No Place to Call Home in the Junta’s Myanmar
By David Scott Mathieson 10 June 2022
Reading Jessica Mudditt’s new book Our Home in Myanmar: Four Years in Yangon challenges concentration, with its emotionally mendicant millennial obsessions. The plodding prose turned my thoughts to the meaning of home in Myanmar in the aftermath of the 2021 coup and the military regime’s campaign of destroying individual homes, villages, communities and seemingly an entire country.
The Myanmar military has responded to a widespread armed resistance movement in Sagaing and Magwe regions, Chin State and the Yaw Valley with a ferocious onslaught of arson reminiscent of past pacification campaigns in other parts of the country. As shocking as the destruction is, it is entirely in character with the Myanmar military mindset, operational character and utter disregard for the laws of the country or the laws of war. The Anyar region [central Myanmar] is the Bamar heartland and is not prone to armed conflict. Despite numerous grievances against the state there hasn’t been violent repression like this possibly since the brutal British pacification of the region following the Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885, or the destructive fighting of the latter part of the Second World War.
In the 16 months since the military seized the state and sparked a war against everyone,
Data for Myanmar has estimated that from February 1, 2021 until the end of May this year, the military has destroyed a total of 18,886 structures in 435 locations. The highest number by far has been in Sagaing Region, with 13,840, 3,055 in Magwe, and 1,316 in Chin State, and includes religious buildings and schools as well as houses. The United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Refugees reported recently that the number of internally displaced people in Myanmar had passed one million, with 700,000 displaced since the coup. Look at the map of conflict in the Anyar region in Ye Myo Hein’s excellent report on post-coup fighting to get a sense of where all this destruction and displacement is unfolding.
Compare this, just generally, not forensically, with the violent forced expulsion ‘clearance operation’ against the Rohingya from August 2017. The United Nations Fact Finding Mission estimated over 725,000 people had fled to Bangladesh, that 392 villages had been subject to intentional destruction, including 37,700 individual structures which accounted for 40 per cent of all settlements in northern Rakhine State. 80 per cent of the destruction occurred in the first three weeks of the ‘operation’.
The Myanmar military has been rampaging through sites of civilian resistance in these ‘new’ wars chasing a huge proliferation of locally raised People’s Defense Forces. Their main choice of harassing the civilian population to deter support for the armed resistance is burning villages, a form of neo-medievalism that stands starkly at odds with the international community’s drive to ‘normalize’ the crisis in Myanmar. Just in May, widespread and clearly coordinated arson attacks hit Kale, Khin-U, Mingin, Yinmabin and Kantbalu townships in Sagaing, most of them multiple times in repeat attacks. In many cases attacks are presaged by an internet cut-off, airstrikes sometimes follow, artillery is being used more often to start fires then feed them, and troops travel by river to burn settlements on the banks.
Under international humanitarian law (IHL), the destruction of civilian property can be justified under “military necessity.” But the home torching spree is what IHL calls “wanton destruction”, and is a war crime. And it is occurring daily, in multiple locations.
The number of homes burned down in Thantlang, Chin State is particularly shocking, from August 2021 when military commanders warned town elders that they would raze the town to deter local armed resistance. Anti-junta groups estimate that the security forces have returned to start fires more than 26 times. More than 1,000 buildings and 19 churches have been destroyed. Sometimes randomly, sometimes directly targeted at Chin resistance leaders. On one occasion, a target of convenience following an ambush that injured a military regime officer. Consider that structures in Thantlang, due to its isolation, cost as much as three times more than elsewhere because materials need to be transported there. Who will pay for all of this post-regime reconstruction?
In the intensive phase of fighting between the Arakan Army and the Myanmar military in Rakhine between 2019 and late 2020, the military destroyed more than 1,000 homes in tactics they had used against Rohingya civilians a few years prior. Tin Mar Gyi village in Kyauktaw Township saw most of its 700 homes destroyed, allegedly by artillery, possibly airstrikes, but also individual soldiers starting fires.
A colleague from Human Rights Watch once conducted a series of briefings for western embassies and UN agencies on satellite photos following the burning campaign in Maungdaw in October 2016. He pointed out that the burn patterns of the photos indicated not a spreading fire leaping from one place to the next, but individual arson attacks. That meant carrying a container of accelerant from house to house and splashing it on the structure before lighting it. The village of Pwint Hpyu Chaung was burned three separate times. This was labor intensive, purposeful, not accidental. Just as the military is doing in Katha and Yesagyo in Sagaing they did in Maungdaw, and have done in other parts of the country as a matter of standard operating procedure. Remember here that numerous members of the previous government accused people of burning their own homes, a squalid claim the junta is repeating now, just as sadistically unconvincing.
