Donated Huts Provide Modicum of Shelter for Victims of Myanmar Junta Arson Attacks
By Yuzana 17 March 2023
Although it is just a flimsy palm hut, it offers a small degree of consolation for Daw Thida and her family, and a better option than living near a haystack without a roof over their heads. The 44-year-old teacher and mother of two children lives in Let Yat Kone Village of Sagaing’s Depayin Township, a stronghold of the anti-junta resistance.
She lost her moderately spacious and pleasant house worth more than 10 million kyats (US$4,800) in late December when regime troops sped up their arson campaign in order to wipe out local support for resistance groups.
According to independent researchers Data for Myanmar, over 43,000 houses in Sagaing Region have been burned down by junta forces. This is almost 80 percent of the total number of civilian houses that have been burned down nationwide. Depayin Township has suffered the most in Sagaing Region, with 6,018 civilian homes torched as of the end of January 2023.
Daw Thida’s village, Let Yat Kone, which has more than 300 households, was torched in December 2022 and again in January 2023, with almost 250 houses destroyed. After her house burned down, there was one bed left for her family. As they weren’t able to rebuild the home, they were living next to a haystack.
“We have suffered many losses and suffered a lot of trauma because of them [regime soldiers],” Daw Thida told The Irrawaddy.
Daw Thida and some other villagers were able to build low-cost palm huts in February with the help of Myanmar people at home and abroad. Such palm huts have become an alternative form of shelter for a growing number of homeless civilians in Sagaing Region. As of the second week of March, 31 palm huts had been built in Let Yat Kone by the donors, out of 250 houses burned down by the junta.
Palm huts: homes reborn in Anyar
Palm trees and palm huts are characteristic of the Myanmar countryside and are also recognized as a symbol of central Myanmar’s Anyar Region, which comprises Mandalay, Sagaing and Magwe, where the majority of Bamar people live.
Many years ago, Anyar people lived in houses made of palm leaves but in later times they opted for stronger materials and only a few people lived in palm leaf houses. However, at present, the small palm huts are increasingly being seen in central Myanmar again, especially in Sagaing Region.
“Even those who have money and can build a new house are living in palm huts because they fear their homes will be burned down again,” a resident of Mu Kha Twin Village of Depayin Township told The Irrawaddy.
Mu Kha Twin is near Let Yat Kone and is one of the villages in the area that recently suffered a regime arson attack. It has more than 300 households, with 164 houses torched in arson attacks in December 2022 and January 2023. So far, 14 palm huts have been built in that village thanks to donations from the S&C educational and emergency rescue team, which help civilians displaced by the regime’s raids with the support of Myanmar well-wishers at home and abroad.
Structure of palm huts
Palm huts are made of palm leaves, bamboo and wood, ranging in width from around 15 feet (4.5 meters) to 18 feet with enough room for five people. It costs only 200,000 kyats for a hut. For those like Daw Thida who are unable to rebuild, S&C and private donors provide the money for the hut.
The main reason palm huts were chosen is because it is easy to find the palm leaves for the roofs—although they are becoming scarcer due to strong demand—and it doesn’t take too much time to build one, according to Ko Soe Moe Aung, a representative of S&C. The S&C team started their support activities in 2021 and have been helping Sagaing’s homeless civilians to build the palm huts since last year.
S&C’s aim is to donate 1,000 huts to Sagaing residents. So far over 400 have been built in the regional townships.
“Our intention is to build quickly at a fair price. So, we chose palm leaves because they are readily available in the region,” Ko Soe Moe Aung explained.
The price of a palm leaf is 120 kyats and a bamboo stick is 900 kyats. Around 300 palm leaves and 37 bamboo sticks are needed for a hut. Mostly, the villagers use palm leaves as the roof and the sides are surrounded with tin sheets left over from the fires in the villages. However, some villagers use bamboo and wood instead of tin in order to reduce the heat.
Daw Myint, 48, from Nyaung Gyi Kone Village never thought she would live in a small and narrow hut. She is one of many Sagaing villagers to lose everything in a junta raid.
“We had to flee with fear because they shelled our village with heavy weapons. We couldn’t take anything with us,” Daw Myint recalled about the junta raid in late December.
There are only seven houses left that did not burn in the village of Nyang Gyi Kone, which has around 70 households.
She lost her wooden house built with money saved over many years by selling vegetables. Currently, she lives in the palm hut with her four children.
“It is very different from living with our house because we are living very close to the ground. Furthermore, it is also narrow,” Daw Myint told The Irrawaddy.
However, Daw Myint and the Sagaing residents are very grateful to those who donated money to build the palm huts for them.
“We are very glad for their help in such a difficult situation. At the same time, we are very sad for our losses because it is not easy to rebuild our house the same as before,” Daw Myint said.
As Sagaing Region has been the worst hit by the regime’s arson campaign, S&C has accepted a lot of requests from residents for palm huts. However, some villagers request tarpaulin tents instead of palm huts, according to Ko Soe Moe Aung.
Advantages of tents
Those who are worried that the regime troops will repeatedly raid and burn down their villages have asked for donations of tarpaulin tents because they are portable.
Some homeless residents in Myaung Township in Sagaing Region live in tarpaulin tents which were donated by the Helping Hands team, another charity for displaced civilians run with support from Myanmar well-wishers. Until his arrest, the charity group was led by a senior monk, Sayadaw Agga Wuntha, the leader of the Pyigyitagon anti-dictatorship strike group. The team put up 48 tarpaulin tents in the border of Myaung Township and Mandalay Region’s Nganzon Township before the monk was captured by the regime in early March.
A tarpaulin tent costs 150,000 kyats and one tent can sleep eight to a dozen people, according to Helping Hands.
“Some residents just live on the ground without shelter because their villages were burned down two or three times. So, Sayadaw made the shelters using tarpaulin in order to keep out the heat and rain,” said Kyar Khin Sein, a female resistance fighter who donated tarpaulin to Myaung residents along with the senior monk.
The monk was captured while planning to build palm huts for homeless residents in Ma Yoe Kone Village of Myaung Township.
Challenges for donors
Although the palm leaves were easily available last year, they are becoming scarcer due to high demand among Sagaing residents following the regime’s arson campaigns, according to regional charity groups.
“As the military sped up the arson campaign, we weren’t able to get enough palm leaves for the villagers. So, we are thinking of using an iron frame but it will cost more than a palm house,” S&C representative Ko Soe Moe Aung told The Irrawaddy.
He said there are now so many homeless civilians in Sagaing Region that demand is exceeding supply. According to the UN, 726,800 civilians from Sagaing Region had been forced to flee their houses as of March 6 this year. Often, they shelter in nearby forests and return to their villages after the regime troops depart, only to find themselves without homes.
Daw Chit is one of those civilians who fled a junta raid, taking with her only the clothes she wore on the day. The 75-year-old resident of Let Yat Kone Village lost her wooden house in late December. Currently, she lives with her youngest son’s family in a palm hut built by a private donor this month.
“The donors donate food for us. Now, we are living in a small narrow hut. As our hut is surrounded with tin sheets, it is too hot,” Daw Chit told The Irrawaddy.
She misses her two-story wooden house, which was torched by regime troops. She said it is not easy for her family to rebuild the house because her three sons are day laborers and don’t have their own farms like some other villagers.
“If possible, I would like to rebuild the house,” Daw Chit said.