Charred bodies, burned homes: A 'campaign of terror' in Myanmar

Satellite images show villages in ashes in Myanmar's Sagaing. Survivors say the army is burning opponents' homes and killing those who could not flee.

Nyaung Hla

The villagers of Kone Ywar in central Myanmar had two hours to flee.

It was February 28. Columns of soldiers were approaching the village along its main roads to the north and west. There was only one way out - a dirt path to the east with a small bridge over the Yama stream. The bridge could only take motorbikes, no cars or bullock carts.

“There were about 1,000 of us. And only one exit for everyone,” said Kyaw Hsan Oo, a resident of Kone Ywar. “It was terrifying, difficult and chaotic.”

Shortly after the soldiers marched into Kone Ywar, the residents of the farming village watched in despair from afar as huge clouds of smoke began billowing up across their paddy farms, in the direction of their homes.

Kyaw Hsan Oo, a 30-year-old utility worker, said he returned to Kone Ywar the next day to find most of the village of about 600 households razed to the ground. The wooden and brick homes of some 386 families were destroyed, along with all of their belongings - clothes, furniture, pots and pans - leaving them homeless, with just the clothes on their backs.

Worse, returning villagers found the bodies of two 50-year-old men who had been unable to flee because of poor health. They had been shot.

The charred body of a third man was found in the ruins of his home.

“Those villagers were innocent,” said Kyaw Hsan Oo. “They are not part of the resistance, just simple villagers. This is brutal and inhumane.”

Kone Ywar was targeted, according to Kyaw Hsan Oo, because of its support for Myanmar’s jailed elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose government was toppled in a coup in February 2021. The military, led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, justified the power grab with unsubstantiated claims of fraud in elections the previous November which had returned Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) to power in a landslide.

The coup triggered mass protests across the country, including in Kone Ywar, where residents took to the streets in near-daily shows of defiance. The military cracked down with brutal force, shooting and killing unarmed protesters in cities and towns across the country, including in the biggest cities of Yangon and Mandalay. Despairing of securing change by peaceful means, the people of Myanmar have since taken up arms against the military in what a shadow administration set up by deposed legislators, the National Unity Government (NUG), has called a people’s uprising.

More than two years since the power grab, violence has engulfed vast swathes of the Southeast Asian country of 53 million people. The United Nations estimates the military has killed at least 2,940 civilians and detained more than 17,000 people, creating a “catastrophic” situation for human rights in Myanmar. The military’s indiscriminate use of air raids, artillery shelling and clashes with groups opposed to its rule - including ethnic armed groups and civilian militias known as the People’s Defence Forces (PDFs) - has displaced more than 1.5 million people nationwide and left some 17.6 million in need of humanitarian assistance.

Nowhere has the violence been as intense as in the Sagaing region of central Myanmar, where Kone Ywar is located and where reports indicate near-daily confrontations between resistance forces and soldiers, air attacks, bombings and torching of homes. The UN said it has documented at least 1,200 killings in Sagaing alone, and the razing of tens of thousands of homes - actions that it said may amount to war crimes.

The military has restricted access to Sagaing and imposes communications blackouts on an ad hoc basis, hampering journalists from reporting on the escalating conflict in the region.

Satellite images obtained by Al Jazeera’s Sanad Investigative Unit, however, reveal widespread destruction in the area, with some villages nearly completely or partially turned to ashes. Survivors from several villages told Al Jazeera by telephone that soldiers killed anyone who was too old or infirm to flee, stole valuables from their homes, destroyed documents such as identity papers and set fire to buildings and food supplies. The torchings have left hundreds of thousands of people in Sagaing in need of urgent food aid and shelter, according to the UN and local charity groups.

“They target all the villages that are not accepting them or resisting them,” said Kyaw Hsan Oo. “They burn any village that does not agree with them. And kill anyone who does not listen or obey them.”

The military, which calls itself the State Administration Council (SAC), did not respond to repeated calls and emails from Al Jazeera seeking comment.

Myanmar's central plains - home to the Buddhist-Bamar people, the country's main ethnic group - were the seat of most pre-colonial Burmese kingdoms. The semi-arid region, also known as the Dry Zone, is crisscrossed by the Irawaddy and Chindwin rivers, and populated mostly by famers, who grow crops including rice and legumes.

Before the 2021 coup, it was largely spared the fighting that broke out between Myanmar's military and the country’s various ethnic minority groups following independence in 1948.

The post-coup violence in the central plains - which includes the Sagaing, Magway and Mandalay divisions - is a “new phenomenon”, according to Shona Loong, associate fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). “Armed conflict on this scale has not occurred in the Dry Zone, nor among Myanmar’s Buddhist-Bamar population, since the country’s independence.”

