Violence Against Protestors at Hlaing Tharyar
15 Mar 2022
A case study of violence against protestors at Hlaing Tharyar (14-17 March 2021)
This report provides a detailed reconstruction of the military’s harsh treatment of anti-coup protesters in the Yangon Township of Hlaing Tharyar (HTY), as well as other protest-related events happening in the township between 14 - 17 March 2021.
HTY was reported to be the site of particularly large and well-organised protests against the military coup in Myanmar. In the run-up to 14 March, Myanmar Witness verified four anti-coup protests and the construction of road barricades in HTY. Myanmar Witness found no footage indicating that any of the protestors were armed or violent during this time. It was not possible to verify footage purporting to show violence by security forces or Security Administration Council (SAC) aligned individuals prior to 14 March, despite claims of this nature.
Martial law was declared over HTY township on 14 March, with the SAC transferring executive and judicial power to the Commander of the Yangon Command. Myanmar Witness verified two videos showing police officers, including individuals wearing the Lon Htein (riot police) insignia, on the morning of 14 March discussing plans to suppress protests in HTY. The videos – filmed inside and outside the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Yangon – included officers stating that ‘there is no mercy for Hlaing Tharyar’, discussing the types of guns they are going to use to suppress the protests and welcoming the deployment of Light Infantry Division 77 who are going “to fuck Hlaing Tharyar for sure”.
Verified footage at around 1230 on 14 March shows the heavy presence of security forces on Aung Zeya Bridge. The bridge is one of the main entry points to HTY from central Yangon. In the video, Myanmar Witness noted police officers setting up their guns pointing west toward HTY, and shouts of ‘go shoot’ and ‘shoot at them’. One of the barricades constructed by the protestors is burning; the cause of this fire is unknown.
Around the same time, verified footage shows protestors on Hlaing River Road, around 1km west of Aung Zeya Bridge, being forced to retreat east towards the bridge and north on Bogyoke Aung San Road away from tear gas and military vehicles approaching from the west, as the security forces use a pincer movement to contain protestors. Shots can be heard and at least one individual is killed during this time.
Between 1330 and 1430, Myanmar Witness have verified footage showing military forces confronting protestors at a series of barricades on and around Hlaing River Road, with protestors taking cover and dispersing against a backdrop of guns and bangs. This footage is consistent with a large security force presence in HTY, capable of confronting protestors in different areas in a similar timeframe. Myanmar Witness also verified footage from this time, showing what appears to be factories on fire in the Shwe Lin Ban industrial zone in HTY.
The violence continues into the late afternoon. At 1600, Myanmar Witness verified footage showing protestors on Hlaing River Road retreating and taking cover against a backdrop of gunshots, with smoke from fires visible in the background. In a further incident at 1700 protestors can be observed retreating from tear gas down Hlaing River Road and approaching security forces. Myanmar Witness has verified footage showing four individuals injured in this incident, two of whom are lying motionless. Another incident at around 1830 shows a mixture of police, Lon Htein riot police and military personnel approaching protestors – including one injured individual lying on the ground – who disperse and take cover.
At 0000 on 15 March, cellular network connectivity was shut off, restricting the flow of information. Myanmar Witness was able to verify footage showing a number of factories which had been destroyed or partially destroyed by fire in the township during the night of 14/15 March. At around 1330, Myanmar Witness verified medical vehicles and at least one coffin moving to and from Hlaing Tharyar hospital, consistent with eyewitness reports in Burmese media that the hospitals were full of injured civilians.
At around 1500 on 15 March, Myanmar Witness verified footage showing a convoy of around 30 military vehicles heading across Aung Zeya Bridge into HTY. The sky is full of heavy grey smoke, likely indicating fires in the area. At 1700, Myanmar Witness verified images showing a gravely wounded man being driven away by ambulance from the site of a protest. Burmese media identified this individual who – according to family members – had not been protesting, but collecting cardboard for a living, when he was shot by security forces involved in the suppression of protests. Myanmar Witness verified footage showing this individual’s body arriving at the hospital; media reports later confirmed his death. Verified images taken in the early evening at Hlaing Tharyar hospital show two further injured individuals arriving at the hospital. Unverified images reported to be – and consistent with the characteristics of - a morgue, show 10 visible bodies lying motionless or covered in sheets. There was at least one further factory fire on the night of 15 March.
