Khin Tho fled her home in Sagaing District, northwest Myanmar for the first time in June, running into the woods as soldiers stormed her village. She’s lost count of the times she’s run away since then, but she thinks it might now be about 15.
“When we hear the soldiers coming, we run away,” she said. “We run into the forest, and return to the village when the soldiers are gone.”
As armed resistance to the military coup escalated on February 1, military rulers responded with violent crackdowns on entire villages, reversing the “four cuts” strategy they have honed for more than 60 years in the country’s restive border regions.
Since April, Sagaing District has been a stronghold of the resistance, and also a hotspot for deadly military incursions.
A total of 109 people have been killed in the area since July, according to a report submitted by Myanmar’s Government of National Unity to the United Nations Human Rights Council on September 19.
The victims included 73 people from the towns of Deppen and Kani, where human rights groups and local media documented mass killings in July. The dead, including fighters and civilians, are all men, but with the continued presence of security forces in the villages of the area, women are experiencing the consequences of the conflict on a daily basis. This month, the military blocked internet in 10 towns in the Sage district, including Kanye, raising fears that the military may intensify its attacks.
The violence began in Satbyarken village of Khin Tho in Depayin town on 14 June, when soldiers opened fire and killed one person the day after two daughters of a military official were found dead in a nearby village.
The soldiers returned on 2 July. The ensuing clashes killed at least 32 local people amid indiscriminate shelling and small arms fire, according to the National Unity Government report, while Myanmar media outlet now reports that 10,000 people from 11 villages have fled their homes.
Depayin People’s Defense Forces (PDF) said on its Facebook page that 26 of its members were killed in the incident and that the army fired heavy weapons at the fleeing villagers, while the government newspaper Global New Light of Myanmar reported that terrorists had “ambushed” the security forces, They killed a soldier and wounded six before they retreated after the security forces responded.
Khin Tho, who, like the other women Al Jazeera spoke to, asked to use a pseudonym for fear of reprisals, said soldiers have since been in and out and that she and other villagers have always been ready to flee. Even after the soldiers left, the village remained quiet, and shops and markets closed.
She said that the villagers, who hide in the forest for days or weeks at a time, have difficulty making ends meet.
“We couldn’t get drinking water in some places,” she explained. “Some days we only had one meal, sometimes we had rice with salt and oil or fish paste. I get really depressed, sometimes I don’t even want to live anymore.”
Ae Chan, a local resident, said that the locals lacked medicines and were dependent on plants and herbs to treat their ailments.
She and Khin Tho stopped their work as farm workers because of the danger.
We cannot live in peace. We can’t work. We rely solely on the donations of others and seek safety at any time [soldiers] Ai-chan said. “The presence of soldiers in our village affects us both physically and psychologically. We cannot eat or sleep well.”
Women are in danger
The military used force and large-scale arrests to quell mass protests and the civil disobedience movement, which began days after it seized power from the elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi.
Since then, security forces have killed more than 1,100 people and arrested more than 8,200, according to the rights group the Association for the Assistance of Political Prisoners (Burma) or AAPP, which tracks the military’s abuses.
Faced with limited space to resist military rule by peaceful means, many people took up arms. Some have joined existing armed ethnic organizations, while others have registered with the local armed resistance groups that have sprung up by dozens across the country in recent months, including in areas such as Debein and Kani where most people are from the Bamar ethnic majority.
The Government of National Unity, operating in exile, also announced the formation of a nationwide People’s Defense Force (PDF) in May, the scope and activities of which remain largely unknown. On September 7, the Government of National Unity announced the launch of the “Defensive People’s War”, calling on all citizens across the country to “revolt” against the military generals.
In many cases, armed with small but single-shot hunting rifles and with limited training or combat experience, local armed resistance groups, which also call themselves the Popular Defense Forces but often do not belong to the Government of National Unity, face an army that has accumulated $2.4 billion over the least. arms over the past ten years.
Relying on asymmetric tactics including ambushing military convoys and police stations, they claim to have killed hundreds of military soldiers, but in response, the military has attacked their communities indiscriminately, as it has done in areas where ethnic armed organizations have existed since the war. the sixties.
Historically, the military designated ethnic armed organizations as “insurgent” or “terrorist” and attacked ethnic areas under the guise of national security, and it is now following a similar narrative.
In a statement published on August 28, the military described the PDF, as well as the Government of National Unity and a committee that designated them as “terrorist groups,” and said that those who encouraged people to engage in “terrorist acts” had harbored members of these groups. , or providing financial support to them would also be considered “terrorists”.
