‘The village is a wasteland’: Junta forces step up arson attacks

General

New satellite imagery obtained by RFA reveals the destruction caused by Myanmar junta forces who witnesses say set fire to two villages, two miles apart, driving thousands of people from homes now reduced to ashes.

The after-dark arson attacks against Mwe Tone and Pan villages in Sagaing’s Pale township, in the conflict-hit country’s northwest, took place Jan. 31. According to local residents, the villages were suspected of harboring anti-junta forces.

The residents, who spoke on condition of anonymity for their safety, believe the burnings were retaliation for attacks launched the previous week in Inn Ma Htee village, which lies about four miles to the west of Pan, and Zee Phyu Kone village, about 14 miles to the north, by fighters from several local People’s Defense Force, or PDF, militia that are battling the junta.

PDF groups claimed responsibility for Jan. 23 raids on training camps of pro-junta militia, known as Phyu Saw Tee, in those villages, and claimed at least five junta troops or militia were killed in Zee Phyu Kone. RFA could not independently verify that information.

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Phyu Saw Tee groups, believed formed by operatives from the main pro-military party around the country, have become a player in Myanmar’s widening civil conflict which was triggered by the military coup against the elected civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi one year ago.

But junta forces are increasingly resorting to arson against civilian settlements as they struggle to contain the armed resistance and the popular opposition to the military rule of coup leader Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing.

A building on fire at Pan village during the Jan. 31, 2022, arson attack. (Credit: Citizen journalist)
A building on fire at Pan village during the Jan. 31, 2022, arson attack. (Credit: Citizen journalist)

Residents told RFA that about 100 soldiers from Myaing township in neighboring Magwe region entered Mwe Tone and Pan villages and set buildings on fire. Troops destroyed some 220 of the 265 houses in Mwe Tone and nearly one-fourth of the 800 houses in Pan.

The satellite imagery shows most of Mwe Tone is burned out, with just a few buildings on its periphery still intact. What appears to be a Buddhist temple or stupa still stands on the eastern side of the village.

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Pan Village, Pale Township, Sagaing Region. Earlier images are done by Google Earth CNES taken 11/11/2020. Recent images are done by Planet Labs analysis by RFA.

According to residents, people fled when the soldiers entered the village, but were unable to take their belongings and lost their cattle in the blaze.

Two miles to the west across arid rice fields is Pan village, which is a larger, more scattered settlement. The heart of that village is now also gutted, the imagery shows.

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Mwaytbon Village, Pale Township, Sagaing Region. Earlier images are done by Google Earth CNES taken 11/11/2020. Recent images are done by Planet Labs analysis by RFA.

“The military is burning down villages they think are strongholds of local PDF forces,” a villager from Pan told RFA. “Villagers from Mwe Tone can’t go home now. Their village is a wasteland. The civilians are the ones bearing the brunt of the attacks.”

Photos and video shot by citizen journalists on the ground in the two villages in the aftermath show smoldering ruins, blackened palm trees and charred corpses of livestock.

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Residents said nearly 10,000 people from the two villages and surrounding area fled their homes during the attack and were taking shelter at monasteries, in nearby villages, at Pale town, and in makeshift camps. There were no immediate reports of death or injuries.

Calls to junta spokesman Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun to ask about the village burnings went unanswered. Customarily, the military denies setting fire to villages and blames anti-junta militia instead.

The denials carry increasingly little weight. Dozens of villages across Myanmar have witnessed arson attacks since the coup. According to the research group Data for Myanmar, from the start of the coup on Feb. 1, 2021, until Feb. 4, 2022, some 3,379 houses have been destroyed in fire, mostly in the Sagaing and Magwe regions and in Chin State.