When homes are destroyed it’s not just the structure, the garden, the food stocks, pots and pans and tools and toys, books and religious artifacts, that regal reclining chair your uncle would endlessly pontificate from, those warm clothes and that ancient guitar. It is photos of children, grandparents, graduations, ordinations, pilgrimages, beachside holidays and that time you made it to Mount Popa and vowed to avoid feral monkeys forever. And for a country so obsessed with identity and bureaucracy, what people lose in the flames can be the difference between belonging and statelessness: birth and wedding certificates, citizenship papers, identity cards and passports, land tenure documents, tax and loan receipts. There are intangible memories and milestones that a heartless census can never count, laments and triumphs that no plodding local administrator could comprehend or a screaming man with a machete or machine gun would empathize with. The loss is greater than those shocking numbers can convey.
And loss comes, too, in flight, displacement and exile. So many civilians who live in incessantly conflict-wracked areas such as Karen State have ubiquitous grab bags, ready to race into hiding when marauding du-dar [Sgaw Karen for enemy] arrive and leave belongings unusable or looted or defaced and livestock plundered or killed. Imagine living this way for generations, and then some drooling cretin from the World Bank arriving to inform your community you all actually live in a ‘post-conflict area’? The Karen Human Rights Group’s latest report is a stark reminder of how people suffer in the post-coup conflict, and is redolent of documentation the organization has produced for thirty years.
Many people displaced by conflict in Kachin and Shan states remain close to their old homes, but unable to return due to continued instability and landmine contamination that may make the area uninhabitable for many years. Over 100,000 people in Kachin and Shan have been displaced for more than ten years. A decade crowded into a church compound, or a row of huts in an insurgent-controlled zone is perhaps safer but not when it snows or the food convoy doesn’t get through.
Over 100,000 Rohingya have been confined in squalid camps on the outskirts of the Rakhine capital Sittwe for a decade, just a few kilometers from their former homes in town. Shelters are often unable to be maintained due to lack of funds or governments not wanting to support prolonged displacement and looking for ‘durable solutions’ that fail to eventuate. Think as well of the many internally displaced people who have fled home in desperation, for lowly paid field-hand work in the north, the deadly jade mines of Hpakant with their constant threat of landslides, the factory hellholes of Hlaing Thayar and Shwepyithar.
People who fled the wreckage of Cyclone Nargis in 2008 when the tidal surges took over 130,000 people along with their homes and more. Flooding, rising temperatures, lack of investment or development, all drivers as much as conflict to displace people from where they want to live. Myanmar also experiences widespread forced evictions throughout the country, in rural areas, peri-urban slums and working class areas as military-connected capital seeks prime real estate without fair compensation. In the past this has even included forced evictions of cemeteries: even the dead aren’t spared in Myanmar. The targeted killings of local administrators in Pyigyitagon in Mandalay is linked to the forced evictions of some 200 homes for local development in February.
Think too of a combination of poverty and conflict, repression and desperation that has caused millions of people to leave Myanmar for many decades, an estimated four million to work as migrant workers in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and the Middle East. In fields, fishing boats and factories, hotel lobbies, hospitals and shopping malls, often harried by predatory police, corrupt brokers and sadistic criminal opportunists who may often be your employer, using underground banking systems to wire monthly wages to family in Mon State or Mandalay, a dedication and devotion to a home you might not see for many years, your children being raised by grandparents.
And then elite exile, a life of political activity, or working in the media, development jobs, all with clean sheets, passports, credit cards, travel, and ultimately safety. But the feeling of dislocation, the desire to return home is no less ardent. The feeling of distance that inevitably comes over you, the regrets and questions of whether it was right to leave, the question of when to return, the guilt from thinking of friends or family members left behind, or simply just names of dissidents, poets, and union leaders you know to be in Insein Prison or disappeared into the armed struggle. The loss of home comes over people in similar ways regardless of differences in place and privilege, and that maddening objectification that foreigners project onto you as some helpless refugee, when that’s not how you perceive yourself.
This widespread collective punishment strategy in upper Myanmar should be etched into the institutional memory of all foreign interlocutors from now, in ways that past human rights atrocities never were. UN and international NGO workers, diplomats and the private sector were all complicit in downplaying past war crimes and crimes against humanity, and finding ways to ‘contextualize’ the crimes of the past decade. It was perhaps the privileged spaces they created for themselves, at work and play, that insulated them from the reality of a country they chose to understand from a withering distance.
