KYAUK KHET, Myawaddy Township and THAMEEGALAY, Hlegu Township — Surrounded by green fertile highlands and with a clear flowing river running through it, Kyauk Khet is a quiet village of two parts.
In the older section one recent morning, I found a placid scene. Children were playing on the pathway as mothers cooked breakfast. There were a few small grocery shops and a small clinic for basic medicines. Carpenters were gathering tools to start a day’s work on new school buildings.
It feels quiet and remote here on the eastern border, but if you walk across the Moei River—which you can do, if you don’t mind getting wet to your thighs—you will find yourself in Mae Ku, Thailand, a small
town with electricity, better shopping options, and a decent road that can take you to the bustling border trading hub of Mae Sot in around two hours.
But on the day I visited, it was the new section of Kyauk Khet that I wanted to see.
Perched on a hill, it consisted of a scattering of freshly built houses made of bamboo, wood and woven leaves. In one of these homes, I found Ma Yamin Aye, a slight woman of 34, in the company of a few monks and elders, and keen to talk.
Recently widowed, Ma Yamin Aye was commemorating the death of her husband with a small donation ceremony.
She told me that when the former soldier in Myanmar’s armed forces died nine months earlier, she thought her life couldn’t get any worse.
But she soon learned that there were other misfortunes in store for her—events that would push the mother of four young children from the center of the country to this strange and remote place in the borderlands, far from anything she has known.
Day of Destruction
Fate came knocking at 4 am on Feb. 4, when voices over loudspeakers boomed out in the darkness, ordering the sleepy villagers of Thameegalay to evacuate their homes.
Thameegalay was one of a cluster of targeted villages built near a small dam in Hlegu Township, Yangon Region, about 60 miles from the commercial capital and less than 30 miles from Bago.
It was a simple village, a few decades old, with houses scattered on flatlands on the edge of the Bago Yoma mountain range. But times were getting better. There was daily work harvesting seasonal crops such as watermelon and planting and weeding in nearby rubber plantations. An improved local road between Hlegu and Taikkyi Township to the north had brought more business and trade. Thameegalay was starting to become a fairly decent place to live.
Shaken out of her sleep by the loudspeakers, Ma Yamin Aye had barely enough time to grab her children, her ID documents, and her husband’s army badges before the demolition began.
She tried to use what she thought of as her connections to save the house she had just finished building 20 days before with 1,700,000 kyat from her husband’s pension, of which 380,000 kyat she had paid for the land alone.
After all, hers was an army family. “We were living in soldiers’ quarters when my husband was alive,” she said, adding that she used to serve the wives of some of the commanders.
“I got down and held the knees of the men coming to destroy the house. I begged them. I asked them why they were doing this and gave them my husband’s name and the phone number of an army chief to call. They just said, ‘Don’t question us. You don’t have the right to ask us to do anything,’” she recalled.
“They had no sympathy. They just told me to get out.”
Outside, the sound of machines tearing down homes and buildings was becoming overwhelming. In all, about 2,000 men came in cars, trucks, buses and bulldozers to raze Thameegalay and five neighboring villages that day. They included hundreds of uniformed soldiers, police and hired hands wielding sticks.
“We were told to sit down and not ask any questions or we’d go to prison for three months. If we took up a weapon, we’d get three years,” said another evicted villager now living in Kyauk Khet.
It took just a few hours for the group to destroy every house, big or small, in the six communities. Villagers had to grab what they could and scatter as their homes, belongings and even animals were destroyed. Suddenly 500 people were homeless.
Ma Yamin Aye was in shock. Sickened, she realized she had been tricked. When she bought the land for the house, the dealer told her she should build it as soon as possible. At the time she hadn’t asked why, but now she knew. He must have known what was coming.
Later, it came to light that a series of eviction letters had been sent to the local authorities. A sign had gone up in at least one of the six villages, stating it was on military-owned land. But villagers insisted they had never been told of any eviction plan.
In the confusion, people did not know what to do or where to go. They scattered, some running to hide in nearby bamboo forests, others walking to nearby villages, and some heading further away.
Ma Nilar Win, 30, was in a group that tried to hide in a bamboo forest. “But in the afternoon, those who destroyed our village came our way and we had to move again.”
Around 90 households decided to seek sanctuary in nearby Aung Theikhti Monastery, about half an hour’s walk from Thameegalay.
Sayadaw U Agga Dhamma, 34, has been a strong supporter of education for the area’s children since he moved to the monastery eight years ago. In 2006, he and other monks began teaching local children with the permission of Bago’s leading monastic school and support from civil society groups.
The monastery is modest, made of wood and rough-surfaced concrete and nestled among cashew, padauk and rubber trees in a pleasant spot beside the small Alaini dam. The school classrooms are made of concrete, with open doors and windows.
On the day the villages were destroyed, the abbot ended up taking some children back to the monastery. When families also started coming to seek sanctuary, he found himself in a difficult position with 200 people to help.
