By GRANT PECK
BANGKOK (AP) — Residents of two villages in northwestern Myanmar said government soldiers burned down hundreds of homes this week, apparently as they searched for members of an armed militia opposed to military rule.
Monday’s attack in the northwest region of Sagaing, also reported by independent Myanmar media, came on the eve of the anniversary of the Feb. 1 military takeover that toppled the elected government. by Aung San Suu Kyi, and highlighted the fierce struggle for power.
The takeover sparked mass nonviolent protests across the country, but when the military and police responded with lethal force, armed resistance erupted in towns and countryside. The armed struggle was particularly active in the northwest, including the Sagaing region and Chin State, despite the overwhelming superiority of the army.
Residents of Mwe Tone village said on Thursday that 200 of the 250 houses there had been burned, along with nearly 200 of the 800 houses in the nearby village of Pan. Similar figures were reported by Myanmar media.
“As a farmer, I saved money for 15 years to build a house, and all that was left of my house was ashes. Not only my house, but the whole village was reduced to ashes” , said a 29-year-old villager from Mwe Tone, speaking on condition of anonymity because he feared reprisals from the authorities, “Now we have nothing to eat or live.”
Photos showed water pumps, tractors and vehicles destroyed by the fire, with farm animals also falling victim.
The Myanmar military has a reputation for using arson as one of its tactics in counterinsurgency operations. Troops reportedly burned down to 200 villages in a brutal 2017 campaign in western Rakhine state that drove more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslim villagers to seek refuge across the border in Bangladesh .
The military has been charged with crimes against humanity and genocide for its actions against the Rohingya, which also included killing and raping civilians. In their current campaign against opponents of the military regime, they have again been accused of razing houses and carrying out massacres of civilians.
The government’s tactics have also caused a huge humanitarian crisis, with more than 300,000 people displaced across the country, and the conflict often preventing aid from reaching them.
Armed and non-violent resistance to last year’s takeover has prevented the military from consolidating its power, with some experts saying the country has slipped into civil war. The resistance typically employs hit-and-run guerrilla tactics, which the military often responds with brute force.
A Pan villager, who also spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said he believed the troops were looking for members of a local militia which had been set up to protect against attacks from the government.
He said, however, that there were no clashes in the immediate area that could have triggered Monday’s military action. In previous similar incidents elsewhere, government soldiers have apparently acted in retaliation for attacks by resistance forces.
A resident of Mwe Tone said she and seven neighbors who were unable to flee before soldiers took over were captured, and several of them were beaten and abused.
The 45-year-old told The Associated Press by phone that the soldiers told them that Mwe Tone was known for his support for members of the People’s Defense Forces – armed resistance groups also known by their acronym – and that the village would be set on fire that night.
She quoted a soldier as saying, “We are going to burn down the village because members of the PDF live here and receive support. You will have to rebuild your house with reinforced concrete, so that your house will never be easily burned by fire again. She said the soldiers reeked of alcohol.
Two of the residents of Mwe Tone said the troops also engaged in looting, including stealing a 200-year-old 6-inch (15 centimeter) tall golden Buddha image with a ruby encrusted from the monastery of the town.
The government has released no report on the incident.
However, the state-owned Myanma Alinn Daily newspaper claimed that 200 houses in Ma Htee village, about 15 kilometers (9 miles) west of Mwe Tone and Pan villages, were burned down by members of a force of resistance defense during battles with army troops on Sunday. . Satellite images from Planet Labs showed that about a third of the village had been damaged around this time.
Mwe Tone villagers said helicopters came to pick up the soldiers early Tuesday morning, but residents of both villages still feared their return. About 10,000 people from several villages in the area remained hidden in the jungle, they said.
“I want to say to international governments that if you stand and watch without taking any action against the army, Myanmar will soon be burnt to ashes,” said the Pan villager. “People have nowhere to run and the army kills everyone.”