YANGON • A Myanmar military court has jailed seven soldiers for five years each with hard labour for murdering five ethnic minority villagers in June, state media said yesterday, in a rare prosecution of military personnel.
The seven, including four officers, will serve their time in civilian prisons, said a report from a court martial in north-eastern Myanmar.
Soldiers have often been accused of serious human rights abuses in Myanmar's long-running wars with ethnic armed groups, but the allegations are rarely acknowledged, let alone heard in court.
Activist Sai Kaung Kham, who helped residents of northern Shan state's Mong Yaw village demand justice for the June killing of their family members, said he was surprised the military had taken action. "The fact they have been sentenced to imprisonment is better than nothing."
Myanmar's army ran the country for almost five decades before initiating a transition to civilian rule that saw Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi take power in April. Military leaders, keen to build military-to-military ties with Western armies, have made efforts to present the still-powerful army as a responsible partner in the country's transition.
After the killings in Mong Yaw, one of the military's highest-ranking officers held an unprecedented news conference in July to say soldiers were responsible for the deaths of five residents. Lieutenant-General Mya Tun Oo said the military would support the victims' families.
Witnesses have told Reuters that soldiers entered Mong Yaw - populated mainly by the Shan and Palaung ethnic groups - on June 25 and rounded up dozens of men they suspected of aiding the Ta'ang National Liberation Army, a Palaung militia that has been fighting government forces in the area for several years.
Five badly beaten corpses were later pulled from shallow graves and identified as missing villagers.
Ms Suu Kyi on Thursday urged US businesses to invest in Myanmar as a way to advance its democratic transition, a day after United States President Barack Obama pledged to lift longstanding sanctions.
"Economic success is one of the ways that we can persuade everyone in our country, including the military, that democracy is the best way forward for our union," she said at a dinner hosted by the US- Asean Business Council.