Since seizing control of Myanmar via a coup in February 2021, the military junta has killed an estimated 3,000 civilians and detained nearly 20,000 others. Photo: STR / AFP

‘Only Thing We Can Do Is Run’: 22 Civilians Massacred While Sheltering in a Monastery

The Myanmar military is torturing, mutilating and murdering civilians in a string of violent massacres.
Gavin Butler
Melbourne, AU

It was early morning when the soldiers entered the village and started setting houses alight. 

Pinlaung Township, in the southwestern hills of Myanmar’s Shan State, had been battered by indiscriminate military airstrikes and shelling since early January, and subsequent clashes with local resistance forces had already forced thousands of residents to flee. But now, on the morning of March 11, the enemy was at the door. Columns of smoke billowed into the sky above Nanneint village as the battalion of junta troops made their way to the monastery.


Sheltering inside were 33 civilians, including three Buddhist monks, two young boys, and one woman. What followed was one of the most brutal massacres perpetrated by Myanmar’s military since it seized power in early 2021.

“They grabbed them and just killed them,” Saw Tha Eh Soe, a militant spokesperson from local resistance group the Karenni Nationalities Defence Force (KNDF)—who uses a pseudonym for his protection—told VICE World News. “They killed these villagers even while they were sheltering.”

Footage obtained by the KNDF, seen by VICE World News, shows scores of bodies strewn outside of the Nanneint monastery building, with the victims seemingly having been gathered into small groups before being killed execution style. There are bullet holes in their bodies and their heads. All of them, excluding the monks, are dressed in civilian clothing.

But not all of the civilians are spoken for. When KNDF militants entered Nanneint on March 12, the day after the massacre, they were only able to locate two thirds of the known casualties.

“We know that in the monastery there were 33 people… but we only found 22 bodies,” said Saw Tha Eh Soe. “The rest are still missing, and we don’t know for sure if they are dead or have been kidnapped.”

Saw Tha Eh Soe believes the remaining 11 have been arrested for the purposes of propaganda, as the military cries fake news about the massacre allegations and pins the blame back on the resistance. By detaining survivors of the mass killing, Saw Tha Eh Soe says, the junta may be able to force them to testify against KNDF or some other arm of the People’s Defence Forces (PDF). 


Blaming this violent attack on the PDFs may also serve another agenda, Saw Tha Eh Soe added: sowing ethnic conflict between the local Pa’O people, who were the main victims of the massacre, and the Karenni people, who predominantly make up the rank and file of the PDFs in the area. Given the Karenni people are predominantly Christian, that would also explain the murder of the monks, he suggested, as an act of symbolic violence.

Maung, a local who was in a neighboring village when the massacre occurred, shares Saw Tha Eh Soe’s fears that the blowback could stir up ethnic tension between Pa’O and Karenni peoples. In September, combatants from the Pa-O National Army (PNA) reportedly teamed up with the Myanmar junta to help capture a base from local rebels, according to Myanmar Now. If ethnic tension continues to deteriorate, Maung said, it would become impossible to live peacefully.

More urgent, however, is the fear that Nanneint’s monastery massacre could portend a worrying shift: that Myanmar’s conflict is widening in scope, and escalating in violence. As Saw Tha Eh Soe put it: “It’s not a full warzone here… it’s common that they kill civilians in warzones, but in this area, it’s quite new. It has never happened like this before.”

Maung, and others in this area, are worried that they might be next.


“Not only me, most of the villagers are afraid of the consequences of the fighting: [that] it might come to their village and the problem might become bigger,” he told VICE World News. “I feel afraid. Currently I don’t have any clue what to do. But I don’t want the fighting to happen in our place.”

“If it happens, the only thing we can do is run.”

The Burmese military is on a killing spree. Just weeks before the Pinlaung massacre, between Feb. 23 and March 5, a task force of about 100 regime soldiers visited a small handful of villages across ​​the Sagaing Region of the country’s north and allegedly tortured, mutilated, and murdered at least 37 people. The ages of the victims ranged from 17 to 67. Twenty were members of the armed resistance, who were decapitated and disemboweled after being shot in the back of the head, and three were women, who were raped before they were killed. 

