Running through alleys or hiding in terror at home, they feared for their lives as friends were picked off one by one. Many were never heard from again.
It started in the early morning on April 9, as people in Myanmar woke up to graphic social media posts about military operations unfolding in the city of Bago, just 55 miles northeast of the country’s biggest city Yangon. But this was no normal operation.
As blasts and gunfire lit up the predawn darkness, heavily armed forces launched an unprecedented assault on pro-democracy protesters in the medium-sized city studded with pagodas.
After security forces arrested leader Aung San Suu Kyi and seized power in a Feb. 1 coup, Bago emerged as a flashpoint in the nationwide demonstrations sweeping Myanmar. Local civilian protesters set up barricades in the eastern part of the city, establishing a level of autonomy signaling resistance to junta rule.
But in just 24 hours in Bago, human rights groups and residents say soldiers hunted down and killed more than 80 people there, many of them young activists. The government downplayed the crackdown and blamed protesters for the violence, but witnesses tell a different story of nearly being killed and losing friends.
According to human rights monitor the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), which keeps a running database of confirmed deaths and detentions, more than 900 protesters and bystanders have been killed by the military since February. The death toll in Bago was the biggest one-day total for a single city since March 14. It had a chilling effect on the pro-democracy movement and forced many activists to flee into the borderlands of Myanmar to join guerrilla resistance groups.
It was just before sunrise, when troops encircled the “safe” zone established by protesters in the city, then stormed the encampment, using rifle grenades to destroy barricades on main cross streets and firing live rounds indiscriminately.
“Some of us who were taking cover behind that barricade lost their lives. But we couldn’t go to pick up their bodies,” said Myo Ko, a protest organizer who had spent the previous night with his friends guarding barricade number 7 on the city’s Magadit Road. “While the road and the streets were filled with smoke, they started shooting at any moving thing or shadows they saw with a machine gun.”
“Some of us who were taking cover behind that barricade lost their lives. But we couldn’t go to pick up their bodies.”
In a matter of minutes, protesters on Magadit Rd were trying to defend themselves with homemade airguns, slingshots and fireworks against encroaching troop movements. While Myo Ko took cover with friends, “Thiri” could see what was happening on the street from her home.
“We all heard the sound of shelling. We heard the noises continuously,” she said. “From the next streets we heard the machine guns. We heard the screams ‘run!’”
Her real name is not being used out of fear of reprisals from security forces, who have arrested more than 5,000 people since the coup, according to monitors.
With little effort, the army had taken over Magadit Road. Soldiers moved east to San Daw Twin Road to reinforce units attacking protesters there. That’s where another protest organizer going by the name of Kay was trapped.
“Some of my friends were killed and many others were also arrested,” Kay said.
In just over an hour, the last barricade on San Daw Twin Rd fell. The military had full control of the city. But the bloodshed was just beginning, as soldiers went door to door as people cowered in whatever safe place they could find.
“We felt like we could die anytime,” said Thiri, who hid in an old storage room for 24 hours. She remained in utter silence and did not open the door until the next morning.
“We felt like we could die anytime.”
Myo Ko survived by fleeing south through alleys and fields, but his cousin wasn’t so lucky.
“My cousin, he got shot in the leg and was hidden in a neighboring house. When the soldiers got into that house, he tried to run away and was shot from behind,” he said.
Residents reported seeing soldiers stack dozens of bodies at the Zeyar Muni pagoda near Magadit Road. They said the injured were slumped over the dead. By the next morning, most of the bodies had disappeared, according to residents, along with much of the evidence of the military’s massacre.
Only three bodies of victims were recovered by families in the days that followed the massacre, according to human rights organizations and sources on the ground.
The next day, residents picked up shells, bullet casings and other remnants of the bloody day that littered the streets of Bago. Used mostly in remote border areas to fight rebel insurgents, the rifle grenades stood out in the urban environment. The message to the people of Myanmar was chilling: if you rise up against the army, you will pay.
The junta disputes the allegations, claiming only one person was killed, even as AAPP has confirmed the deaths of 82 people. But the day marked a turning point in the protests. Months later, many protesters have given up on the idea of mass demonstrations and strikes, taking up arms with a People’s Defense Force as a last resort.
“We will keep on fighting any way possible,” Myo Ko said, from an undisclosed location. “The youths are gathering to fight, to end this military dictatorship.”