Myanmar on Thursday said it would investigate the deaths of two teachers who activists claim were raped and murdered by government troops, as crowds gathered in the country's far north amid rising anger over the killings.
The battered bodies of the two women, aged 20 and 21, were found Monday in a remote village in Shan state where they were teaching children on behalf of the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC), according to the group's spokesman Lama Yaw.
Images of the women's injured corpses have been widely circulated on social media, stirring outrage in Shan and neighbouring Kachin state, which have been wracked by conflict between Myanmar's army and ethnic minority rebels in recent years.
"Local police and state government are investigating. People are saying it was committed by the Tatmadaw (army), but they need evidence - they can't just accuse," president's office spokesman Zaw Htay told AFP.
He said 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".
Myanmar has been wracked by sporadic civil wars across its ethnic minority borderlands for more than half a century, leaving a legacy of entrenched mistrust of the army, which has been accused of committing serious abuses with impunity.
"The victims are dead and can't point out who did it to them. But everyone in Myanmar -- not only the Kachin people -- knows the truth," Lama Yaw told AFP, referring to KBC claims that soldiers were responsible.
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 rising alarm that the country is backsliding in other key areas of its democratic transition.
"We call on authorities to investigate this crime and bring the perpetrators to justice in a credible and transparent manner," said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki in a briefing on Wednesday.
Lama Yaw said he was travelling with a procession carrying the coffins of the two women to the Kachin state capital Myitkyina, where their parents were waiting to hold funerals.
He said they had been greeted by large crowds on the two-day journey.
"Even in the freezing weather, people were waiting for us," he said.
ighting 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.
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.