Nearly 6,300 homes have been burned down in 19 townships in northwestern Myanmar’s war-torn Sagaing region during the past two months, forcing residents into tents and other makeshift shelters as the rainy season begins, according to data compiled by RFA.
Most of Sagaing’s 34 townships and more than 5,900 villages have been affected by fighting between military forces and members of the anti-junta People’s Defense Forces (PDF). While the military denies it is responsible for the widespread arson, villagers who spoke to RFA said the fires were part of the junta’s strategy to crush opposition forces.
Some of the fiercest armed resistance to junta rule has occurred in Sagaing since the military seized power from the country’s elected government in a Feb. 1, 2021, coup. As fighting between the military and the PDFs has intensified there in recent months, junta forces have conducted an arson campaign targeting rural villages, killing civilians and burning hundreds of homes, leaving thousands displaced.
Among the 6,281 homes destroyed between April 1 and May 24, Kalemyo township had the highest number with 1,609 houses. Khin Oo township had the second-highest with 874 houses, followed by Mingin township with 609 houses.
Homes have also been destroyed in Pale, Chaung-U, Myinmu, Wetlet and Kanbalu townships.
A resident of Ngadin Gyi village in Khin Oo township, who declined to be named for safety reasons, told RFA that he could not rebuild his house so long as military forces are still conducting clearance operations in the area.
“It’s unthinkable to build a house under this regime,” he said. “There’s also a financial problem [because] a house costs 2.5 million-5 million kyats ($1,325-$2,650). And no one can guarantee that this will not happen again.”
Soldiers reportedly burned down more than 200 houses in Ngadin Gyi village on April 3, forcing residents to live in makeshift tents.
A resident of Tayawgyin village in Yinmabin township, whose community was torched on May 15 and May 24, said the arson was an act of cruelty committed by the ruling junta.
“Tayawgyin village has suffered fires twice,” said the villager who declined to be named. “They set fire to 25 houses the first time. Another 15 homes were set on fire yesterday. We cannot understand why they did that. It is just plain cruelty to the people.”
Other villagers said their homes were set ablaze as they fled in fear of the soldiers.
A resident in Tin Maw village in Kanbalu township, who also did not want to be named for security reasons, said he and his fellow villagers have been living in tents in the woods after Burmese soldiers burned their homes on May 17.
“The houses and the barn where we had over 500 baskets of paddy were all gone,” he said. “Now I have to pitch a makeshift tent in the forest. We need timber to rebuild the [houses], and timber is scarce in this area. Only when the situation calms down will we be able to rebuild.”
‘This shouldn’t have happened’
Junta spokesman Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun rejected the arson allegations and blamed the fires on the PDFs.
“We did not enter the villages,” he said. “Our main focus was their camps near the villages and places where they produced weapons. As is customary for PDFs, they attacked some villages when they heard that militia units had been formed. When they retreated, they set the villages on fire and blamed us, saying the army set fire to them.”
Locals and civil defense groups said otherwise.
Bo Moe Yan, a member of Taungdwin PDF in Minkin township, said residents just watched the military destroy buildings.
“The actions of the military are so inhumane,” he said. “When they could not fight the PDFs, they would burn any house they came across. Almost all the houses and shops along Kalaywa and Yagyi Roads are now gone. This shouldn’t have happened. We just had to watch in agony.”
Sagaing villagers who have lost their homes are now suffering from poor health and need food and shelter to get through the rainy season, locals said. The rainy season in Myanmar typically runs from mid-May through October.
U Pe of the Black Peacock PDF in Pale township said the need for tents there is great, though the armed resistance groups are helping villagers as much as they can.
“We need about 60,000 kyats ($32) to get bamboo and poles to build a tent,” he said. “We collect donations for those who cannot rebuild their houses yet. A palm leaf now costs about 150 kyats because most of the houses were destroyed by fire, and demand for them has gone up. It is hard to get them now because it is planting season.”
After thousands of homes were destroyed in the fires, their group was able to donate only 23 tents, he added.
More than 800,000 civilians across the country of about 55 million people have been displaced by hostilities since the coup, with Sagaing region having the highest number at more than 240,000.
Translated by Khin Maung Nyane for RFA’s Burmese Service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.