The highest-ranking officer facing court martial for the killing of five villagers in the remote Shan State village of Mong Yaw denied giving orders to kill the men, according to witnesses who attended a hearing on the case on Tuesday.
The senior serviceman, who was not identified by name or rank, said he did not order the soldiers to “kill” the villagers, but to “clear them out”.
Three Burmese army servicemen under investigation for the death of the five local villagers in June confessed to the killings on Tuesday at a hearing that was open to relatives of the victims and village leaders.
The soldiers said they had arrested and interrogated five men and found two of them were related to a local ethnic armed group. They said they asked their superiors for further instructions, villager Sai Kaung Kham told Reuters.
The low-ranking soldiers then proceeded to kill the villagers, acting on orders, the witnesses at the trial said.
“They were worried that if they let the three villagers go back, they would tell others they had been tortured,” the soldiers told the court martial, according to Sai Kaung Kham.
Military officials did not respond to requests for comment, and it was not possible to independently verify the testimony at the closed proceedings in the northern city of Lashio.
In July, in a rare public admission of wrongdoing by the still-powerful military, intelligence chief Mya Tun Oo told reporters the army was responsible for killing five men from Mong Yaw and said the culprits would be prosecuted.
Witnesses had previously told Reuters that soldiers rounded up dozens of men from the village, in an area riven by a long-running ethnic insurgency, on 25 June and led five away. Their bodies were found in a shallow grave a few days later.
Both the news conference by one of the country’s most senior generals and the invitation to villagers to attend the military trial were unprecedented. The army has occasionally acknowledged troops have been at fault in previous incidents, but has usually done so in vaguely worded official statements.
The response this time suggests a heightened sensitivity about the military’s image as it tries to present itself as a responsible partner in Burma‘s democratic transition and seeks closer ties with Western counterparts.
It was not clear when the court martial would end.
Aye Lu, the wife of Aik Sai who was one of the men killed, said that at the court martial one of the soldiers admitted knifing her husband to death.
“I want to see those who killed my husband sent to jail,” she said.