Fear, defiance as fighting rages in Myanmar’s north

(FILES) This photo taken on August 16, 2022, shows anti-coup fighters being given flowers by local residents in a township in Myanmar’s northwestern Sagaing region. (Photo by AFP)

SAGAING, Myanmar (AFP) — Anti-coup fighters in Myanmar patrol the smoldering ruins of a burned village after what they say was a reprisal attack by junta troops struggling to crush resistance to last year’s military coup.

Corrugated roofs, support beams and cooking utensils are all that remain amid the ash in the village in northwestern Sagaing — an area which has seen some of the fiercest fighting against the military’s power grab.

Rare footage obtained by AFP shows a region wracked by violence, and criss-crossed by junta troops, pro-military militias and anti-coup fighters, where internet access is regularly cut by authorities.

Win Soe said junta troops brought destruction to his village of Tharyarkone, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) west of Myanmar’s second city Mandalay, late last month.

“Soldiers came to our village on their way back to their camp,” he said.

“There had been no fighting here and they just came to destroy things — they torched 60 houses in our village,” Win Soe said.

A group of about a dozen young men — some in combat fatigues, football socks and sneakers, others in shorts and sandals — arrived to survey the burned remnants of the village as they patrolled the district, trailing military forces.

The unit is part of a local “People’s Defense Force” (PDF), dozens of which have sprung up in Sagaing and across the country to fight the military in an attempt to overturn the coup that last year ousted Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected civilian government.

Often armed with little more than homemade weapons and knowledge of the terrain, some of these groups have surprised the military with their effectiveness, according to some analysts.

The junta has responded with an offensive that rights groups say includes razing villages, mass extra-judicial killings and airstrikes on civilians.

In May, the UN humanitarian agency UNOCHA said more than 12,000 civilian properties were thought to have been burned or destroyed since the coup.

The military accuses PDF fighters -– which it has declared “terrorists” –- of setting the fires and says their assassination campaigns have killed hundreds including Buddhist monks, teachers and medical workers.

(FILES) This photo taken on August 5, 2022, shows anti-coup fighters standing next to burned debris they say was the result of an attack by the Myanmar military in a township in Myanmar’s northwestern Sagaing region. (Photo by AFP) 

– A million displaced –
Post-coup violence has pushed the number of displaced people in Myanmar to over one million, according to the UN, adding to those previously forced from their homes by long-running conflicts in ethnic border areas.

Sagaing — home to mostly ethnic Bamar and a traditional recruiting ground for the military — has seen more than half a million people displaced since the coup, the UN said.

Even in villages that escape being torched, locals said they lived in fear of violence from the military.

“When soldiers came to our village, we hid behind some shrubs, but my son was in bad health and could only hide nearby,” said San Nwae, from Mintaingpin village, close to Tharyarkone.

“When the soldiers found him, they beat him to death. From my hiding place, I heard the sound of someone being killed,” she said.

“After soldiers left the village… I came out from hiding and I realized the one who had been killed was my son.”

Diplomatic efforts led by the UN and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to resolve Myanmar’s bloody impasse have made little headway, with the generals refusing to engage with opponents.

“We have been fighting the military for one year, but we don’t have enough weapons and we are just fighting with our homemade guns,” said one anti-junta PDF member.

He admitted that his group of about 20 fighters was often unable to hold off the military for long.

“When the soldiers come to our village, we warn villagers to run away and we try to evacuate them,” he said.

“If soldiers arrest villagers, most of them are killed.”

© Agence France-Presse