Myanmar junta adds arson to its arsenal with proxy forces that torch opposition areas

The junta is pitting Pyu Saw Htee forces against opponents – ‘just like setting up cockfights,’ says one fighter.
2022.02.20
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Myanmar junta adds arson to its arsenal with proxy forces that torch opposition areas An aerial view of Chaung U village, in Sagaing region's Pale township, where junta troops and Pyu Saw Htee fighters burned more than 300 homes, Dec. 18, 2021.
RFA

The torching of hundreds of homes in Myanmar’s Sagaing region Friday highlights a brutal weapon in the junta’s scorched-earth campaign in the parts of the country that have resisted the year-old military regime: the secretive Pyu Saw Htee militia.

The pro-junta forces are the year-old military regime’s answer to the People’s Defense Force (PDF) militias that have sprung up across swathes of Myanmar to resist the military takeover.  

In a recent measure of their impact, the research group Data for Myanmar reported that pro-junta forces burned down a total of 4,571 homes between seizing power in a military coup on Feb. 1, 2021 and Feb. 14 this year.

Friday’s arson attack in volatile Sagaing’s Pale township followed a pattern of escalating junta responses to response to PDF actions.

Residents of Pale’s Chaung Oo village told RFA’s Myanmar Service that around 20 soldiers and Pyu Saw Htee fighters stormed the area in an early morning raid, torching more than 300 of the tract’s 350 homes, following an attack on their joint training camp near Zee Pyu Kone by pro-democracy militias on Feb. 14.

“Pyu Saw Htee forces and soldiers came from the northwest of the village and burned our homes. The wind was coming from the west, and it fanned the flames,” he said.

The source said that while the fires had since gone out, residents were still unable to return to the village due to the ongoing threat of an attack.

Internet service has been shut down for nearly six months in Pale, but sources in the area say that pro-junta forces have burned at least 1,000 homes in the township’s Hlaw Gar, Inn Ma Htee, Pan, and Mwe Tone villages–sending thousands of refugees scrambling for shelter in nearby forests.

Asked about Friday’s arson attacks, junta Deputy Information Minister Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun said the military was not responsible for burning the homes.

“PDF troops are organizing terrorist activities in Sagaing. Because of instability in the region, local people are forming the militias to resist against [the shadow National Unity Government (NUG)] and the PDFs,” he said.

“The PDFs have attacked these villages and burned down the houses. The military is protecting civilians who had to flee their villages because of this. There is no reason the military would do such a thing because they are there to protect civilians.”

Pyu Saw Htee fighters train at a shooting range under the tutelage of junta soldiers, Feb. 11, 2022. RFA
Pyu Saw Htee fighters train at a shooting range under the tutelage of junta soldiers, Feb. 11, 2022. RFA
‘Widely viewed as military stooges’

Zaw Min Tun also dismissed reports of the Pyu Saw Htee’s existence, although he acknowledged that the military is currently “forming native militia groups” in response to “internal insurgency movements” in play since Myanmar gained its independence from Britain in 1948.

“The groups located in areas with heavy insurgent activity are in a challenging situation.” he said, adding that all militia groups working with the military will surrender their guns at the “end of their mission.”

Pyu Saw Htee is derived from Pyusawhti, the legendary founding king of the Pagan Dynasty, the first Burmese kingdom.

Sources told RFA that Myanmar’s military is not only responsible for arson attacks against civilians, but that the junta has been secretly organizing citizen militias to disrupt, detain, or even kill activists that oppose its rule.

In areas where the PDFs were the strongest, such as in Magway and Sagaing regions in the north and west, the junta armed and trained groups of citizens who support military rule, forming the militia groups now known as the Pyu Saw Htee. The groups were given carte blanche to make arrests, seize property, kill PDF members, and destroy villages, sources said.

The online news outlet The Irrawaddy in June reported that the groups are “widely viewed as military stooges,” but were responsible for assassinations of the elected politicians deposed in the 2021 coup, burnings of schools in Yangon and other cities, and disinformation campaigns to discredit junta opponents.

“The groups consist of active and retired military personnel, civil servants, members of the military proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party, ultranationalists and people hired for a wage of 5,000 kyats (about US$3) per day,” the independent outlet reported.

The military party’s crushing loss to Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling party in November 2020 elections the military claims were rigged triggered the army coup d’état three months later.

3JGW9-attacks-and-arson-in-pale-township-sagaing-region (1).pngStealing cattle

Soe Lay of Gangaw township in the region of Magway, which has also targeted by arson attacks, said the military and their proxies work in lock step and also steal livestock.

“They provided military training. They are even building bunkers in our villages. Some even have machine guns. The Pyu Saw Htee are gaining strongholds in the largest villages of Gangaw township,” Soe Lay told RFA.

“They came in alongside a military regiment and they slaughtered our cattle and took it away,” he said.

Soe Lay’s village has been able to mount an effective defense so far, but he said he worries that the Pyu Saw Htee or the military could one day use a stronger force to overrun the village.

RFA has been unable to independently verify the total number of Pyu Saw Htee groups throughout Myanmar. A Facebook account that claimed to be linked to the group’s headquarters wrote in May that it had formed on March 5, 2021 and counted veterans and members of the pro-military Ma Ba Tha nationalist groups among its personnel. 

A PDF member in Pale township told RFA the military has armed the Pyu Saw Htee to crush the junta resistance and sow conflict. 

“I have witnessed atrocities committed by these militia groups. They brutally killed three civilians near Min Taing Pin village a week ago and afterwards they robbed a gold shop, a clothing store, and a mobile phone store in the market for no reason,” he said.

A resident of nearby Khin-U township, who declined to be named for security reasons, told RFA that villages where the USDP party enjoys strong support, people are forming Pyu Saw Htee groups to seize property that could be used to support the resistance movement.

“When they are short of food supplies and cash, they raid the villages nearby and rob the local people,” he said. “They even took away truckloads of rice supplies.”

Another resident of Khin-U said Pyu Saw Htee members “live like ordinary citizens” when the military regiments are away but when junta troops are present, they act as informants and assist in raids or robbing civilians.

Destroyed homes in Chaung Oo village, Feb. 18, 2022. RFA
Destroyed homes in Chaung Oo village, Feb. 18, 2022. RFA
‘Setting up cockfights’

When asked about reports of ties between the USDP and the Pyu Saw Htee, party spokesperson Nandar Hla Myint told RFA he was unsure.

“First, we made it crystal clear [to them] that we never condone violence. We do not condone armed resistance movements which target civilians and schools,” he said.

“Second, we, as a political party, have instructed our members to respond to armed violence with armed defense, in accordance with the law,” said Nandar Hla Myint.

The military is known to have a set of protocols to form militias as part of its standard operations, political analyst Than Soe Naing told RFA.

“They don’t have secret militia-raising activities in majority Bamar regions since there was no major armed resistance movement there before,” he said.

“They mostly work in areas where the armed ethnic groups are based. But right now, the PDFs have intensified their presence in the Sagaing and Magway regions. That’s why the military is bringing in these militia groups.”

Ko Khant, the spokesperson of local North Yamar PDF group, which is active in Sagaing’s Yinmabin township, told RFA that the military arms the Pyu Saw Htee to agitate anti-junta forces and goad them into clashes.

“It’s just like setting up cockfights. They are using these militia groups as part of their military strategy, but our resistance movement will not fail, no matter what strategy they use. We will not give,” he said.

Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Eugene Whong and Joshua Lipes.

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