“I had just 7,000 kyat and a standard bag of rice, not nearly enough. But I could let them make a temporary shelter here,” he said.
As the news spread, donations came in from Yangon and other places. Nearby villages helped to provide the displaced with food.
But right away, the authorities started pressuring Sayadaw U Agga Dhamma to stop sheltering the villagers. On Feb. 5, a letter came from the Bago Region Irrigation Department telling him he couldn’t allow the villagers to stay. After some negotiation, it was agreed that the families would move after their children’s exams were over in early March.
Offers of Help
Despite this temporary reprieve, the villagers were still under pressure to find a new place to live. By this time, however, their plight was getting some attention, including from the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA), a border-based ethnic Kayin armed group that said the villagers could resettle in their territory.
DKBA leader Col. San Aung insisted that his offer was a “humanitarian act” to help the homeless. “Without a home, a person cannot live. I could not ignore their suffering, which is why I’m trying to help as much as I can,” he said.
As desperate as they were, however, most of the villagers were reluctant to consider moving to such a remote and potentially unstable area. Then, nearly two weeks after their eviction, another offer of help suddenly came from a very different quarter: Hlegu Township MP U Hla Than, from the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, told them there was free land available for them in Wayagone, a village some 12 miles (19 km) away. Many decided to accept.
But when they arrived in the village on March 24, they found there was no land for farming, no access to clean water, and a demand to sign a document full of rules they would have to follow. It wasn’t what they had been promised.
“We couldn’t accept it. We went back to the monastery the next day,” said Ma Nilar Win.
Now more at a loss than ever, the villagers decided to ask Sayadaw U Agga Dhamma to contact DKBA leader Col. San Aung to accept his earlier offer. After he had gone to the armed group’s territory to see if the proposed site was suitable and decided that it was, the monk agreed.
“I could no longer assist them here,” said the monk, who on April 1 had received a mysterious letter—claiming to be from the Bago District government, but lacking an official seal—warning him that his monastery would have to be closed because it was too close to the Alaini dam.
After nearly two months of uncertainty, suddenly it was settled. They were going to the unknown on Myanmar’s border with Thailand. On April 2, around 200 people from 87 households set out on trucks with the DKBA. Some left their children behind to board at the monastery school, but about 50 children made the journey. Most families had just a few belongings they had managed to save, like clothes and blankets.
Soon there was a hitch, when the authorities stopped the ragtag group near Thaton town, at a bridge on the Donthami River, which separates Mon and Kayin states. After failing to get permission to cross, they decided to spend the night in Kyaikmaraw, a town in Mon State.
The next day there were negotiations. The press was there, and it was starting to look like a farce. Even the villagers were starting to see the lighter side of their plight.
“We thought we would have to go back again. We were amused, entertaining ourselves with the hopes that maybe the government would arrange someplace for us,” said Ma Nilar Win, laughing.
In the end, the group managed to reach its destination—but not before doing an end run around the authorities that involved splitting into two groups, with one acting as decoys, visiting temples in Mon and Kayin states, while the other, larger group made a dash for DKBA-controlled Kawkareik, in Myawaddy Township.
Three days after their journey began, the two groups reunited at their new home: Kyauk Khet.
New Home, New Hope
The hill territory wasn’t as wild or strange as some had feared. And the DKBA delivered on all of its promises: Each family was given a plot of land measuring 40 feet by 60 feet, initial food assistance, and building materials for new houses.
To their relief, the new residents of Kyauk Khet also learned that that they would have no trouble making a living. There were plenty of jobs available at local rubber and teak plantations and cornfields,
providing daily wages of 130-300 baht (4,000-10,000 kyat) and around 20 days of work each month.
But as happy as they seem to be with their new circumstances, many of the new settlers are still palpably angry at how they ended up here.
“They cut my home to pieces with saws and knives. It took about 30 minutes to make my house disappear,” Ko Htun Min Naing, 33, recalled bitterly. “They told me that if I tried to resist, they would send me to prison.”
Now that they are here, the villagers have differing ideas about the future.
Ma Nilar Win, who first moved to Thameegalay at the age of 12 and later met her husband Ko Htun Min Maing there, said she still wanted to return to more familiar territory.
“We’re saving up to buy new land near where we used to live,” she said, adding that she wants to save 1,000,000 kyat to buy a plot of land about the same size as the one she has in Kyauk Khet—enough to build a small house and grow some vegetables.
But with a new primary school set to open this month, and plans to build a bigger clinic or hospital in the near future, the DKBA seems to be betting that most will stay. After all, most of the village’s older inhabitants have been here since they were similarly displaced by conflict in Kayin State some 20 years ago.
Some, at least, see no reason to leave, and every reason to stay. U Myo Min Htun, a father of two who lost his land in Inpatee village near Thameegalay and is now on the newly formed village management committee in Kyauk Khet, is one of them.
“I have no plans to go back. We have suffered enough there.”
This story first appeared in the July 2014 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.