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Eyewitnesses recount bloody crackdown in Bago, Myanmar
03:39 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

The shooting started in the city of Bago, Myanmar at 5 a.m. on April 9.

By the early hours of the next morning, at least 82 people were dead, according to advocacy group AAPP.

One pro-democracy protester, an 18-year-old member of the so-called Defense Team tasked with protecting the neighborhood from the military, says he believes the death toll is closer to 100.

The would-be student, who had planned to study IT in college this year, witnessed the brutal crackdown by junta-controlled security forces. He asked CNN to conceal his identity as he is hiding from the military.

He says he was manning bunker 5, a protester roadblock made of sandbags intended to stop bullets.

In reality, it offered little protection from the heavy weaponry he and others say security forces used that day on civilians.

“They were attacking bunker 1, the main bunker, with heavy weapons and there were around 30 volunteers there who were killed on the spot,” he says.

Security officers walk down the street during a crackdown in Bago, Myanmar, on April 9.

“When we were moving back, they shot us from the monastery where they were stationed. As they were shooting at us continuously, I think at least 40 of us were killed at that time.”

A doctor, who asked for anonymity for his own safety, says he was in a different part of the city.

“My house is quite far away from the barricade, so I couldn’t hear the gun shots, but when they start using the heavy weapons, my whole family was woken up.”

He says he saw a protester run into a nearby house for safety, but security forces followed him, dragging the homeowner and his son outside and beating them with a steel bar. He says the man and son were taken away by the military and have not been heard from since.

The doctor says he tried to film events with his phone, but the military saw him and started shooting at his house. “They cracked down on the houses which were supporting the defense team, some (residents) gave them (the protesters) food and some gave them medical treatment for gun-shot wounds,” said the doctor.

The doctor says other protestors in the city called him to ask for medical help, but he says he could only offer advice over the phone as the military were in his street all day.

An activist, again unidentified for her own safety, tells CNN a bystander was shot and killed but his family was unable to retrieve the body as the shooting was too intense. She says they brought the body home once it fell quiet and held a secret funeral that night.

The military junta, which seized power on February 1, deposing the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, tells a very different story.

Military controlled newspaper, the Global New Light of Myanmar, reported one day later, “security forces were attacked by groups of rioters while removing road barriers solidified by the rioters on the streets in Bago yesterday. About 30, 50 and 80 rioters used handmade guns, fire bottles, arrows, handmade shields and grenades to attack the security forces.”

The 18-year old protester describes a much more rudimentary, mostly defensive arsenal.

“We have gas masks, helmets, air guns, that’s all we have,” he says.

Advocacy group AAPP says security forces used weapons more suited for a battlefield: “assault rifles, heavy weaponry like RPGs and hand grenades.”

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Faced with weapons of war, the 18-year-old protester says some protesters have traveled to ethnic areas for military defense training, and plan to coach others on their return.

A second doctor, also hiding his identity for his safety, says he tried to access the wounded in Bago but was blocked by the military.

“On the main road, the barricades were set up every two blocks and forces broke those barriers one after the other. We were on the other side and we could see the wounded, we could see people fall to the ground, but we couldn’t get to them.”

He says he saw a bystander hit in the head with a bullet and fall to the ground. He estimated he was 18 or 19 years old.

Condemnation of the security forces’ bloody crackdown in Bago has been scathing and widespread.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said in a statement: “The military seems intent on intensifying its pitiless policy of violence against the people of Myanmar, using military-grade and indiscriminate weaponry.”

The United States Embassy in Myanmar said it mourns “the senseless loss of life in Bago and around the country where regime forces have reportedly used weapons of war against civilians.”

At least 726 people, including children, have died since the military coup, according to AAPP, although they say the actual death toll is likely far higher. Since the military takeover, junta security forces made up of police, soldiers and elite counter-insurgency troops have embarked on a systematic crackdown against civilians and protesters, detaining more than 3,000 people, often in nighttime raids, and forcing activists into hiding.

Responding to criticism and claiming a far lower death toll, junta spokesman Brigadier Zaw Min Tun said on military-controlled television MRTV last week, “If we really shoot at protesters using automatic rifles, the 500 you refer to could be killed within hours.”

This is not the first time security forces have fired upon civilians in Bago, but protesters say it was the bloodiest day they have suffered since the coup.

Some blame the high loss of life on a suspected military informant, who they say infiltrated the Defense Team’s ranks. “One guy betrayed us and gave all of our information including photos to the military,” the 18-year old protester says.

“He gave them information about our weapons, so they did not approach us, just shot at us with heavy weapons and guns.” He and others we have spoken to say the suspected informant’s father is believed to be in the military.

CNN cannot independently verify this claim but the belief they were betrayed has shaken trust within the group.

Protesters are now scattered and in hiding, scared to answer their phones to numbers they do not recognize.

The military went house to house in certain neighborhoods that day, arresting people in their homes, according to multiple sources.

They say families received a phone call the next day, inviting them to come and pick up the bodies of those killed in the violence, at a price. Relatives are being asked to pay the equivalent of $85 for the privilege of buying their loved one and giving them a dignified farewell. That price has now risen to $110, one activist says.

CNN’s calls for comment from the military on the apparent fees for retrieval of the bodies have gone unanswered.