Villagers sing Christmas songs at a camp for people displaced by conflict in Kayah State. (Mar Naw | Frontier)

A year on, Christmas Eve massacre haunts Kayah State

Villagers in the war-torn state are marking Christmas by praying for the memories of civilians killed by the military a year ago today, while survivors confront trauma.


On December 23 last year, as fighting approached Law Kyar village, Maw Myar put her 20-year-old daughter and 18-year-old son in a van, believing she was sending them to safety.

“Instead it was as if I sent them to the pit of death,” she told Frontier on December 8 this year. 

Fighting has engulfed much of Kayah State since the military seized power in a February 2021 coup. Hpruso Township, where Maw Myar’s family lived, has not been spared. The newly formed Karenni Nationalities Defence Force, under the guidance of the more established Karenni Army, has fiercely resisted the coup, denying the military regime administrative control over much of the state. But as in other resistance strongholds, the military has responded to these battlefield setbacks with violent reprisals against civilians.

After spending a sleepless night separated from her children, Maw Myar, a Roman Catholic, called her son the next morning. What should have been a day of Christmas Eve festivities in Kayah, where around half of the population is estimated to be Christian, instead morphed into a nightmare.

“Someone picked up the phone and said my son and daughter’s name when I asked. The person on the phone said, we are going to kill your children and everyone in the car. While I was crying and telling them not to, they hung up,” Maw Myar said. “I couldn’t do anything. I was crying and screaming.”

At around 10am, Maw Myar saw smoke rising from near the neighbouring village of Moso.

Her son, daughter and two nephews were among at least 35 civilians killed that day in what became known as the Christmas Eve Massacre. Members of the KNDF, who examined the bodies, told Frontier they believe most of the victims were burned alive.

“After careful examination of the bodies, no gunshot wounds were found, so it was concluded the victims were tied in the cars and set on fire before they died,” one said, claiming this was true for all nine bodies they thoroughly examined.

Maw Myar arrived at the scene on December 25, along with KNDF soldiers.

“When I got there, I saw a lot of bodies that had been tied up and burned in the car. It was the car my son and daughter had been in, so I had to accept that my children had been killed,” she said. “I found only charred bodies. These events are a nightmare I will never forget.”

A woman forages for edible plants at a camp for the internally displaced in Kayah State. (Mar Naw | Frontier)

The massacre was widely condemned by the international community, including the United Nations Security Council, the UN’s child rights agency UNICEF, and the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mr Martin Griffiths, who said he was “horrified”.

U Bo Bo, deputy head of the Karenni State Police, an anti-junta body established by police officers who defected from the security forces after the coup, said in January last year that the death toll could be as high as 49, including those who were reported missing following the attack.

Asked for an update in December this year, U Bo Bo said the missing all remain unaccounted for. “We have not yet received any dead bodies of the missing locals or any evidence that they have been arrested or are living elsewhere,” he said.

He said it’s possible they escaped and have been unable to contact relatives, given military-imposed internet and cellular blocks, or are being held by the military incommunicado.

Members of the KNDF and KSP said the troops responsible for the massacre came from Light Infantry Battalion 108 in Light Infantry Division 66.

The junta accused Karenni resistance forces of using the ambushed vehicles to transport troops and supplies and alleged the convoy had failed to stop at a checkpoint and that some passengers were armed.

A Karenni man whose grandson and niece were killed during the Christmas Eve massacre, pictured at an IDP camp. (Mar Naw | Frontier)

Commemorating the dead

As Christians across Kayah prepare for the holidays, many are also commemorating the anniversary of the massacre, holding prayer ceremonies in churches or making pilgrimages to Moso village.

“It’s both Christmas-time and the anniversary of our relatives being killed, so we came to Moso village to pray,” explained Khule, whose 18-year-old brother was one of the victims.

“He was seven years younger than me, so I had to take care of him from a young age,” said Khule, whose parents had both died by the time he was 22. Like Maw Myar, he thought he was keeping his brother safe by telling him to flee the fighting in the area.

“I even feel that my brother died because of me… I gave him permission to leave. I never knew that he would die,” Khule said.

While Khule lives near Moso village, he said others are coming from farther away for a joint prayer ceremony, risking their own lives to pay their respects as the war continues to rage throughout the state.

Khule said he expects Christmas celebrations to be muted this year compared to holiday seasons before the coup.

“Relatives gather in a church or community meeting place and pray for the dead. They also cook the victims’ favourite foods and talk about their memories of them,” he said, recalling his own fond memories of his younger brother.

Khule said the two of them had made a living buying wholesale food and clothes in the state capital Loikaw and selling them in the villages. “The work was tiring but we were happy because we worked together,” he said. They saved up money together and used it to repair the family house their parents had left behind.

“After I got married, [my wife and I] discussed giving more money to my younger brother and helping him find a wife. My brother was still young then and didn’t even have a girlfriend, but we had to prepare for the future,” he said. “Now it’s been a year without my little brother and our dreams of the future are gone”.

“As we pray for peace, we also have to fight for justice for them,” he added.

Maw Myar was so traumatised after the Christmas Eve Massacre that she moved to a town on the Thai border, leaving her youngest daughter in the care of other relatives, as her husband had passed 12 years ago. Once the primary breadwinner for her family, who was known to take pride in the academic achievements of her four children, Maw Myar was now barely able to take care of herself.

“Since the coup, our lives have been destroyed. Now I don’t have a home, I don’t have any property and I lost my two children,” she said, sobbing.

But her nightmare didn’t end there.

Her 15-year-old daughter, who had been staying in a camp for displaced people in Kayah’s Demoso Township, told Frontier on December 10 that she recently travelled to Hpruso to attend a prayer service with her surviving brother.

“I also visited the site where my brother and sister lost their lives. I still haven’t forgotten them,” she said.

She said she was planning to return to her home village on December 12, but according to Maw Myar’s sister, Maw Se, soldiers stopped and detained the daughter, her uncle and three other travellers at a checkpoint that day. 

Maw Se said on Friday that the family had still heard no news of them. Why they were detained and what had happened to them remained a mystery.

On hearing this latest news, Maw Myar’s fragile mental health deteriorated further, and she attempted suicide. She survived but was hospitalised for a week and now lives with her sister.

“She is shouting to bring her daughter back. She can’t control herself anymore. It’s as if her last hope had been crushed,” Maw Se said.

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