Yangon’s Golden Valley neighborhood was by far the most egregious example of this disconnection, where foreigners rented lavish homes from generals and cronies and sometimes who knows? The most notorious cases of this real estate scramble must include the office space of the UN child protection agency at US$87,000 a month, although the original colonial-era house in the compound housed UN Women [just one foreign representative)], plus the US$79,000 office of the World Health Organization on Pyay Road [they moved to Golden Valley several years ago], and perhaps the most outright despicable rental of them all: the European Union (EU) ambassador renting a house on Ady Road owned by the family of former dictator General Ne Win. Consider that regardless of the notoriety of this considered choice [it necessitated an increase in the upper cap for rentals by ambassadors from officials in Brussels], no less than three ambassadors continued to live there between 2013 and November 2021, despite widespread opprobrium. The EU’s offices from 2013 to around 2020 cost them reportedly US$80,000 a month, in a building constructed by a former drug lord.
The artist Sawangongswe Yawnghwe, who heavily criticized then EU ambassador Kristian Schmidt and withdrew from an exhibition in late-2019 partly in protest at the continued rental, knows about loss of home: his grandfather [and Burma’s first president] Sao Shwe Thaik had his Rangoon residence razed following Ne Win’s 1962 coup, and was murdered in prison, his family sent into exile. Pearl Condo on the corner of Kabar Aye Pagoda Road and Hsaya San road sits on the site of his former home now.
Sawan, who has produced multiple, massive manifestations of the Peace Industrial Complex, has been working on an intricate installation for some years illustrating the snakes and ladders streets of Golden Valley, also known as the Green Zone, plotting the juxtaposition of military figures and cronies with embassies, United Nations offices and the plantation homes of highly paid foreigners.
There will be checkpoints at key intersections: Checkpoint Pearl, Checkpoint City Mart, Yankee Station [near the US Embassy]. Snakes and ladders is apt for a privileged vipers pit of greed like Golden Valley. A mixture of ‘charming’ colonial decrepitude and Greco-Roman oligarch gangster gauche, many of which appeal to the United Nations [the WHO office looked like a gargantuan wedding cake at a Medellin narco-hacienda], who obviously left their sense of taste as well as common decency back in New York or Geneva.
Average rental price for a nice big house to live in: between US$10-15,000 a month, which by the high standards of international experts was apparently standard, with security and comfort considerations taken into account [ensured by many of the international organizations] and few seemed to mind how that compared to Myanmar realities outside the barriers of the zone. To so many in the international aid racket, Golden Valley was a crucial status symbol: a house there said; “I’ve arrived.”
Getting a house in the Green Zone was as de rigueur as reading a Thant Myint U book and getting a subscription to Frontier Myanmar. It was all that was needed to join the transient set of global development actors who flocked to Myanmar to gorge from the donor trough, whose motto could well be, as Winston Churchill observed, “success is walking from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm”. Many are now migrating away from Myanmar to brighter shores and better homes and gardens in Bangkok or further afield [I hear Amman is lovely this time of year].
For the denizens of development their comfort was always elevated over the poor people whose lives they hoped to improve. They know, for certain, that a drug-crazed posse of Myanmar military stormtroopers are never going to invade their home, unleash unspeakable atrocities and then burn it all down.
The proximity dilemma was by 2019 not really a dilemma at all. Many residents of the Green Zone failed to register their most problematic neighbor: Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. His Yangon residence is at 14 Inya Road in Golden Valley, its value estimated at US$30 million for the 1.86 acre property. Obviously few failed to spot any moral conundrum for a suitable piece of real estate coup. The National Unity Government is now trying to sell Min Aung Hlaing’s house to raise funds, an oddly apt exercise, and dispels the moronic myth of the proudly nationalist, aesthetic Myanmar military man, instead demonstrating that the coup leader is a low-rent despot who likes a touch of luxury.
Now give one consideration to all the outrageous price tags attached to UN offices, embassies, International NGO offices and residences. They are still being rented. Those operations are still ongoing, those foreigners are still there, regardless of whether they’re actually making any meaningful improvement to the situation. Do they need to be? How do they feel living in the veritable lap of luxury as the country burns around them? Why are even more jobs being posted to live and work in Myanmar under these circumstances? UNOPS is looking for a Communications Manager, the security firm Exera for a Senior Analyst, and a Program Manager for the American Friends Service.
Which I suppose leads us back to Mudditt’s memoir. It’s a dreadful book. Narcissistic, mundane, and pointless. Don’t read it.
David Scott Mathieson is an independent analyst working on conflict, humanitarian and human rights issues in Myanmar
You may also like these stories: