Khine Thu fled her home in Myanmar’s northwestern Sagaing region for the first time in June, running into the jungle as soldiers stormed her village. She has lost count of how many times she has fled since, but thinks it may now be about 15.
“Whenever we hear soldiers coming, we run,” she said. “We escape into the forest, and we come back to the village when the soldiers are gone.”
As armed resistance to the February 1 military coup increases, the military rulers have responded with violent crackdowns on entire villages, mirroring a “four-cuts” strategy which it has honed for more than 60 years in the country’s restive border areas.
Since April, the Sagaing region has been a stronghold of resistance, and also a hotspot for deadly military incursions.
A total of 109 people have been killed in the region since July, according to a report Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG) submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council on September 19.
Among the victims are 73 people from Depayin and Kani townships, where mass killings were documented by human rights groups and local media in July. Those killed, including fighters and civilians, were all men, but as security forces maintain a presence in the area’s villages, women are living with the consequences of conflict on a daily basis. This month, the military blocked the internet in 10 townships in the Sagaing region, including Kani, adding to fears the military could intensify its attacks.
The violence started in Khine Thu’s village of Satpyarkyin in Depayin township on June 14, when soldiers opened fire and killed one person the day after two daughters of a military-appointed administrator were found dead in a nearby village.
Soldiers returned on July 2; the ensuing clashes left at least 32 local people dead amid indiscriminate shelling and small arms fire, according to the NUG’s report, while the media outlet Myanmar Now reported that 10,000 people from eleven villages fled their homes.
The People’s Defence Force (PDF) in Depayin said on its Facebook page that 26 of its members were killed in the incident and that the military had fired heavy weapons onto fleeing villagers, while the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar reported that “armed terrorists” had “ambushed” security forces, killing one soldier and injuring six before retreating after security forces retaliated.
Khine Thu, who, like the other women Al Jazeera spoke to, asked to use a pseudonym for fear of reprisals, said soldiers have since been in and out and that she and other villagers were always ready to run. Even when soldiers are gone, the village remains quiet, and shops and markets have closed.
Hiding in the forest for days or weeks at a time, the villagers find it difficult to meet their basic needs, she said.
“We couldn’t get drinking water in some places,” she explained. “Some days, we had only one meal, and sometimes, only rice with salt and oil or fish paste. I feel really depressed, and sometimes I don’t even want to live any more.”
Aye Chan, another local resident, said locals lacked access to medicine and were relying on plants and herbs to treat their ailments.
She and Khine Thu have stopped their work as hired farmhands because of the danger.
“We cannot live in peace. We cannot work. We are just depending on other people’s donations and running around seeking safety whenever [soldiers] come,” said Aye Chan. “The presence of soldiers in our village affects us physically and mentally. We cannot eat or sleep well.”
Women at risk
The military has used force and widespread arrests to crack down on mass protests and a civil disobedience movement, which began days after it seized power from the elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi.
Since then, security forces have killed more than 1,100 people and arrested more than 8,200, according to the rights group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) or the AAPP, which has been tracking the military’s abuses.
Facing a narrowing space to resist military rule through peaceful means, many people have taken up arms. Some have joined existing ethnic armed organisations, while others have signed up with local armed resistance groups which have sprung up by the dozens across the country in recent months, including in areas like Depayin and Kani where most people are from the Bamar ethnic majority.
The NUG, which is operating in exile, also announced the formation of a national-level People’s Defence Force (PDF) in May, whose scale and activities remain largely unknown. On September 7, the NUG declared the launch of a “people’s defensive war”, calling on all citizens across the country to “revolt” against the military generals.
In many cases armed with little but single-shot hunting rifles and with limited training or combat experience, local armed resistance groups, which also call themselves PDFs but often have no affiliation with the NUG, face a military which has accumulated at least $2.4bn in arms during the past 10 years.
Relying on asymmetrical tactics including ambushes on military convoys and police stations, they claim to have killed hundreds of military soldiers, but in response, the military has indiscriminately attacked their communities, as it has done in areas with the presence of ethnic armed organisations since the 1960s.
The military has historically labelled ethnic armed organisations as “insurgents” or “terrorists” and attacked ethnic areas under the guise of national security, and it is now following a similar narrative.
In a statement published on August 28, the military described PDFs, as well as the NUG and the committee which appointed it as “terrorist groups,” and said that those who encouraged people to participate in “terrorist acts,” sheltered members of these groups, or provided financial support to them would also be considered “terrorists”.
