Guest Column

How Much Longer Can Myanmar’s Villages Withstand Junta’s Onslaught?

By Zaw Tuseng 4 May 2023

For more than two years, villagers in Myanmar’s Sagaing region have been living in constant fear of violence as the junta deploys its “four-cuts” strategy, coupled with a scorched-earth policy and arbitrary arrests. As the world looks on, these defenseless communities have been left to fend for themselves, without protection from local armed groups, national authorities, or the regional and international community.

I have about 70 cousins from both grandparents, living in Sagaing, a region in Myanmar’s Buddhist heartland. Most of them are now in their mid-40s to 60s and along with their extended families, they inhabitant 10 villages in Monywa township.

This March, two of my cousins’ homes were burnt down in an arson attack on five villages by soldiers under the junta’s Northwestern Regional Military Command, loyal to coup-maker Min Aung Hlaing. The soldiers employed the scorched-earth tactic after a local branch of the People’s Defense Force (PDF), the armed wing of the National Unity Government (NUG), killed four junta troops and injured a dozen more in a roadside bomb attack.

The military’s arson cost my cousins $60,000-$70,000 worth of property, including four motorbikes. Several of my cousins were also among about 30 villagers detained for a few days following the raid. After their release, I called to get an update about the aftermath of the arson.

“It was worth it as the [PDF] attack killed and injured junta soldiers,” they said.

Regime troops and affiliated groups have burned down 60,459 homes across the country, according to Data for Myanmar as of February 28, 2023.

In Sagaing alone, 47,778 houses have been destroyed.

The junta’s brutality means no humanitarian groups or individuals dare to provide aid to my cousins’ village and the other communities under the military’s four-cuts campaign. However, thanks to support from fellow villagers, they were able to rebuild their house with bamboo and tin roofing in a few weeks.

Losing their homes has made them even more determined to reject military rule in their villages. With local communities suffering devastation from military operations, opposition to any military role in daily affairs remains very strong.

Yet as the situation in Sagaing continues to deteriorate, international communities can no longer turn a blind eye to the plight of these defenseless villagers. My cousins’ stories show that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has failed to fulfill its pledges or take meaningful steps toward pressing the junta to end its human rights violations. The extreme violence perpetrated by the Myanmar military against a defenseless population must stop.

By helping one another in the affected communities, my cousins have so far sustained themselves and are a small sample of the millions of people who have contributed to maintaining the Spring Revolution’s political momentum. However, with the military relentlessly targeting the rural population, leaving the people exhausted and their resources depleted, I can’t imagine that the affected communities can sustain themselves much longer in this third year of uprising. My cousins’ experience demonstrates the urgent need for humanitarian aid and social services in response to intensifying armed conflict and growing displacement of civilians.

As recommended in an anonymous report titled “Resistance Emergency Humanitarian Assistance and Social Services: Insights from Resistance Group Controlled Areas in Sagaing, Mandalay and Magway” released in February 2023, donors and national actors should invest more in supporting infrastructure for local CSOs and communities in resistance-controlled areas, some of which are formally affiliated with NUG ministries.

Actors based in conflict areas, local CSOs, humanitarian organizations, and donors all have key roles in enhancing efforts to build connections beyond their existing partnership boundaries. This will not only open access to desperate communities, but also diversify resources beyond the current capacity.

With Myanmar communities facing a humanitarian crisis as they are engulfed in armed conflict and the junta’s “four-cuts” strategy, we need far more proactive networking efforts from grassroots actors and potential partners to reverse growing constraints on humanitarian assistance.

Zaw Tuseng, a former pro-democracy activist, is founder and president of the Myanmar Policy Institute (MPI). The MPI was formed recently to mobilize Myanmar researchers to formulate policies and institutionalize the policymaking process for Myanmar. He holds an Executive Master of Public Administration degree from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.