On 16 March, Myanmar Witness verified footage showing a large number of military, construction and water vehicles on Hlaing River Road. While the original poster claims these vehicles were being used to barricade HTY, this would likely be an ineffective place for a barricade. They may have been destroying protest blockades. A further factory fire was verified on 16 March.
According to monitoring group AAPP, 72 people were killed in HTY as a result of military violence between 14-17 March 2021.
Myanmar Witness was able to verify footage showing the death of two individuals, who are included in AAPP’s list and the injuring of a further seven unnamed individuals.
Myanmar Witness analysed images of a morgue board reportedly listing the names of 23 corpses in a HTY morgue on 16 March and were able to verify that all individuals appearing on the morgue board were recorded in AAPPs list. Eleven of these board names corresponded to social media memorial posts of people killed in HTY between 14-17 March, while two belonged to individuals whose death appeared unrelated specifically to violence in HTY, with one having died in Yangon elsewhere between these dates at protests and another having disappeared a week prior to events in HTY. The last ten entries were untraceable to social media memorial posts.
No individuals named in AAPP or on the morgue board could be linked to the visible bodies in the unverified images reported to be a morgue in HTY.
Introduction and Context
According to the United Nations (UN) and multiple media reports (BBC Burma, VOA News Burma) the actions of security forces in HTY on 14 March 2021 represented a marked escalation in the use of lethal force against the anti-coup movement in Myanmar. As detailed in this report, since at least early March, HTY had been the site of protests against the military coup. The UN details how, on the morning of 14 March, hundreds of protestors gathered along the Hlaing River Road where – according to reports and eyewitness accounts – security forces deployed smoke bombs and lethal force to suppress the protests, including the indiscriminate use of live rounds at protestors, bystanders and those trying to assist the injured. In the late afternoon, a number of Chinese-financed factories were burnt down. While the cause of attacks is unknown, the UN describes this a perceptible pattern of attacks against Chinese businesses.
According to the same UN report, credible sources confirmed 62 deaths, including five children, with the actual number of casualties likely to be higher. Human Rights Watch puts the number of deaths on at least 65, and describes the events as having the ‘hallmarks of a planned attack on protestors’, marked by the deliberate ‘pincer movement’ used on protestors and firing with the intent to kill or maim without there being a threat to the lives of security forces. AAPP report that 72 people were killed in HTY between 14 - 17 March. BBC Burma reported that the intention of the security forces on 14 March was to catch protestors off-guard, attacking while many retreated home for breakfast. Myanmar Now reported how the violence continued until 18 March, targeting not just protestors but anyone who came into the vicinity of the security forces. The same report describes how a week later the township was largely subdued, with thousands of residents having abandoned it for their hometowns. In a statement published on 19 March, a group of Ambassadors to Myanmar described the “brutal violence against unarmed civilians by the security forces in Hlaing Tharyar…[as] immoral and indefensible”
Myanmar state-owned media took a markedly different line on events. On 21 February, in a public announcement broadcast on state television, the SAC accused protesters across the country of increasing ‘their incitement towards riot and anarchy mob’, stating that ‘protestors are now inciting the people… to a confrontation path where they will suffer loss of life’. On 15 March, the state-owned Global New Light of Myanmar (GNLM) made no mention of deaths in HTY, instead describing the decision to impose martial law on HTY as a reaction to ‘rioters’ who set factories on fire and blocked access for fire engines. HTY is not mentioned again in the GNLM until April, when it reports on the arrests of individuals accused of setting fire to factories in the area in a ‘terrorist’ act, and again on the delivery of aid to HTY following the ‘reasonless’ fires and protests. This is consistent with broader SAC narratives on the protests.
Significant communication restrictions were imposed by the SAC during this time. Throughout March, the internet in Myanmar was cut-off from 0100 to 0630 local time (figure 1). On 15 March, cellular network connectivity was also shut off from 0000 and remained cut off for at least 100 days, until 11 May when Netblocks stopped reporting on mobile data connectivity in Myanmar (Figure 2).
