By Wa Lone
YANGON (Reuters) - Five villagers were killed by soldiers during an interrogation in Myanmar's northern Shan State, a senior general said on Wednesday, in a rare admission by Myanmar's still-powerful military which promised to prosecute the perpetrators.
Witnesses have told Reuters that soldiers rounded up dozens of men in the remote village of Mong Yaw, in an area riven by a long-running ethnic insurgency, on June 25 and led five men away. The bodies of the five were found in a shallow grave a few days later.
Lieutenant General Mya Tun Oo, one of Myanmar's highest-ranking officers and the chief of military intelligence, told a news conference in Yangon that a court martial was under way and that the verdict would be made public.
The military also pledged help for the victims' families.
"The court martial found that they violated the rules, failing to follow certain procedures, that led to the death of the victims during the interrogation," said Mya Tun Oo.
He did not say how many soldiers were being tried or what charges they faced.
Such a public admission of wrongdoing by soldiers from a top general in the presence of the international media is unprecedented. The armed forces have occasionally acknowledged troops have been at fault in previous incidents, but have usually done so in vaguely worded official statements.
The military's response this time suggests a heightened sensitivity about the army's image as it tries to present itself as a responsible partner in Myanmar's democratic transition and seeks closer ties with its Western counterparts.
The military is forging a delicate partnership with Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who swept to power after a historic election in November. The armed forces, which ruled the former Burma for nearly half a century, still control three security ministries and a quarter of the seats in parliament.
"Every soldier has to follow rules and regulations while investigating prisoners or detainees regardless of whether they are related to insurgents or regular citizens," said Mya Tun Oo, adding that the military would take action against the perpetrators according to the law.
"The military will take the best care and support of the victims' families," said Mya Tun Oo, without giving the details.
Myanmar's armed forces have often been accused by human rights groups and Western governments of abuses during decades of conflict with ethnic armed groups in the country's lawless border zones.
Campaigners such as Amnesty International say it is extremely rare for troops to be held accountable for alleged abuses, or for such allegations to be investigated transparently.
"After the incident in Mong Yaw we ordered an investigation commission with three members, led by the vice-commander of the northeast command, very quickly," said Mya Tun Oo.
"They visited the area, met with the families of the victims and supported them according to their needs."
Villagers said the military visited Mong Yaw and gave each family 300,000 kyat ($250) "as a gesture of sympathy".
The deaths of two other men in a separate incident in the same area were also being investigated.
"They were shot dead when riding a motorbike near the military convoy, but we don't know who shot them. We don't know who they are," said Mya Tun Oo.
Villagers have said the two men were brothers and that their bodies were found in a ditch close to where the other five victims were buried.
Mong Yaw lies in a remote corner of northern Shan State, where thousands of people have been displaced by decades of fighting between the military and ethnic insurgents. Last year the military lost hundreds of men in a bid to re-take a rebel-held region bordering China.
Local human rights activists helped exhume all seven bodies in Mong Yaw and record their injuries. Campaigners expressed surprise that the military was taking the allegations seriously, saying they had spent decades documenting similar incidents.
Despite the latest admission, fear and mistrust of the military that has festered for years in places such as Mong Yaw is unlikely to disappear quickly.
On July 11, Major General Kyaw Kyaw Soe had invited the bereaved families to an army facility near the northern city of Lashio. Reuters reporters trying to attend were ordered by soldiers to leave.
"He said he would find justice for us," said Aye Lu, an 18-year-old woman whose husband was among the five killed, after the meeting. "I don't believe him."
(Reporting by Wa Lone; Writing by Antoni Slodkowski; Editing by Alex Richardson)