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A culture of violence inside Burma’s Defense Academy (DSA) may be to blame for the recent death of a student who was beaten by an older cadet in Mandalay.
Eighteen-year-old Aung Nyi Nyi Zaw was punched in the chest by a final-year student last Friday, allegedly for not cleaning his room. Aung Nyi Nyi Zaw was a second-year student at the DSA in Pyin Oo Lwin Township, Mandalay Division.
“I cannot express what I am feeling right now. It’s been almost a week and I am still suffering in grief” said Khin Zaw Win, the father of the victim, speaking to DVB today at a Buddhist smoke ceremony held at the family’s village in Pegu Division.
Khin Zaw Win said he and other family members went to DSA to identify his son’s body last Saturday, and demanded to know the true reasons for his death. After the post mortem, he said, an officer only let them see Aung Nyi Nyi Zaw’s face, but refused to let them see the rest of his body.
“So we still don’t know exactly how many times he was hit or how many people punched him or what his injuries look like as we were not allowed to see his full body,” his brother, Phyo Thu Zaw, told DVB.
Khin Zaw Win said he also requested a copy of the autopsy report but was refused. “I don’t want anyone else to suffer like my son did. I’ve never seen this kind of violent training before,” he added.
“This is very sad news about his death, which is demonstrative of a murderous military training culture,” said David Mathieson from Human Rights Watch.
The alleged perpetrator is senior student Zwe Man Aung, who told the family he punched Aung Nyi Nyi Zaw in the chest. He is currently facing detention within the academy.
“Unfortunately, the Burmese military is more attuned to meting out mild punishments to its own personnel when they commit abuses, than to sending strong messages that breaches of discipline will not be tolerated,” said Matheson, commenting on the accused’s punishment.
The father and son also tried to talk to other cadets at the academy on Saturday, “but an officer was always present, and the students were not able to speak freely,” said Phyo Thu Zaw.
As compensation, the DSA has reportedly offered the family free medical services at the Defense Force hospital. Students from the academy have collected donations amongst themselves to give to the family.
The culture inside the training academy is renowned for violent enforcement of hierarchy, with senior students frequently bullying the younger cadets.
“Hazing exists in all militaries, and persists because sadism is still seen as a positive personality trait by many elites,” added Mathieson.
He says there is a scramble underway by several countries such as Japan, Australia, the UK and US to engage the Burmese military, with the stated aim of assisting the military to become subordinate to civilian rule.
But Mathieson believes “there will likely be a swarm of self-interested NGOs knocking on the doors of Burmese military academies offering unsolicited and often ill-suited training programmes.”
Mathieson says senior leaders need to curb the violence which breeds a culture of impunity: “When an abusive culture thrives it reflects the disinterest of senior commanders to stop it. It is unfortunately not surprising to see abuses against civilians by the military on operations if they are being inculcated with a culture of recreational sadism in training, as if torture and ill-treatment were virtues, not the vile debasement of military professionalism they really are.”
Hundreds of villagers attended the ceremony in Ohnhne village, Pegu District, and are now calling for justice.
Thinzar Shunlei Yi, a coordinator for Burma’s National Youth Congress and the Yangon Youth Network, said, “I am sorry for the loss of a youth at the DSA by such brutal abuse, not in the battlefield paying with his life to protect the country as it should be. The loss of a young man to such bullying is a loss to the nation, not just to his family.
“This case forces us to question the whole institution – whether they train young men to become courageous or to misuse their power and seniority by enacting inhumane behaviour, even among themselves?”