Myitkyina - Thousands of mourners gathered Friday for the funerals of two young teachers who activists allege were murdered by soldiers in northern Myanmar, as the government promised an inquiry into their deaths.
Tearful well wishers packed into a hall in Myitkyina, the state capital of war-torn northern Kachin state, to pay respects to the pair, whose deaths have sparked an outpouring of public anger and grief.
Crowds massed around the coffins of the two women, which were draped with white sheets, in a solemn procession led by a Kachin orchestra.
The violent deaths have struck a bitter chord for many in Kachin state, which has been wracked by conflict between the army and ethnic minority rebels in recent years.
"We demand safety for women. We are not safe in this country," Mar Mar Cho, an activist with the Women's Organisations Network of Myanmar, told AFP.
The battered bodies of the women were discovered early this week when students visited their house in a remote village near the border town of Muse in northern Shan state, worried that they had failed to turn up for morning lessons, according to state-backed media.
They had suffered stab wounds and head injuries, the state-backed Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper reported Friday, adding that a steel blade was found at the property.
Myanmar on Thursday vowed to investigate the deaths and promised that any involvement by army troops -- if proved -- would not go unpunished.- Thousands displaced -
Fighting between the Myanmar military and Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which reignited in 2011 after the collapse of a 17-year ceasefire, has displaced around 100,000 people and spilled into parts of neighbouring Shan state.
The country's quasi-civilian government is struggling to ink a nationwide ceasefire deal as part of its reform drive since replacing outright military rule in 2011.
But decades under the iron-fisted junta and years of bloody conflict in the country's borderlands have left a legacy of deep distrust of the military, which was long accused of committing abuses with impunity.
The Kachin Baptist Convention, which ran the school where the women worked, has said it believes they were raped and severely beaten before being killed.
Images of their injured corpses have been widely circulated on social media, stirring outrage.
"I broke down when I first read the news. Now I feel despair," said Julia, an ethnic Kachin who said one of the dead women was a distant relation.
"I am campaigning for true justice," she told AFP early Friday at a sombre ceremony in honour of the teachers in Yangon.
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The government has put a national ceasefire deal at the heart of reforms, but heavy fighting in Kachin has overshadowed peace talks.
The international community has also raised alarm that the country is backsliding in other key areas of its democratic transition.
On Wednesday, US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki called on Myanmar to investigate the killings in a "credible and transparent manner".
Myanmar has launched a special investigation into the deaths, according to officials.
President's office spokesman Zaw Htaysaid that if soldiers were found to have committed the crime "we won't be tolerant, we will take serious action".
But he bristled at a statement from the United States urging a probe into the incident, saying Washington should "respect our country's sovereignty".
Last year the military admitted that its troops had shot a freelance journalist known as Par Gyi who was in custody at the time, but said that he was working for an armed group in southern Mon state -- a claim his family denies.