On one side are the PDFs, which are aligned with the NUG. On the other are the military and its allied militias, known as the Pyu Saw Htee. The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), a monitoring group, estimates that there were 950 PDFs in the Dry Zone at the end of February this year, a number that comprises nearly half of all such armed groups active in Myanmar.

So far, the PDFs have used three main tactics to wear down the military - bombings with improvised explosive devices, targeted assassinations and ambushes on military convoys, according to Loong’s research, based on ACLED data.

When the PDFs were first gaining traction in the Dry Zone in 2021, the military primarily deployed live fire against them, she found. Then in January 2022, the military turned to air raids, targeting PDF camps, stockpiles and pro-resistance villages. And in April of that year, the military began ratcheting up the destruction of infrastructure, mostly by burning houses and villages to the ground - “to root out resistance forces concealed among civilians”.

The tactic is part of what the military calls the “four cuts” strategy, said Loong. “This refers to the military trying to sever links between insurgents and their source of food, funds, livelihoods and recruits. This was used for several decades in Myanmar's ethnic minority borderlands. But it's for the first time being used in central Myanmar.

“The military really detests the PDFs. It sees them as terrorists,” she added. The arson “doesn’t just cause temporary displacement, but destroys social ties or societies or forms of communities”.

Figures from the UN in March show that at least 39,000 civilian properties have been destroyed nationwide since the coup, with some 25,500 homes set ablaze in Sagaing, a region home to some five million people.

Data from local groups in Myanmar indicate even higher levels of destruction.

According to Data for Myanmar, some 60,459 homes have been razed across the country since the coup. The group said 47,778 homes had been destroyed in Sagaing by the end of February. While the military has blamed PDFs for some of the fires, the UN Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights said in a recent report that “the military and affiliated militias are responsible for most of those incidents”.

'They want us to become so poor that we do not resist them'

Kyun Paw village, Yinmabin township, Sagaing Division, Myanmar

A dozen survivors and witnesses to the burnings of five villages in Sagaing - Kone Ywar, Myauk None, Nyaung Hla, Tint Tei and Kyun Paw - told Al Jazeera of how columns of soldiers raided village after village this year, even when there was no active fighting there.

In some villages, including Tint Tei, Nyaung Hla and Kyun Paw, the raids were preceded by artillery fire - a tactic the UN said was aimed at rushing residents out so that they would leave their valuables behind. In village after village, survivors accused soldiers of killing and immolating anyone who had not been able to flee, looting valuables and setting food supplies and storage facilities on fire.

In Myauk None, when soldiers were seen approaching on March 3, the villagers fled, except for a man with cognitive disabilities and a young woman who stayed to collect her belongings, said U Toe, a resident who asked that Al Jazeera use a pseudonym for fear of reprisals.

“When they [the soldiers and Pyu Saw Htee] came to the village, they found the mentally ill villager and killed him at his home,” U Toe said. The young woman had hid in a car that was parked in the local monastery. “But they found her inside the car, and they raped and killed her.”

U Toe said Myauk None villagers believed the woman was raped because condoms were found near the charred remains of her body.

Al Jazeera sought comment from military spokesman Zaw Min Tun on the killings, but there was no response.

Multiple sources on the ground, however, have confirmed the killings in both Kone Ywar and Myauk None, and local media outlets, including Myanmar Now and Radio Free Asia Burmese, reported on the deaths in the two villages at the time of the incidents.

U Toe, who said he “lost everything” in the fire, said the soldiers and militias also killed cattle. They set fire to two of his horses and shot several cows that had been left behind by others, he said.

Some villages were burned multiple times.

Residents of Nyaung Hla say soldiers have raided the village 55 times since the coup and set fire to their homes four times. The first time was in April of last year, then twice in December and then in January 23 of this year. Satellite images taken two days later, on January 25, showed clouds of black smoke continuing to billow over the ruins of the village.

A resident who asked to be identified as Nwe Naung said her house was among the more than 370 homes burned down in January.

“We came back to a field of empty ashes. Nothing was left of our house. We don’t even have plates,” said the 26-year-old teacher trainee, who had fled to a nearby village with her family when the military began firing artillery rounds at Nyaung Hla.

“They even torched our tamarind tree that had been there for about 100 years.”

When Nyaung Hla was first burned, “nearby villages were helping us to rebuild our houses and were sharing their belongings with the fire victims,” said Nwe Naung. “But it has been so long and so many villages burned, so people cannot help any more. They also have their own struggle. There are more victims; more villages are suffering.”

What has made the situation worse is that soldiers have stolen or destroyed food supplies, victims said. Residents of Nyaung Hla and Tint Tei said soldiers set fire to their rice mills and the barns where they stored the crop.

