The winter bean season has arrived in Sagaing Region and U Maung Sein should be busy sowing seeds. But the fields are lying quiet and empty around his village of Kone Maw in Mingin Township, Sagaing, a stronghold of the anti-coup armed resistance movement. The 53-year-old farmer had sowed and reaped here all his life until last year. But he and fellow villagers no longer dare to farm after the pro-regime Pyu Saw Htee militia from nearby Kyaw village began shelling their fields regularly.
“This year we can’t even plant monsoon beans and winter beans because we are afraid of them,” U Maung Sein said, referring to the Pyu Saw Htee.
There are more than 40 hectares (100 acres) of land between the villages of Kone Maw and Kyaw. Normally, Kone Maw residents use them to grow different types of beans, a cash crop for people in the region.
Now, not only are they prevented from farming, but they must also take shelter in the forest to escape Pyu Saw Htee attacks.
Kone Maw is located in the west of Mingin township, home to Kyaw village and two other active pro-junta militia villages.
Kone Maw was a small village of just 97 houses, before half of its homes were burnt down by Pyu Saw Htee and junta troops on June 13. U Maung Sein lost his two-story house in the raid. After junta troops retreated, he returned along with other villagers to find his home reduced to a smoking pile of ash.
“There are no words to express my emotions,” U Maung Sein muttered.
Junta troops accompanied by Pyu Saw Htee militia raided Kone Maw village again on September 3 afternoon, injuring three villagers including the 6-year-old daughter of a teacher from the civil disobedience movement (CDM). Also injured in the raid was the teacher’s husband, whose right leg was broken by a bullet.
U Maung Sein said he and other residents ran as the raiders sprayed the village with gunfire.
“They opened fire as if they were attacking an enemy camp,” he recalled of the raid.
Pyu Saw Htee terror campaign
Kone Maw is one among many villages around the country being destroyed by the junta-backed Pyu Saw Htee. Mainly formed with pro-junta civilians last year to help the regime clear resistance hotbeds, Pyu Saw Htee’s thuggish members have become accomplices in killing innocent civilians and looting their property. Pyu Saw Htee members are locals and therefore useful to regime troops for their knowledge about the local terrain and who’s who in the community.
Myanmar’s junta has provided military training and weapons to hundreds of supporters, members of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and former soldiers in cities across the country since the civilian National Unity Government (NUG) declared a war of resistance on Sept. 7, 2021. The resulting militia groups are generally known as Pyu Saw Htee among the people.
Meanwhile, pro-junta monks have been forming militias in the resistance stronghold of Sagaing Region to counter anti-regime People’s Defense Forces (PDFs). Led by influential monk U Wasawa from the ultranationalist Association for Protection of Race and Religion, better known by its Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha, monks have been rallying villagers to support military rule in Sagaing.
“It has got worse in the area since February this year because of Wasawa and his followers,” a member of the Infinity group told The Irrawaddy.
Infinity is a local information network that broke the news of junta atrocities in Kyunhla, Kantbalu and Taze Townships in Sagaing.
Junta spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun told press early this year that the regime had formed people’s militias in villages where PDFs are demanding allegiance from residents but insisted it had not armed them.
However, in August the regime provided weapons to pro-regime militia groups in the resistance strongholds of Mandalay, Magwe and Sagaing regions.
Though the exact number of Pyu Saw Htee villages in Myanmar is not known, they have mushroomed in the anti-junta strongholds of Sagaing and Magway regions.
Pyu Saw Htee militia have sprung up in at least 12 of the 34 townships in Sagaing, according to local People’s Defense Forces.
Data compiled by the Irrawaddy shows more than 50 Pyu Saw Htee villages in six Sagaing townships – Mingin, Kani, Kyun Hla, Kantbalu, Yinmabin and Pale. Kantbalu and Mingin are home to the most Pyu Saw Htee villages, with about 20 each.
Nearly 20,000 civilians from 53 villages in Sagaing have been forced to flee their homes by the Pyu Saw Htee attacks since last year.
Pyu Saw Htee militia torched around 900 houses in 18 villages in Taze township. They also burnt down around 250 houses in Kantbalu township, according to Infinity group. These attacks were attributed exclusively to the pro-junta militia.
Pyu Saw Htee members use various vehicles to loot the property of villagers before torching their houses. They also target homes belonging to supporters of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and CDM.
“They try to force villagers to join their training by threatening to burn down the village,” said an Infinity group member who is also a resident of Kantbalu.
Civilians from neighboring Magway Region also live in fear of the Pyu Saw Htee.
Kanni, a notorious Pyu Saw Htee village in southern Magway’s Myaing Township, has been home to regime troops since last year. Pyu Saw Htee leaders and junta troops from Kanni have raided and torched over 100 houses in nearby villages. Among them is Kone Balu, where two villagers were brutally killed by Pyu Saw Htee members earlier this year, residents said.
Junta troops are using Kanni as a base for artillery strikes on nearby villages, shelling even at night. As a result, the civilian population are having to flee their homes for the relative safety of the forest.
“As they are the closest enemy to us, we are quite afraid of them,” said Ko Than Myint, an Oh Bo villager in Myaing Township.
There are more than 20 Pyu Saw Htee villages in four townships of Magway region, according to data compiled by The Irrawaddy. Pyu Saw Htee attacks in Myaing and nearby Yesagyo Township have forced around 10,000 civilians to flee by since last year.
Pyu Saw Htee militia in Sagaing Region are more brutal than in Magway Region, Ko Nway Oo, a founder of the Civil Defense and Security Organization Myaung, Sagaing told The Irrawaddy.
“When they arrest someone, they interrogate them and then kill them. Their only objective is to kill,” Ko Nway Oo said of Pyu Saw Htee militias’ attitude to resistance fighters and civilians.
When regime troops raid a village, Pyu Saw Htee members reportedly take advantage by looting everything from cattle to motorbikes to solar panels as villagers flee.
“The destruction caused by Pyu Saw Htee is even worse than that of Sit -Khwe [military dogs],” said Ko Nway Oo, referring to junta soldiers.
Disgust for local thugs with guns
Ko Than Myint and U Maung Sein harbor hatred and disgust towards the Pyu Saw Htee because they kill fellow civilians.
“They are a group of thugs relying only on the power of the gun,” said Ko Than Myint.
Despite the Pyu Saw Htee’s allegiance with regime troops, relatives of militia members who live in other villages have also fallen victim to junta raids.
“They should realize the truth that their relatives’ property is also being destroyed by junta troops. They should scrutinize themselves,” a member of Infinity told The Irrawaddy.
Despite their atrocities, Pyu Saw Htee members who change their minds and defect are always welcomed by local resistance forces, who consider them as fellow civilians, Ko Nway Oo told The Irrawaddy.
However, the number of Pyu Saw Htee defectors reportedly remains low.