Figure 1 & 2: Netblocks data demonstrates that network connectivity and call networks in Myanmar being taken offline on 15 March.
Notes on Methodology
Myanmar Witness ensures all information collected is preserved, verified, analysed, investigated and reported on in a manner consistent with best practises for human rights evidence safekeeping, and reliance for later judicial use. The diagram below illustrates this methodology.
Myanmar Witness applies a four-tier classification system to describe the extent to which footage has been independently verified by Myanmar Witness.
● Fully verified: Footage independently geolocated and chronolocated by Myanmar Witness.
● Verified: Footage has been geolocated by Myanmar Witness. Other sources concur on the time and date of the footage, with no evidence following to suggest that the footage was taken earlier or later. However, it has not been possible for Myanmar Witness to independently chrono-locate the footage.
● Unverified / Under investigation: Myanmar Witness has not been able to geolocate or chronolocate footage at the present time.
● Inauthentic: The geolocation and chronolocation process has shown the location or timing of the footage to be inaccurate.
For the avoidance of doubt, this verification system only refers to Myanmar Witness’ ability to independently geolocate or chronolocate footage. Incidents marked as unverified may still be substantiated by multiple eyewitness reports. Sources are cross-referenced in this report to indicate where this is the case. Full details can be found in our Summary of Methodology.
This report contains a number of images showing how footage has been geolocated. In these images, white lines are used to represent the left and right arcs of vision. Coloured boxes are used to show how landmarks or distinguishing details in each piece of footage or data correspond with each other. All footage cited in the report is archived within Myanmar Witness’ database. Myanmar Witness has not included links to footage, when to do so would compromise an individual’s privacy or security.
[Warning: Graphic] has been inserted ahead of links to sources which show graphic and distressing images of injured or dead persons. Reference numbers in the format SMXXX refer to Myanmar Witness internal reference system.
It is very difficult to identify the gender of those engaging in protest, being injured or seen running away in footage taken in HTY at the time of the security forces presence between 14-17 March 2021. In footage verified in the build-up to 14 March, there appears to be both men and women partaking in anti-coup protests. It is not possible to make an accurate judgement on the proportion of women relative to men. In footage verified at the time of the military repression, both men and women can be observed at protests sites, filming what is happening and running from security forces.
The cases of deaths and injuries Myanmar Witness have been able to verify have been predominantly male. Female casualties from the security forces’ repression have been reported by memorial sites and on social media. Memorial site Heroes of Myanmar identifies 3 females who were allegedly shot and killed by security forces during this time, including one sixteen year old. The same names also feature in AAPP’s fatality list. Myanmar Witness was unable to verify these claims as there is no online associate media and Heroes of Myanmar don’t include sources. It’s also reported in AAPP and on memorial site Nway Oo Myanmar that a seventy year old female was shot by SAC forces accidentally while in her home. Similar to the above case, this cannot be verified. Myanmar Now reports on an incident on 16 March where, according to local sources, security forces were called into a wage dispute at a factory leading to “the police slap[ping] a girl who was the leader of the workers. When she hit back, they shot her”
Build-up to 14 March 2021
Myanmar Now reports that HTY had faced a number of incidents with security forces after weeks of protests before 14 March and VOA News highlights one particular protest on 11 March, where police in riot gear removed many HTY residents.
Through analysing footage, social media posts, and satellite imagery, Myanmar Witness are able to verify at least four anti-coup protests in HTY in early March. Satellite imagery of road barricades in HTY recorded from 9 - 22 March also indicates protest activity in these areas. A timeline of these events is set out below. Myanmar Witness found no footage indicating that any of the protestors were armed, or violent during this time.
9 February 2021 (verified)
On 9 February, Myanmar Witness verified footage showing Aung Zeya Bridge (အောင်ဇေယျတံတား) - the largest of three routes into HTY from central Yangon - being blocked by security forces. In the footage, an ambulance with flashing lights heading out of HTY can be seen stationary at the barricade. The original post claims that ambulances were not allowed to pass the blockade and provide medical assistance (Figure 3).
Figure 3: Barricade blocks vehicles from exiting Hlaing River Road via Aung Zeya Bridge.
