Military blames Covid-19 for death of Kalay detainee tortured in their custody

One day after two men were arrested in Sagaing Region’s Kalay Township by the junta and accused of transporting weapons, the family of one man was told that he died in military custody on July 31—of Covid-19.   

At the time of their arrest, Lam Khant Htan and Lal Kaim, both 29, were travelling back to the Kalay village of Thayar Kone after working for more than one year in Ruili, China. On July 30, the fourth day of their journey home, they were detained by the junta’s armed forces at a toll gate near Lat Pan Chaung in Kalay at 11am.  

Some 24 hours later, a family member told Myanmar Now that they were notified through a community elder that Lam Khant Htan had died of Covid-19 and that they needed to collect his body from a local hospital. 

“We were allowed to take a look at his body. It was obviously not Covid-19,” the family member said of Lam Khant Htan’s cause of death. 

“Both of his arms and legs were broken. There was even a head injury. His back was covered in bruises. His neck also had some marks that suggested he had been strangled. All of the injuries were very severe,” she told Myanmar Now, adding, “He must have gone through a lot.” 

A photo of Lam Khant Htan’s body seen by Myanmar Now indicated that he had suffered serious injuries to his face, head, and both of his legs. 

Lal Kaim was still believed to be in military custody at the time of reporting. 

The two men left Ruili on July 27, according to Lam Khant Htan’s relative. Unable to get bus tickets to their destination, they rented a van driven by two other men, paying 90,000 kyat (US$55) each. They stopped briefly for a break in Mandalay on July 29, and from there, continued towards Kalay, stopping outside the town in the early morning hours of July 30. 

The drivers reportedly asked the men to get out of the van on the outskirts of Kalay, and to hire a different taxi for the rest of their journey to the town. They allegedly asked Lam Khant Htan and Lal Kaim to leave their bags in the van and said they could pick them up when they arrived in Kalay later.  

Lam Khant Htan’s family member said that he had then called her and asked her to send them a taxi, but, due to concerns about the Covid-19 pandemic, the local taxi driver instead arranged for a social services team to pick up the two men and take them to a quarantine centre. 

The social services vehicle brought them towards Kalay. 

At the toll gate outside Kalay, the van in which the two men had originally ridden from Ruili was stopped and searched by the military. 

“The car they had hitched a ride in was found to be carrying weapons, I don’t know the exact number, though. When the drivers were asked about who the weapons belonged to, they lied and said that it was Lam Khant Htan, who was following them in a social services vehicle,” his relative said. 

The social services vehicle was subsequently stopped, and both the staff and Lam Khant Htan and Lal Kaim were arrested. 

Their families only learned of their arrests once the social services staff—who were beaten and interrogated in junta custody—were released. 

On the morning of July 31, an elder in nearby Tahan Township was contacted by the military and was asked to arrange the collection of a body of a Covid-19 victim. The elder in turn notified a local social services group. The body belonged to Lam Khant Htan. 

His body was picked up from the 100-bed hospital in Kalay and sent to Thayar Kone village, according to a spokesperson from the social services group; his family held a funeral for him the following afternoon. 

Myanmar Now tried to contact the military for comment on the arrest and death of Lam Khant Htan and continued detention of Lal Kaim, but the calls went unanswered.

The bodies of multiple people who have died in military custody since the February 1 coup have been concealed from their families under the junta’s claim that they had Covid-19 and were still contagious. In these cases, the families have been forced to immediately cremate the bodies. Relatives of the deceased have maintained that if they had been able to examine the victims, they believe their bodies would exhibit clear signs of torture, as Lam Khant Htan’s did. 

No Covid-19 tests are known to have been carried out in the junta’s interrogation centers. 

According to data compiled by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, at least 945 civilians have died in the hands of the military council since the coup.

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