Nationalist monks and junta-affiliated Pyu Saw Htee militias have been forcing villagers in Sagaing Region’s Kantbalu Township to undergo military training, according to locals.
Led by influential monk U Wasawa from the ultranationalist Association for Protection of Race and Religion, known locally as Ma Ba Tha, Pyu Saw Htee members are forcing males aged between 18 and 55 to undergo military training under threat of burning their villages if they refuse, a Kantbalu resident told The Irrawaddy on condition of anonymity.
U Wasawa, who is a well-known Buddhist leader in Kanbalu, Kyunhla and Taze, has been forming Pyu Saw Htee groups since November last year, and by June had attracted over 4,000 villagers including more than 100 women to his cause, according to residents.
A local People’s Defense Force (PDF) fighter said: “They ordered that at least 35 males from each village must attend Pyu Saw Htee training, threatened them with arson. Some villagers are attending the training out of fear while others have fled. The situation is getting a lot worse.”
Leading the training are one regime military officer, soldiers from about five other ranks, and hard-core Pyu Saw Htee leaders. Around 100 armed Pyu Saw Htee fighters provide security around the village during training sessions.
An anti-regime activist from Kantbalu said: “The majority of Pyu Saw Htee members are from [the military’s proxy] Union Solidarity and Development Party [USDP] and Ma Ba Tha. There are some villages that are entirely Pyu Saw Htee. They are the USDP strongholds. Those who do not support the USDP also have to attend training because they fear for their safety. And PDFs can’t attack Pyu Saw Htee villages.”
More than 50 villages have been turned into Pyu Saw Htee bases in Kantbalu and Kyunhla townships. Previously armed with home-made rifles, they are now supplied with BA-63 (G-3) rifles, MA-1 assault rifles and carbines.
At a press conference in July, the junta denied forming Pyu Saw Htee as its military proxies, saying it only allows the establishment, training and arming of militias at the request of locals for their security. Formation of these militias is legal, it clarified.
A local PDF member said: “As the number of Pyu Saw Htee villages increases, U Wasawa and Pyu Saw Htee leaders keep asking the regime to supply them with arms. And the regime has complied with continuous supplies. It is continuously arming villages undergoing military training and deemed loyal to the regime.”
At the same time, Pyu Saw Htee militias are demanding money from households in the villages to pay the salaries of hard-core Pyu Saw Htee members.
A resident from southern Kantbalu said: “They are extorting money in every village. In some villages, they ask for 10,000 kyats per month from every household. Sometimes, they extort the money while collecting electricity bills. They cut off the electricity to households that refuse to pay.”
Pyu Saw Htee militias are also kidnapping villagers for ransom. Following an explosion near a boarding school in Buttaw Village in October, Pyu Saw Htee fighters detained seven local Muslim men, demanding ransoms of 100,000 kyats, one million kyats or 1.3 million kyats depending on their financial situation.
One of the Muslim men was rearrested on October 26 after revealing to others that he had paid money for his release.
Infinity Group, which reports on local news in Kantbalu, said local Pyu Saw Htee militias and junta soldiers have been arresting locals for ransom with various excuses, extorting more than 30 million kyats from some five majority-Muslim villages.
A local PDF fighter said: “Pyu Saw Htee militias are getting stronger in Kantbalu Township partly because of the weakness of PDF groups. PDF groups have failed to rally villages to their cause. This is because district and township authorities of the [parallel] National Unity Government are ineffective, in my opinion. Under such circumstances, U Wasawa and others can coerce local villagers into joining Pyu Saw Htee. This is the reason why the Pyu Saw Htee have grown significantly in numbers.”
Local Pyu Saw Htee militias are heavily involved in junta raids on villages in Kantbalu and Kyunhla townships, committing arson attacks and looting. As of October 26, Pyu Saw Htee militias have begun to conscript villagers.
Currently, a force of over 200 troops consisting of junta soldiers and Pyu Saw Htee fighters are raiding villages around Thein Yin Dam in the south of Kantbalu Township. More than 10,000 people living near the dam have been forced from their homes and some 150 houses in three villages have been torched.