Resistance smolders
as Sagaing burns

In the hotbed of the battle against the Myanmar junta, atrocities only stiffen people’s resolve to fight back.

By RFA Burmese

Oct. 6, 2022

In June, Radio Free Asia obtained a cache of files retrieved from a cell phone found by a villager that documents atrocities committed by government soldiers during military operations in Myanmar’s war-torn Sagaing region. Following up on the gruesome attacks on Mon Taing Pin village, RFA spoke to survivors of the massacre, who described the nightmare.

In a third installment on the atrocities, RFA explores how Sagaing, an agricultural region with a rich Buddhist history, has become an epicenter in the conflict between the military and anti-junta forces, and the high price the region’s people have paid for resistance.

In the 20 months since the military seized power in Myanmar, Sagaing has been a center of resistance to junta rule. The northern region of 5.3 million mostly ethnic Burman people is cradled between two of Myanmar’s key rivers, the Ayeyarwady and the Chindwin, and runs southward from Myanmar’s border with India to the country’s second-largest city, Mandalay. Home to some of the country’s most important temples, pagodas, and monasteries, Sagaing was the base of the last Burmese dynasty before the British conquest of the country in 1885.

Residents say it is this spirit of self-determination that has made the region a center of anti-junta protests and bolstered some of the country’s fiercest armed resistance from pro-democracy People’s Defense Forces (PDF) paramilitary groups encountered by the military since the Feb. 1, 2021, coup. The PDF fighters, who the junta has labeled “terrorists,” often clash with the military. They began their resistance with slingshots and the crude “Tumi” rifles their forefathers used to fight the British in the late 19th century, but have since acquired better, more modern weapons. Some have been acquired from allied ethnic rebel groups, others forged by villagers themselves.

Tint Swe, a former lawmaker for Sagaing’s Pale township, told RFA that the people of the region have “a long history of engaging in warfare,” spanning the days of ancient Burmese kings through World War II and 20th century insurgencies.

“The people in this region are now fighting the regime with a persistence and courage never seen before,” he said.

“This is something very special about the people in Sagaing region. I think no matter what strategy the junta uses to try to quell them, there is no prospect of crushing the resistance there.”

But that resistance has come with a high cost.

Junta troops bring death and destruction

Scarcely a week goes by without reports from Sagaing of raids by junta troops on villages they accuse of harboring PDF units, military actions that often entail looting, arbitrary detention, sexual violence, arson and murder. Schools and children have not been spared.

According to the United Nations, junta troops have set fire to or destroyed an estimated 12,000 civilian properties since the takeover, although independent research groups such as Data for Myanmar and the Institute of Strategy and Policy (Myanmar) put the number at north of 20,000. More than 500,000 people have been displaced by conflict in Sagaing during that time, the U.N. says.

An elderly resident of Chaung-U township’s Nyaung Pin Tae village told RFA that the military raid on his tract in June was unlike anything he had ever experienced.

In an image taken from a video found on the soldier’s phone, the phone’s owner and two other soldiers talk about how many people they have killed, the methods they used and cutting up the bodies.

“I heard several artillery blasts … [and] people began fleeing,” he said, adding that those who could not run were put on the backs of motorbikes to escape, although at least one disabled woman was left behind in the chaos.

“There was a child that was left behind, as he didn’t want to abandon the calf he tended to. He was caught and killed. I don’t want to see or hear anything about these military troops because I am too terrified.”

Rights groups have called for the junta’s scorched-earth offensive in Sagaing to be investigated as war crimes in an international court. The junta maintains that its soldiers do not engage in crimes on the civilian population and blames such acts on the PDF. But investigations by RFA suggest otherwise.

The files on the mobile phone of a junta soldier found by a villager in Ayadaw township, which neighbors Ye-U township, where the military had been conducting raids, include a video that showed the phone’s owner and two other men mugging for the camera and chatting in crude terms about killing and disposing of bodies.

Among the many images from Mon Taing Pin village is one of about 30 men with their hands tied behind their backs on the grounds of a monastery. Two of them appear to be the same men who are seen dead in the photos taken a day later of five executed victims.

One man told RFA that his brother-in-law and two nephews were among the detainees in the photo.

“They tied them up and detained all … of them in a large room in the monastery. They got five or six of them in batches and took them into the village, where they were beaten to death and tossed into houses that they later set on fire,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity citing fear of reprisal.

“I think they are killing people to incite fear among the PDF fighters, assuming they will surrender,” he said.

Among the many images found on the Myanmar soldier's cell phone is one of about 30 men with their hands tied behind their backs on the grounds of Mon Taing Pin monastery in May 2022. The identities of these men (highlighted) were shared with RFA by friends and family members.

Another woman told RFA that all three of her sons were captured and killed by the military during the May 10-11 massacre, in which 29 men were killed.

“Not a single day goes by when I don’t mourn for them. All three of my three sons were killed, even though they were all innocent. We were too afraid to argue with [the soldiers],” she said.

“We were living on my sons’ income. Now, they are gone,” she sobbed. “Our lives are ruined. My sons were human beings. I want to beg the military to stop the killing. I want to appeal to these soldier boys. Please have mercy. You guys killed our sons, and now an elderly couple is left starving.”

Like other witnesses to atrocities reported in this story, she requested anonymity for her safety.

‘The resentment in our hearts has only grown larger’

Despite the terror they have endured, many victims of attacks during military raids in Sagaing told RFA that with nothing left to lose and little to look forward to, they are more resolved than ever to remove the junta from power.

Mahuyar, a member of the Myaung Township Women’s PDF Troop, told RFA that she chose to fight against the military regime after everything she had built over the years was destroyed during a raid.

“Our homes and properties have been burned to ashes,” she said. “The resentment in our hearts has only grown larger. We no longer fear them.”

A man tends to the body of a child after Myanmar junta helicopters fired on a school in the Maha Dhammaranthi monastery compound near Let Yet Kone village, Sagaing region, Sept. 16, 2022. (Screenshot from social media/Reuters)

Others said that they would willingly give whatever they could to aid the armed resistance.

“When my son enlisted to join the PDF, he didn’t have any equipment,” said a woman from Sagaing’s Tabayin township who gave her name as Daw [honorific] Ma.

“I sold a diamond earring that I bought with my life savings so I could give him a Tumi rifle.”

Other residents of Sagaing told RFA that morale is high among the people, who are fighting for their homeland, while there is an increasing sense of desperation within the military’s rank and file.

Ko Khant, of Yinmarbin township, said that the junta “has totally lost control in our region.”

“As [the junta] can no longer govern the region, their troops have turned to arresting people, killing them, and burning down their villages,” he said.

Thant Wai Kyaw, a former member of the Sagaing regional parliament who began reporting for the shadow National Unity Government’s news agency after last year’s coup, said that the junta had “underestimated” the people of Sagaing.

“Though they are simple folk, they do not lack the courage to fight back,” she said.

“When they see entire villages burning and people being killed, they realize that this is a time for real revolution. A determination that we must take part in this together grew in the hearts of all – men and women, young and old.”

Reporting by Khin Maung Soe, Nayrein Kyaw, Soe San Aung and RFA Burmese Service
Written by Joshua Lipes
Video by Chris Billing, Lauren Kim
Graphics by Amanda Weisbrod
Edited by Paul Eckert, Kyaw Min Htun and Mat Pennington
Visual editing and graphics by H. Léo Kim, Paul Nelson and Thane Aung
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