One year on, memories of Moso massacre remain an open wound

As junta atrocities continue in Karenni State and across Myanmar, survivors of one of the worst committed since the coup have barely begun to heal

Flower pots placed at the site of the massacre to honour the memories of the deceased victims (Myo Sett Hla Thaw)

It’s Christmas Eve, but the colourful potted flowers that adorn a site near a burnt-out vehicle covered with vines and other vegetation are not meant to be festive decorations. Rather, they were placed there in memory of those who were brutally killed at this spot exactly one year earlier.

The victims had been captured on December 24, 2021, by soldiers from the military’s Light Infantry Battalion (LIB) 108, and this is where they died—on the side of a road near Moso, a village about 5km west of the Karenni (Kayah) State town of Hpruso. 

There were around 40 of them—the exact number was difficult to ascertain, as many had been reduced to ashes after their vehicles were set on fire with them inside.

A year later, their loved ones and those who investigated this heinous crime are still calling on the international community to hold Myanmar’s junta to account for this incident, which horrified a nation already outraged by the many atrocities it had witnessed since the military seized power on February 1, 2021.

“We were planning to hold a large vigil, but under the current circumstances, that wasn’t possible,” said Moso resident Thae Mar (not her real name). “In the end, only two or three people were able to attend.”

It was Thae Mar who placed these flowers—white and yellow chrysanthemums, roses, laceleaf flowers, lilies, and others—at the site. A cousin of hers from Loikaw was among the victims of the Moso massacre, and she had wanted to do something to remember him and the others who died here.

The scene of the Moso massacre on December 24, 2021 (KNDF)

Overwhelming need

The events of that day are etched in the memories of those who lost family, friends or neighbours to the regime’s cruelty, which has shown no sign of abating. In Karenni State, civilians still live in constant fear as the military continues to rampage through villages and carry out air strikes and artillery attacks on an almost daily basis.

“Why did they have to kill our husbands and the people? I will never forgive them for this,” said a local woman named Monica Phyu Sin, whose husband, Elijah Bu Reh, was also among those killed.

Now struggling to support their four children on her own, Monica depends on charity to survive. But donations have dwindled almost to nothing in recent months, she says, as donors can barely meet their own needs in Myanmar’s fast-collapsing economy.

“We won’t have any rice left after this month ends,” she said, adding that she supplements what she receives with foraged pumpkins and squashes that she makes into curries to feed herself and her children—her 12-year-old daughter, two sons aged six and seven, and the youngest, who is just 21 months old.

Monica Phyu Sin and her children at an IDP camp in Hpruso Township in December 2022 (Supplied)

With nearly two-thirds of Karenni State’s population of around 300,000 displaced by the conflict between the military and local resistance forces, the demand for aid is overwhelming. And the state is not alone in facing this unprecedented humanitarian crisis: According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, there were 1.5 million internally displaced persons in Myanmar as of the end of December.

Monica said she had spent many nights crying out for her husband since his death. The return of December made it worse, not just because of the memories that it brought back, but also because of the cooler temperatures. Cold and malnourished, her children kept falling ill, and she felt powerless to protect them.

Demands for justice

But even as they face daily struggles a year after they were forced to flee their homes along with some 530 other Moso locals, both Monica and Thae Mar say they want nothing more than to see justice done.

Immediately after the massacre, a thorough investigation was conducted by the Karenni State Police (KSP)—a force consisting of police officers who had defected from the regime—and doctors taking part in the anti-coup Civil Disobedience Movement. Based on autopsies carried out on 31 bodies recovered from the site, they determined that 26 of them were male and six female. But they also noted that at least 37 people had gone missing in the area that day, including four resistance fighters and a 15-year-old girl.

According to KSP information officer Bo Bo, this and other information related to the mass killing in Moso has been sent to both the shadow National Unity Government and the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM), a body formed by the UN’s Human Rights Council.

“The international community is taking various actions against [the regime], and we, the KSP, will also file appropriate lawsuits against them for their crimes after the revolution,” he said.

However, not everyone is satisfied with the international response.

“It’s been more than a year since this happened and we’ve already compiled and submitted data to the relevant organisations. It doesn’t make sense that the process is taking this long. I for one am very disappointed. We need to keep pressuring them,” said Dr. Ye Zaw, a medical officer who was a part of the team that performed autopsies on the Moso victims.

“At this point, we don’t have much faith in any international organisation, but still, we need to keep showing the world how cruel this junta is,” he added. 

Many more deaths

On December 3, the Karenni Nationalities Defence Force captured four junta troops from LIB 108, the unit responsible for the Moso killings. However, it has yet to confirm whether the soldiers in its custody were among those who took part in the incident.

Moreover, even if they could shed some light on the events that led to the deaths of dozens of innocent civilians more than a year ago, the soldiers’ testimonies would have limited legal value, according to Bo Bo. 

“We can’t make the captured soldiers testify because they are prisoners of war, which means that they would not be testifying of their own free will. In other words, their testimonies can be influenced and so cannot be used in court,” he said.

Meanwhile, in a statement released on December 23, IIMM head Nicholas Koumjian said that the human rights body continues to collect data on war crimes committed by the military all over the country in order to hold the perpetrators accountable.

According to Thae Mar, there have been many more deaths over the past year. “The things that have happened this year were unspeakably horrifying,” she said.

Less than a month after they were forced to flee Moso, residents of the village experienced renewed terror when they were hit by a junta airstrike while sheltering at a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs). Three people, including two young sisters, were killed in that attack.

Being constantly hounded by the regime has taken a severe toll on the lives of the Moso villagers, at least five of whom have died due to their psychological trauma, according to Thae Mar.

“I just want this year to end so we can get past this chapter of our lives,” she said as 2022—the worst year of her life—drew to a close.

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