In Tint Tei, which soldiers razed on February 12 of this year, “they stole thousands of rice sacks from the rice mill and then they burned the rice mill too”, said Ko Nai, a 36-year-old farmer who told Al Jazeera he had been sheltering in the forest since the incident.

“In our village, many families own granaries that can store 5,000 - 10,000 tin grain,” he said (One tin is equivalent to about one bushel or 20kg of rice). “We lost 400 plus buildings in the burning, and around 150 of them are granaries, and the rest are houses. At the time of burning, almost every family had at least 2,000 - 5,000 tin of grain in their granaries that were burned together with the houses. So, we lost millions in the fire.”

Analysis of satellite images conducted by Al Jazeera shows at least 261 buildings were damaged in the attack. That is about 45.6 percent of the village, and included the village’s library, according to Ko Nai.

The farmer said his identity papers were also destroyed in the fire, meaning he will not be able to relocate elsewhere, much less travel out of his village. “Our only choice is to survive in our village,” he said.

“We have been working so hard for generations to build these houses and own this land, but they burned our homes and our grain in just one day,” he added. “They want us to become so poor that we do not resist them. I think they believe that if we are left with nothing, we would not resist. But they are wrong.”

The UN and rights groups say the Myanmar military must be held accountable for its actions in Sagaing.

“You have literally thousands of people displaced from their homes. They have lost everything they own. They’ve lost their homes. They’ve lost their cattle and livestock. And in some cases, they’ve lost cars or other forms of transport. Whatever they were not able to take with them as they fled in front of a Myanmar military invasion of their area is now gone,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director for Asia at Human Rights Watch.

“It makes it impossible for people to return to those homes that they have lived in for generations … What we are seeing are clearly war crimes.”

Robertson described the military as a “criminal organisation” engaged in a “campaign of terror” against its own people and said there has to be international accountability from Min Aung Hlaing downwards.

But hopes for justice, much less an end to the violence roiling Myanmar, appear dim.

Russia and China have blocked meaningful UN Security Council action against Naypyidaw, even abstaining in December from a vote on a resolution that demanded an end to violence and called for the release of political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi.

Min Aung Hlaing - who has been sanctioned by the West over the coup - has meanwhile refused to heed calls from Myanmar’s southeast Asian neighbours for dialogue or humanitarian access to violence-wracked areas. Instead, in March, he ordered decisive action against the NUG and the PDFs, whom he accused of "terrorism" and devastating the country.

Amid the diplomatic impasse, Myanmar’s generals are planning elections that observers say are designed to entrench the military’s role in politics. Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD has already been banned from contesting for failing to register under a tough new election law.

The International Crisis Group, a think tank, has warned that given the widespread opposition to the plan, the planned elections, which may take place by November, are likely to be “the bloodiest in the country’s recent history”.

As the violence escalates, the humanitarian situation in Myanmar has become increasingly dire.

The UN said that some 761,000 people were displaced in Sagaing at the start of May and has expressed concern over the risk of starvation in restive rural areas where the military has also limited access to humanitarian aid.

Charity groups on the ground told Al Jazeera that the displaced urgently need food aid and shelter.

“Food is the priority,” said a spokesperson for the Depayin War Displaced Support Group, who asked to be referred to by the pseudonym Ko Han Lay. “Although we are trying our best, there are displaced people who are passing their day without meals … The population of people who need humanitarian assistance is high. So people have to eat less than before and change their lifestyle.”

Some 6018 families remain without shelter in Depayin, a township that includes Nyaung Hla village, according to Ko Han Lay, with many continuing to take refuge in monasteries or schools, unable to return to their homes.

In some cases, people are living in makeshift shelters, built with bamboo poles, palm thatch and any sheets of roofing they could salvage from the fires.

“The villagers are facing harsh conditions with heavy rain and scorching hot sun,” said Ko Han Lay. “We are trying our best to cope with the situation and help as much as we can, but we need a lot of help.”

If the suffering was meant to destroy people’s will to resist, it does not appear to have worked.

In the village of Kyun Paw, which was razed on January 23, one woman called for the people of Myanmar to persevere in their fight against the military.

“I cannot forgive Min Aung Hlaing who made us homeless,” Ma Nyunt said in a video filmed for Al Jazeera.

Visibly angry as she sifted through the burned remains of her kitchen, including blackened pots, pans and plates, Ma Nyunt said, “I had to flee while they were shooting everywhere … I had to run for my life with a pair of clothes that I was wearing. Now, I don’t know when I can live with my sons again.”

“I will only be happy when we win. I urge everyone to resist them,” she said. “I want to urge to fight till we win, so we can live in peace.”

Source: Al Jazeera