24 February 2021 (unverified)
There are reports that unknown armed assailants attacked civilians, wounding and possibly killing them around 24 February. However, due to the unspecific nature of the claims and lack of visual evidence linking the footage to HTY, it was not possible to verify these claims.
6 March 2021 (verified)
On 6 March, Myanmar Witness verified footage showing protestors carrying home-made shields and wearing helmets blocking Hlaing River Road, a few hundred metres to the west of the 9 February barricade (16.878199, 96.078511) (Figure 4). While the protestors appear prepared for a reaction by security forces, Myanmar Witness did not find any images showing a security force presence at these protests.
Figure 4: Geolocation of protesters on Hlaing River Road from Google Street View
On the same day, 6 March, Myanmar Witness documented another protest (Figure 5) around 2km to the south-west on Kyan Sitthar Road (16.867090, 96.064470). Protestors were photographed seated, carrying anti-military and anti-coup banners. Again, there was no footage indicating a security force presence at this protest.
Figure 5: Geolocation of protest on Kyan Sitthar Road.
8 March 2021 (unverified)
In footage posted on 8 March, security forces are claimed to have fired rubber bullets at protesters in the night, leaving two injured. The injuries in the images appear consistent with skin breakages that can occur from rubber bullet injuries. The uploader of the content also attaches pictures of what appear to be rubber bullets. However, it is not possible to verify these injuries as being sustained in HTY, nor did Myanmar Witness find any footage of night protests taking place on 8 March.
9 March 2021 (partially verified)
It is claimed that, on 9 March, a group of Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) members broke into a house, attacking and injuring people at around 0810 in HTY. The images attached show two heavily wounded men. However, it was not possible to verify these reports or identify the victims in the photos.
By 9 March, protestors had established a series of barricades on both sides of the Aung Zeya bridge, leading into the township, as illustrated in Figure 6 below.
Figure 6: Overview of barricades in HTY Township as of 9 March. Barricades on the opposite side of Aung Zeya Bridge appear to block access into the township.
One of these blockades, visible on satellite imagery, corresponds to a large protest site that Myanmar Witness note as taking place on 9 March 2021 (Figure 7).
Figure 7: Satellite imagery of SM2756; a large protest site on Hlaing River Road on 9 March 2021.
12 & 13 March 2021 (partially verified)
On 12 March, Myanmar Witness verified footage showing protestors barricading the Hlaing River Road, just under 4km to the west of the Aung Zeya Bridge (geolocated to 16.873800, 96.050624) with homemade riot shields and sandbags (Figure 8).
Figure 8: Geolocation showing location of protestors barricading Hlaing River Road.
In further media, the same blockade can be seen taking place on Hlaing River Road, shot from a slightly different location, 16.873693, 96.050220. This was posted by Khit Thit Media a day later on 13 March. While this could have also been taken on 12 March, the images appear to show the blockade having been reinforced - for example, through the addition of fencing, wooden pallets, flags, and more sandbags around the area - which could indicate it took place the day after the initial barricade, at the time Khit Thit Media posted it.
Images posted on social media on 13 March purport to show HTY residents protesting against the coup. “If one of our Hlaing Thar Yar people dies, we will burn down one Chinese-owned factory” reads the red banner (Figure 9). This image of the banner is difficult to locate but is likely somewhere close to the large tent protest area from 9 March, specifically to 16.878155, 96.078545. Using other images of this area that purport to be from 12 March (Figure 9) this particular area is similar to the surroundings of SM1640. However, since there were many tents and signs similar to this in HTY at the time and, as can be seen in the figure below, they were easy to transport, this cannot be concretely confirmed.
Figure 9: Similarities between the picture of the banner and a protest site on the 12 March in HTY.
The message inscribed appears to be relevant to later reports (here and here) of specifically Chinese-owned factories being destroyed during the protests (discussed later in this report). This red flag banner can be observed being held by protestors in front of the approaching military at a barricade around 16.874177, 96.053127 (Figure 10).
Figure 10: Banner threatening Chinese-owned factories appears at protests in HTY.
To continue reading part two of this report, covering the events from 14-17 March in detail, please download the PDF by clicking the icon below.