In Western Myanmar, Conflict Creates New Dangers For Women

Sagaing region is a hotbed of resistance to military rule and women are forced to flee every time soldiers appear.

By Emily Fishbein and Nu Nu Lusan

[Illustration: JC]

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.

[Illustration: JC]