By Andrew R.C. Marshall and Wa Lone
MONG YAW, Myanmar (Reuters) - The first and second bodies pulled from the shallow grave in northern Myanmar didn't belong to Aik Chin's missing son. Nor, he prayed, did the third, whose face was unrecognizable from a severe beating.
But then Aik Chin checked the corpse's fingertips - his 17-year-old son had lost one in a childhood accident - and his legs began to buckle.
"When I realized it was my little boy, I collapsed and blacked out," he said. "I don't remember anything after that."
Soldiers entered the village of Mong Yaw on June 25 and rounded up dozens of men, witnesses told Reuters. Aik Chin's son and four others were led away, never to be seen alive again. Two other men - brothers - were shot while trying to escape on a motorbike and their bodies found in a ditch, villagers said.
Myanmar's armed forces have often been accused of abuses by human rights groups and Western governments during decades of conflict with ethnic armed separatists in its wild border zones. What is unusual in this case is that the military high command has been taking the allegations seriously.
Major Thein Zaw of the army's Northeast Command said a court martial had begun, although he could not say how many soldiers were on trial or what charges they faced, and local government officials said several soldiers had been arrested.
Villagers say a senior army officer has promised them a full investigation.
However, multiple requests by Reuters for comment from the army in the northern city Lashio and the capital Naypyitaw were declined or went unanswered. The military said it would address the issue at a news conference on Wednesday.
Ringed by misty hills, Mong Yaw lies in a remote corner of northern Shan State, a region ravaged by war and poverty. 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. Fuelling the conflict is Myanmar's lucrative narcotics trade, which is centered in lawless Shan state.
It is extremely rare in Myanmar for soldiers to be held accountable for alleged abuses, or for such allegations to be investigated transparently, rights groups such as Amnesty International say.
The military's response this time suggests a heightened sensitivity about its image as it tries to present itself as a responsible partner in Myanmar's democratic transition and seeks closer ties with its Western counterparts.
Myanmar was a military dictatorship for nearly half a century until a quasi-civilian government of former generals replaced the junta in 2011 and launched a series of political and economic reforms.
Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was swept into office in April after winning a landslide election last year, but the military still holds immense power.
Police and local officials told villagers in Mong Yaw in the days after the late June killings that they couldn't investigate because the military was already doing so.
Then, on July 3, the region's vice-commander, Major General Kyaw Kyaw Soe, visited Mong Yaw and promised a full probe, said villagers. He also gave each bereaved family 300,000 kyat ($250) as a gesture of sympathy, local people said.
General Kyaw Kyaw Soe said some soldiers had been arrested, but gave no further details.
This surprised local activists, who say they have spent decades documenting similar incidents by ill-disciplined troops amid a culture of impunity.
"The military has never done anything like this," said Sai Han, an ethnic Shan leader of the Tai Youth Organization, based in Lashio. He called what happened at Mong Yaw a "war crime" committed by soldiers against civilians.
News of the killings had spread fast, aided by cellphones that have only recently become ubiquitous in Myanmar and by testimony from a population emboldened in an era of reform, Sai Han said, suggesting that the publicity had made it impossible for the military to brush aside the allegations.
"DRUNK AND ANGRY"
Sai Mong Tan, 22, was weeding a cornfield with his 17-year-old brother, Sai Shwe Lu, when the soldiers arrived. "They seemed drunk," he told Reuters. "I could smell alcohol on them. They were very angry."
The military later said they had come under attack from rebels in the area, although Sai Han and other local activists said there had been no insurgent activity.
The brothers were marched to a nearby road, where dozens more soldiers had detained about a hundred people, and were forced to squat with their hands behind their heads.
The soldiers beat and interrogated the men, demanding to know if anyone had spotted insurgents in the area, said Sai Mong Tan.
He then watched as soldiers tied up his younger brother and the four other victims and led them away.
Reuters could not independently confirm this account, although it matched the version of events described by other villagers and local officials and rights activists.
Sai Mong Tan believes his brother was singled out because he didn't speak Burmese and couldn't answer the soldiers' questions.
Most people in Mong Yaw are from the Shan or Palaung ethnic minorities. Soldiers mostly hail from the majority Bamar ethnic group, and often accuse villagers of harboring insurgents.
Aik Sai, 23, was also among the five men led away. By nightfall, his fretful wife Aye Lu, 18, was hiding at home with their newborn child.
"The soldiers came to the village and told us to stay inside," she said. "I didn't dare go out."
Only three days later, when the soldiers had left, did the villagers start looking for the missing men. A blood-spattered path above a cornfield led them to patches of recently turned soil.
(Reporting by Andrew R.C. Marshall and Wa Lone; Editing by Alex Richardson)