In 2019, a United Nations-appointed fact-finding mission described the military’s use of sexual and gender-based violence including rape to “terrorise and punish ethnic minorities,” and reported that sexual violence perpetrated by the military was “part of a deliberate, well-planned strategy to intimidate, terrorise and punish a civilian population.”
In May, a 15-year-old girl in Sagaing region was raped and killed by soldiers, according to an ethnic Chin rights group, and in July, Radio Free Asia reported that a woman in Kachin State was found raped and stabbed to death near a military outpost on the way to her farm and that the military was investigating the case.
On September 26, local media outlets Democratic Voice of Burma and Khit Thit Media reported that four women in Kani township had been raped between June and September, but had delayed reporting the attacks because of the social stigma. Al Jazeera was unable to independently verify the information.
Thandar Aye, a women’s rights activist who works in the Sagaing region and neighbouring Chin State, told Al Jazeera that soldiers commonly harass women verbally, and she worries that additional cases of physical or sexual assault may go unreported due to social stigma and fear of retaliation from the military.
Women in the region, she added, avoid leaving their homes even during the day due to concern that soldiers could sexually assault them. “Women cannot go out freely,” she said. “Most women are just staying inside their houses and facing food shortages.”
‘They took everything’
Phyoe, a grocery store owner from Chyaung Ma village, told Al Jazeera that she goes out as little as possible for this reason.
“I heard that women were raped in some other villages and regions, so I am really afraid that it could happen to me,” she said.
She is among at least 15,000 civilians displaced by intense clashes since April in Kani township, located 100km (62 miles) southwest of Depayin.
“When [soldiers] come, we close everything and run again. Only elderly and women with small children who cannot run are left in the village,” said Phyoe, who, like Khine Thu, can no longer remember the number of times she and her family have fled.
In July, 43 bodies were found in four locations of Kani township, according to the NUG report; the AAPP and media documented signs of torture on most of the bodies. The military has not released any public statements or responded to media inquiries in response to the deaths.
“[Soldiers] accused normal locals of participating in the PDF, and they killed many people who were taking refuge in the forest,” said Phyoe. “We aren’t safe at home, and we aren’t safe in the forest either … We have been sleepless since soldiers came to our village.”
Soldiers have twice occupied Phyoe’s house; they have also stolen valuables from her home and emptied the shelves of her family’s grocery store.
She said Chyaung Ma’s streets are deserted after dark, and when soldiers come through, locals who remain in the village are too afraid to move around inside their homes for fear they could be shot.
Unable to earn an income or buy goods, her family is now relying on food donations from relatives and other villagers.
“[Soldiers’] presence in our village and all the cruel things [they did] really affected our lives and survival,” she said.
Thuzar also runs a small shop and lives in Na Myar village, which lies 30km (18 miles) east of Satpyarkyin in Depayin township. She too has been in and out of the forest since soldiers fired artillery and raided her village on August 9.
“Everyone in the village prepared a few things in case the soldiers came, but when they actually came, we escaped in a hurry, so we couldn’t bring much with us,” she said.
With only trees and some small tarpaulins to provide shelter from the rain, they watched as artillery struck a nearby herd of goats.
“The images of dead goats were so grotesque,” said Thuzar. “We are depressed and hurt mentally because we have seen many things that we shouldn’t see.”
When the soldiers left on August 9, villagers returned home to find their property vandalised and looted. “[Soldiers] took all the food from our refrigerator and ransacked our wardrobe,” she said. “We had locked the door of one room, and they destroyed the door…They took everything. They didn’t even leave the 2,000 Myanmar kyat ($1.20) in my daughter’s school bag.”
Soldiers also trashed her friend’s refrigerator by filling it with sand, she said, and in some houses where elderly people were left behind, “one soldier talked to them at the front door, while other soldiers went into the house from the back door and took whatever they wanted.”
Later in August, soldiers occupied the village for about 10 days. Thuzar returned home to find her chickens gone and more than 30 houses raided. At a grocery store at the entrance to the village, locals discovered piles of gunny sacks doused in paraffin oil. “If [soldiers] had lit them, our whole village would have turned to ashes,” she said.
Thuzar and her husband closed their shop shortly after the coup, turning to rice farming instead.
Now she worries that they will not be able to finish planting before the end of the rainy season in October.
“When things quiet down a bit, we go back for a few days and everyone rushes to plant,” she said.
When Al Jazeera spoke to her at the end of August, she was preparing to flee again, having heard that military trucks were approaching. “We always feel like they are coming to arrest or kill us,” she said. “I will only feel safe when we achieve democracy.”