In 2019, a UN-appointed fact-finding mission described the military’s use of sexual and gender-based violence including rape in order to “intimidate and punish ethnic minorities”, and stated that sexual violence perpetrated by the military was “part of a deliberate, well-planned, strategic operation to intimidate terrorizing and punishing the civilian population.”
In May, a 15-year-old girl in Sagaing District was raped and murdered by soldiers, according to an ethnic Chin rights group, and in July, Radio Free Asia reported that a woman in Kachin State was found raped and stabbed to death near a military post in her way to her farm and that the army is investigating the case.
On September 26, local media outlets, Democratic Voice of Burma and Khet Thiet Media, reported that four women in Kani township were raped between June and September, but delayed reporting the attacks due to social stigma. Al Jazeera was unable to independently verify the information.
Thunder Aye, a women’s rights activist working in Sajing District and neighboring Chin State, told Al Jazeera that soldiers usually verbally harass women, and she is concerned that other cases of physical or sexual abuse have not been reported due to social stigma and fear of reprisals. from the army.
She added that women in the area avoid leaving their homes even during the day for fear that soldiers will sexually assault them. “A woman cannot go out freely,” she said. “Most of the women stay indoors and face food shortages.”
“They took everything”
Phyoe, a grocery store owner from Chyaung Ma village, told Al Jazeera that she is going out as little as possible for this reason.
“I’ve heard that women have been raped in some villages and other areas, so I’m really afraid that it might happen to me,” she said.
She is among at least 15,000 civilians displaced by violent clashes since April in the town of Kani, 100 km (62 miles) southwest of Depayin.
“when [soldiers] Come on, we close everything and run again. “Only old women and women with young children can’t run,” said Fyue, who no longer remembers how many times she and her family have run.
In July, 43 bodies were found in four locations in the town of Kani, according to the GNU report. The APA and the media documented traces of torture on most of the bodies. The military did not issue any public statements or respond to media inquiries in response to the deaths.
“[Soldiers] They accused the ordinary local people of participating in the PDF, and they killed many people who took refuge in the forest,” said Fei. “We are not safe at home, and we are not safe in the forest either… We have been sleepless since the soldiers came to our village.”
Soldiers occupied Feuyi’s house twice; They also stole valuables from her home and emptied the shelves of her family’s grocery store.
She said Cheung Ma’s streets became deserted after dark, and when the soldiers came, the locals who remained in the village were afraid to move inside their homes for fear of being shot.
Unable to earn income or purchase goods, her family now relies on food donations from relatives and other villagers.
“[Soldiers’] Being in our village and all the cruel things [they did] It really affected our lives and our survival.”
Thuzar also runs a small shop and lives in the village of Na Mayar, which is located 30 kilometers (18 miles) east of Satbyarken in the town of Depayin. She, too, has been in and out of the woods since soldiers fired artillery and stormed her village on August 9.
“Everyone in the village prepared some things in case the soldiers came, but when they did come, we ran away in a hurry, so we couldn’t bring much with us,” she said.
With only trees and a few small tarpaulins to shelter from the rain, they watched artillery strike a nearby herd of goats.
“The pictures of the dead goats were very gruesome,” said Thuzar. “We feel depressed and mentally hurt because we’ve seen so many things we shouldn’t.”
When the soldiers left on August 9, the villagers returned to their homes to find their property ransacked and looted. “[Soldiers] She took all the food from our fridge and ransacked our wardrobe.” “We locked the door to one of the rooms, and they destroyed the door… They took everything. They didn’t even leave 2,000 Myanmar kyats ($1.20) in my daughter’s schoolbag.”
She also said that soldiers destroyed her friend’s refrigerator by filling it with sand, and in some homes where the elderly were left, “one of the soldiers spoke to them at the front door, while other soldiers entered the house through the back door and took whatever they wanted.”
Later in August, soldiers occupied the village for about 10 days. Thuzar returns home to find her chickens have disappeared and have raided more than 30 homes. In a grocery store at the entrance to the village, locals discovered piles of burlap sacks dipped in paraffin oil. “if [soldiers] Ignite them, our entire village would have been reduced to ashes.
Thuzar and her husband closed their shop shortly after the coup, and instead turned to rice cultivation.
She is now worried that they will not be able to finish planting before the end of the rainy season in October.
“When things calm down a bit, we go back for a few days and everyone hurries up to plant,” she said.
When Al Jazeera spoke to her at the end of August, she was preparing to flee again, after hearing military trucks approaching. “We always feel like they are coming to arrest us or kill us,” she said. “I will only feel safe when we achieve democracy.”