These earlier killings were largely attributed to a notorious military detachment called Light Infantry Division-99, (LID-99)—known among locals as the “Ogre Column”—which was one of the main combat units responsible for perpetrating the Rohingya massacre in 2017. Survivors of the Sagaing massacres told Myanmar NOW that members of the group had butchered their victims, in several cases cutting off their heads and eviscerating their bodies. Others told the National Unity Government (NUG), the exiled elected government of Myanmar, that the junta’s brutality now exceeded the savagery for which the Islamic State was infamous in the 2010s.


“If this were to happen in Ukraine, it would be all over the front page of every newspaper on the planet.

Such violence and brutality is not entirely new. Since seizing control of Myanmar via a coup in February 2021, the military junta has killed an estimated 3,000 civilians and detained nearly 20,000 others. In January, Human Rights Watch declared that over the past two years, security forces had consistently carried out a raft of war crimes and crimes against humanity that included mass killings, arbitrary arrests and detention, torture, sexual violence, and attacks on civilians in conflict areas.

Anthony Davis, a security analyst with Janes, a defense and security publisher, specializing in insurgency, terrorism, and military affairs in the Asia-Pacific, suggested that the recent spate of violence by the Burmese military takes things to new heights.

“Within the space of a couple of weeks, we’ve seen two really ghastly, blatant massacres of civilians,” Davis told VICE World News. “If this were to happen in Ukraine, it would be all over the front page of every newspaper on the planet. But because it’s in Myanmar, we don’t bother about it so much.”

“Make no mistake though: this is medieval butchery.”

The junta has noticeably hardened its hostility towards civilians of late. Throughout February, the military introduced martial law orders for a total of 40 additional townships across Myanmar, effectively granting the military extreme legal authority and denying citizens—who can now be criminally charged for something as seemingly innocuous as spreading false news—the right to appeal convictions handed down by military tribunals. HRW condemned the move as a greenlight for further military abuses and a denial of rights such as free speech and a fair trial.


More worrying to some experts, though, is the junta’s return to a ruthless counter-insurgency strategy known as the “four cuts,” which sees them deliberately targeting civilians and attempting to undermine support for the resistance by severing access to four essentials: food, money, intelligence, and recruits. A report published by the UN Human Rights Office on March 3 cited this four cuts approach was driving a perpetual human rights crisis in Myanmar, noting that nearly 39,000 houses nationwide had been burnt or destroyed in military operations since February 2022.

“Two years after the military launched a coup, the generals have embarked on a scorched earth policy in an attempt to stamp out opposition,” said the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, in the report. Barely a week after it was published, the junta raided the monastery in Nanneint.

There is a likely reason the junta is escalating its tactics in this way, according to Davis: namely, they’re worried things are getting out of hand. As the Burmese military has intensified its subjugation of human rights, the resistance has also become bigger, more organized, and better armed. Whereas before PDF militants were engaging in skirmishes with hunting rifles, now they’re showing up with automatic rifles and RPGs.

It’s reasonable to expect that this has rattled the military generals, said Davis, and prompted them to issue a stern directive: to get things under control, and do it fast.


“My sense—and I don’t think I’m wrong—is that we’re going to see a lot more of this because basically Naypyidaw [Myanmar’s capital and seat of power] is getting worried over a situation spiraling out of control and directing regional commanders to ‘sort things out,” he said.

By the time that instruction trickles down the chain of command and reaches the battalions on the ground, the troops would already be acutely aware of how drastically things are shifting out of their control. 

“This is an army which is used to dealing with enemies harshly. Essentially a ‘take no prisoners’ army,” Davis said. “These are not nice men.”

“These specific massacres serve—as intended—to send a message to the broader population. The beheadings, the disembowelings, this sort of return to the 12th century are all intended to terrorize the population into submission.”

It’s as yet unclear whether it’s had the intended effect; whether these massacres will deter resistance fighters, or embolden them. The KNDF has already threatened retaliation for the Nanneint monastery massacre, promising in a social media post that they’ll “try to take action against the relevant terrorist military council for this offensive.” It remains to be seen whether they will escalate their own tactics to match their adversaries.

The danger now, according to Davis, is that such brutal behavior towards civilians becomes “standard operating procedure” for the junta. In that case, he warned, “I fear we’re going to be seeing a lot more of such massacres.”

“At the local level these massacres suggest they’re in the process of taking the lid off Pandora’s Box,” he said. “And once it’s off, they certainly won't be able to put it back on again.”

Follow Gavin Butler on Twitter.

Caleb Quinley contributed reporting.