents they say Myanmar’s military had detained as “human shields” against a counterattack in a village in embattled Sagaing region’s Yinmabin township.

Residents of Yinmabin’s Chin Pone village told RFA’s Myanmar Service that they were attending a funeral service on Saturday when two military helicopters attacked a training camp for the prodemocracy People’s Defense Force (PDF) paramilitary group located just west of the settlement.

According to one witness, around 40 troops descended from two additional helicopters and arrested anyone who was unable to flee the area, including some 100 preschoolers and other villagers.

After holding the village for two days, troops left Chin Pone at around 10 a.m. on Monday — but not before torching four homes and several motorbikes.

A PDF fighter, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told RFA that when members of his group entered Chin Pone to free the detainees from the village school on Monday, they discovered more than a dozen bodies in the building.

“One of my brothers found them in the school when he went in to retrieve the children,” he said.

“He said there were four bodies in one place, two more in another place and a seventh in a third place. Additionally, there were six bodies, including a young woman’s, at the entrance of the preschool on the south side of the monastery. So, a total of 13 bodies were found. Two of them were from our village.”

The children and nine teachers and villagers were taken to a safe place by residents after the army left the area, the PDF fighter said.

Residents told RFA that while troops are no longer in the village, they were unable to retrieve the bodies because of the threat of booby-traps.

They said the military vacated Chin Pone at approximately the same time that helicopters carried out another attack on the nearby Yinmabin villages of Thabyay Aye, Kyauk Pyut and Wah Sein Taung.

“The billowing smoke can be seen from here and there is still a helicopter in the area,” said one resident, who was observing Chin Pone from a village about one mile away. “All of our stashed valuables were said to be taken away and the houses where [troops] found weapons were destroyed.”

Sources told RFA that more than 5,000 residents from some 10 surrounding villages fled their homes during the Saturday raid on Chin Pone.

‘Training terrorists’

A pro-junta media outlet reported that fighting broke out Chin Pone on Saturday after the military carried out checks on a local monastery and school following a tip that PDF units were hiding there. It said that troops killed six male and female PDF members in a firefight and seized weapons, ammunition and dozens of vehicles.

Junta Deputy Information Minister Zaw Min Tun confirmed the incident, telling RFA that people in the village had been “training PDF terrorists.”

“During the raid, the security forces seized some of them along with eight homemade firearms, four homemade mortars, some mortar shells and homemade mines, he said. “The detainees are now being questioned in accordance with the law. I don’t know the numbers.

“They were holding training sessions in schools and monasteries. Some of them were killed in the clash and some of our troops were injured. The preschool children were kept in the school because the terrorists were fleeing in all directions.”

However, Ko Khant, a member of the North Yamar PDF, said the army’s detention of the children and other residents of Chin Pone village amounted to using civilians as “human shields.”

“The main reason that they were using the children as human shields is because they were afraid of being attacked,” he said.

Ko Khant said he believes that the troops detained people in the village with the intention of using them as protection because “not all of the children were trapped in the confusion” of the initial raid.

“The soldiers took them as hostages because they did not have enough strength to defend themselves,” he said. “If they became encircled and attacked by area paramilitaries, they would have suffered heavy casualties.” 

Yinmabin township has been a stronghold of armed resistance to junta rule since the military seized power from Myanmar’s democratically elected National League for Democracy party in a Feb. 1, 2021, coup. In the nearly 13 months since, junta forces have arrested nearly 9,400 civilians and killed 1,585 – mostly during peaceful anti-coup protests.

Authorities shut down internet access in Yinmabin six months ago in a bid to disrupt PDF communications.

Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.