The soldiers of Myanmar’s army knocked on U Thein Aung’s door one morning last April while he was having tea with friends and told everyone to join the train to another village.
When they reached a dangerous stretch in the mountains of Rakhine State, the men were ordered to go 100 feet ahead. One stepped on a land mine and was torn to pieces. Fragments of metal hit Mr. Thein Aung in his arm and left eye.
“They threatened to kill us if we refused to go with them,” said 65-year-old Thein Aung, who lost his eye. “It is very clear that they used us as human landmine detectors.”
The military and its brutal practices are a pervasive fear in Myanmar that has intensified since the generals took full power in a coup last month. While security forces crush peaceful protesters on the city streets, the violence prevalent in the countryside is a cruel reminder of the military’s long legacy of atrocities.
During decades of military rule, a majority-dominated Bamar army operated with impunity against ethnic minorities, killing civilians and setting fire to villages. The violence continued even when the army ceded some authority to an elected government as part of a power-sharing agreement that began in 2016.
The next year the military expelled more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims from the country in an ethnic cleansing campaign that a United Nations body has labeled genocide. Soldiers have fought with equal ruthlessness against ethnic rebel armies, using men and boys as human shields on the battlefield, and raping women and girls in their homes.
The generals are now fully responsible again, and the Tatmadaw, as the military is called, has turned its arms against the masses who have built a nationwide civil disobedience movement.
The procedure was expanded on Monday in the face of a general strike. The security forces took control of universities and hospitals and canceled press licenses from five media organizations. At least three demonstrators were shot dead.
More than 60 people have been killed since the February 1 coup. This is an increasingly bloody practice, reminiscent of the time when the military put down protests against democracy in the past.
“This is an army with a heart of darkness,” said David Scott Mathieson, an independent analyst who has studied military practice for a long time. “This is an unrepentant institution.”
Brutality is rooted in the Tatmadaw. It came to power in a coup in 1962 and said it had to preserve national unity. For decades it has struggled to control parts of the country inhabited by ethnic minorities that are rich in jade, wood and other natural resources.
For the past three years the Tatmadaw has waged intermittent wars against ethnic rebel armies in three states, Rakhine, Shan and Kachin. The most intense fighting took place in Rakhine, where the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine force, is seeking greater autonomy.
Civilians are often victims in these longstanding conflicts, as 15 victims, family members or witnesses in these three states testify in interviews with the New York Times.
Six men described being injured by land mines or gunfire when soldiers forced them to risk their lives. Some women reported being raped by soldiers, while others remembered husbands and sons who never returned after soldiers took them away.
The Times was linked to the victims through local rights groups who documented their reports, went to the sites, interviewed witnesses, and largely confirmed the events. Rights groups have also reported on these general practices.
A spokesman for the military declined to comment.
People speaking to The Times described a pattern of abuse in which soldiers forced civilians to serve as porters under threat of death. Men and boys were ordered to walk in front of soldiers in conflict areas, often used as human shields.
In October, Sayedul Amin, a 28-year-old Rohingya man, was fishing in a pond near his village, Lambarbill, Rakhine State, when about 100 soldiers arrived. He said they rounded up 14 men, including himself, to carry sacks of rice and other food. Some who refused were badly beaten.
“We were instructed to go before the soldiers,” he said. “It seems they wanted us to protect them when someone attacks.”
They had been running for less than an hour when the shooting started, he said. He never saw who shot her. He was hit by two bullets. A 10-year-old and an 18-year-old were killed in front of him and shot in the face and head so many times that they were difficult to see.
The soldiers, he said, left the bodies to the villagers to bury.
According to U Than Hla, a member of the board of directors of Arakan CSO Network, a human rights coalition, the Tatmadaw has forced at least 200 men and boys in Rakhine state to serve as porters and battle shields on the battlefield in the past three years. 30 of the prisoners have died and at least 70 are missing. Half were under 18 years old.
Such practices have long been common in human rights states of Kachin and Shan, say human rights groups. However, there are no similar data from the same period.
Women face their own horrors. While sexual violence by the Tatmadaw is often not reported, rape was systematic and widespread during the Rohingya ethnic cleansing, Human Rights Watch noted. The same fate applies to women of other ethnic groups in conflict areas.
“The military in Myanmar violates human rights in many ways,” said Zaw Zaw Min, founder of the Rakhine Human Rights Group. “Women are raped, villages burned down, property taken and people taken as porters.”
In June, when soldiers arrived in U Gar village, Rakhine state, Daw Oo Htay Win, 37, said she was hiding in her home with her four children and her newborn granddaughter. That night, the child’s screams revealed her presence to four soldiers who entered the house. You gave her a choice: have sex with them or die. During the next two hours, three soldiers raped her while the fourth was on guard.
Ms. Oo Htay Win, her daughters and the baby slipped out the back door that morning and fled to the town of Sittwe, where she now lives. She said her husband, who had been away, left her after learning of the rape.
Although most of the victims of rape by soldiers are silent, she filed criminal charges. After the soldiers confessed, they were tried, found guilty and sentenced to 20 years.
“I hate these three soldiers because they ruined my life,” she said. “I lost everything because of you.”
The convictions were a rare victory in a country where civilians rarely hold the military accountable. And few victims receive compensation, even if they suffer permanent injuries and great financial losses. If so, it is minimal.
In the western part of Rakhine State, where river travel is common, the Tatmadaw often command private boats to carry troops and supplies. In March 2019, U Maung Phyu Hla, 43, a boat owner from Mrauk-U Township, said soldiers forced him to transfer troops to the Lay Myo River to fight against Arakan Army forces.
On the seventh voyage upriver, they came under heavy fire. Mr. Maung Phyu Hla was shot in the thigh and said he slipped into the water and swam to a nearby village where residents rescued him. An official later gave him about $ 350 token payment, a fraction of his losses and medical expenses.
“Who dares to complain?” he asked. “The answer is nobody.”
Some villagers try to escape the conflict only to find themselves embroiled in violence.
In March 2018, U Phoe Shan’s family and other villagers fled the fighting in Kachin state, northern Myanmar. They were taken to a camp for displaced persons when they encountered Tatmadaw forces on the street.
Mr. Phoe Shan, 48, said the soldiers ordered him to lead a group of about 50 troops through a wooded area. A quarter of an hour into the woods, he said, he stepped on a mine. He was hospitalized with sores on his legs for three weeks.
“If we protest, we may be shot,” he said. “Better to go through a minefield.”
For the victims of these atrocities, life seldom returns to normal. Loved ones who have been taken never return home. Those who suffer crippling injuries have difficulty working.
In Shan State in eastern Myanmar, 46-year-old U Thar Pu Ngwe, who had entered service, was hit by shrapnel when a soldier stepped on a mine.
It’s hard to walk now and it takes three times as long to go anywhere, he said. He had to reduce the amount of land he farmed and cut his income by more than half.
“This incident changed my life,” he said. “I was a happy man, but not after that.”
He called on the Tatmadaw to stop using civilians in combat. “If you want to fight,” he said, “just do it alone.”
Hannah Beech contributed to the coverage.