BANGKOK -- Residents of two villages in northwestern Myanmar said government soldiers burned down hundreds of houses this week, apparently while searching for members of an armed militia opposed to military rule.
The attack on Monday in northwestern Sagaing region, also reported by independent Myanmar media, came on the eve of the anniversary of the Feb. 1 army takeover that ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, and underlined the fierce struggle for power.
The takeover triggered mass nonviolent protests nationwide, but when the military and police responded with deadly force, armed resistance arose in the cities and the countryside. Armed struggle has been especially active in the northwest, including Sagaing region and Chin state, despite the military's overwhelming superiority.
Residents of Mwe Tone village said on Thursday that 200 of 250 homes there were razed by fire, together with nearly 200 of the 800 houses in nearby Pan village. Similar numbers 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 turned into ash," said a 29-year-old Mwe Tone villager, speaking on condition of anonymity because he feared reprisal from authorities. "Now, we have nothing to eat or live with.”
Photos showed water pumps, tractors and vehicles destroyed by the blaze, with farm animals also falling victims.
Myanmar’s army has a reputation for using arson as one of its tactics in counterinsurgency operations. Troops are believed to have burned down as many as 200 villages in a brutal 2017 campaign in western Rakhine state that drove more than 700,000 Muslim Rohingya villagers to seek safety across the border in Bangladesh.
The army has been accused of crimes against humanity and genocide for its actions against the Rohingya, which also included the killings and rapes of civilians. In their current campaign against opponents of military rule, they have again been accused of razing homes and carrying out massacres of civilians.
The government’s tactics have also caused a huge humanitarian crisis, with upwards of 300,000 people nationwide displaced from their homes, and the conflict often preventing assistance from reaching them.
Both armed and nonviolent resistance to last year’s army takeover has prevented the military from consolidating its rule, with some experts saying the country has slipped into a civil war. The resistance generally employs hit-and-run guerrilla tactics, to which the army often responds with brute force.
A villager from Pan, who also spoke on condition of anonymity because of fear of retaliation, said he believed the troops had been searching for members of a local militia that had been established to protect against government attacks.
He said, however, that there had been no clashes in the immediate area that might have triggered Monday’s military action. In previous similar incidents elsewhere, government soldiers acted in apparent retaliation for attacks by resistance forces.
A Mwe Tone resident said that she and seven neighbors who were unable to flee before the soldiers took over were captured, with several beaten and abused.
The 45-year-old woman told The Associated Press by phone that the soldiers told them that Mwe Tone is known for supporting members of the People’s Defense Force — armed resistance groups also known by their acronym — and the village would be torched that night.
She quoted a soldier as saying, “We will torch the village as PDF members are living here and receiving support. You’ll have to rebuild your house with reinforced concrete, so your house never again is easily burned by fire.” She said the soldiers reeked of alcohol.
Two of the Mwe Tone residents said the troops also engaged in looting, including stealing a 200-year-old, 6-inch (15-centimeter) -tall gold Buddha image with an embedded ruby from the village monastery.
The government has not issued any reports about the incident.
However, the state-run Myanma Alinn Daily newspaper claimed that 200 houses of Ma Htee village, about 15 kilometers (9 miles) west of Mwe Tone and Pan villages, were burned by members of a resistance defense force during fighting with army troops on Sunday. Satellite images from the company Planet Labs showed about a third of the village had been damaged sometime around that time.
The Mwe Tone villagers said helicopters came to pick up the soldiers early on Tuesday morning but residents of both villages were still fearful about their returning. An estimated 10,000 people from several villages in the area remained in hiding in the jungle, they said.
“I want to say to international governments that if you are still standing and looking without taking any action against the military, Myanmar will soon be reduced to ashes,” said the villager from Pan. “The people have nowhere to run and the army is killing everyone.”