2021-09-14 15:56:49 Myanmar’s Army Escalates Attacks on a Struggling Resistance

Myanmar’s Army Escalates Attacks on a Struggling Resistance

Just after dusk, Myanmar soldiers descended with flamethrowers and heavy weaponry on the village of Yay Shin, deep in the furrows of the Himalayan foothills.

Members of a self-proclaimed People’s Defense Force, armed with aging AK-47s smuggled from India and Thailand, returned fire, allowing the rest of the villagers to flee into the hills, several residents said by phone.

Eight villagers’ bodies were later discovered, as were the bodies of eight soldiers killed in battle. By the time the 77th and 99th Battalions left Yay Shin this month, only the smoldering ruins of a hamlet that had dared to take up arms against the military’s February coup remained.

Seven months after deposing Myanmar’s elected government, the country’s fearsome army, known as the Tatmadaw, is intensifying attacks on the country’s largely improvised armed resistance and the villages where its members live.

It is a pattern of slaughter that the Tatmadaw has inflicted on various ethnic minorities for decades, including the Rohingya, whose forced expulsion from the country the US considers to be ethnic cleansing.

The Myanmar army is now targeting a much larger segment of society, and its brutal campaign has galvanized a more robust resistance, even if civilians are once again caught in the crossfire.

Almost everyone who lived in Yay Shin is now camped out in a forest valley teeming with poisonous snakes, malaria, and dengue fever, with children wailing from hunger and the damp cold.

According to members of the People’s Defense Force, residents of dozens of other villages in the Kalay region, a stronghold of opposition to the military, have also fled to the jungle.

“We have already given our lives for the country,” Ko Zaw Win Shein, a company commander for the insurgents, said over the phone from a jungle hideout as army helicopters buzzed overhead.

Mr. Zaw Win Shein, a former telecom employee, needed nearly 10 minutes to compose himself before his ragged sobs subsided to a terrified whisper. “We are more afraid of the soldiers than we are of the snakes,” he explained.

A few days after the Yay Shin raid, the National Unity Government — a shadow government formed by opposition politicians — redoubled its call for an armed insurgency, declaring that “D-Day” had arrived.

Duwa Lashi La, the organization’s acting president, stated in a social media video that it was time for “a nationwide uprising in every village, town, and city, in the entire country at the same time.”

The video appeared to galvanize a populace that is largely united in its opposition to the military regime, which has killed over 1,000 protesters and bystanders since the coup.

Local militias issued new battle cries, while civilians across Myanmar expressed fervent support on social media. The junta’s spokesman, Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun, dismissed the call to arms as “an empty statement.”

Residents said the Tatmadaw quickly escalated its raids on villages like Yay Shin, targeting dozens of them in search of members of the People’s Defense Force.

The Tatmadaw descended on Myin Thar village, about 25 miles from Yay Shin, on Thursday and rounded up males who had remained to guard the community, armed with homemade hunting rifles.

According to Ko Htay Win, a Myin Thar resident who fled to the forest, at least 17 of them, mostly boys, were killed with single shots to the head. “I am proud that he died defending the village,” said Ma Nyo Nyo Lwin, the mother of one of those killed, Ko Htet Naing Oo, 18.

The National Unity Government claimed that it had no choice but to call for an armed rebellion. Operating in the shadows, the shadow authority has yet to persuade a single country to recognize it as legitimate, and expectations are low that much will change when the United Nations General Assembly meets this week.

The United States and the United Kingdom, as well as a panel of international experts, have urged all parties in Myanmar to avoid violence. “Violence is the source of Myanmar’s suffering; it is not the solution,” said Chris Sidoti, a former Australian human rights commissioner on the panel.

“We sympathize with the National Unity Government, but we are concerned about the consequences of this decision,” he added, referring to the call to arms.

For months, pockets of armed rebellion have proliferated across Myanmar, from the rural Buddhist heartland and ethnic minority-dominated border regions to the cities, where the return of military rule, after a decade of economic and political reforms, has enraged a young generation accustomed to interacting with the outside world.

Thousands of civilians, including some young city dwellers who are more familiar with video games than real warfare, have received covert military training.

They have helped to fill the ranks of the People’s Defense Force, alongside ethnic rebels who have fought the Tatmadaw for decades. According to the shadow government, the People’s Defense Force killed over 1,320 soldiers in July and August.

The statement was impossible to confirm, in part because the Tatmadaw does not release its own casualty figures for fear of further lowering morale in its ranks.

Following the proclamation of “D-Day” last week, the resistance sabotaged more than 65 telecommunications towers owned by Mytel, a military-linked company, according to Ko Kyawt Phay, a spokesman for the People’s Defense Force in Pakokku.

An army convoy in Yangon, the country’s largest city, was attacked with grenades on Thursday, a strike that many believe was also carried out by the People’s Defense Force.

People loyal to the military have been shaken in recent weeks by mysterious killings of local government officials and suspected informers. Much of the fiercest resistance is taking place in remote areas where Tatmadaw artillery has driven entire villages into the forest.

Grainy cellphone photos show dazed Yay Shin families squatting on the forest floor with a few possessions scattered around them, such as a cooking pot and a wet bedroll. “I can only hear bombs and gunshots now,” said U Zaw Tint, a carpenter from Yay Shin.

“Those sounds have gotten stuck in my head.” Ma Radi Ohm, a university lecturer, is part of a civil disobedience movement that has detained hundreds of thousands of educated workers for seven months in the hope that administrative paralysis will bring the junta down.

So far, the military has only tightened its grip. Ms. Radi Ohm slipped into the forest this month, accompanied by members of the People’s Defense Force, to provide basic medical care to residents of Yay Shin and other Kalay villages.

According to her, at least 15 women from Yay Shin are pregnant, and one has miscarried as a result of the stress. Many people sleep under trees because they lack shelter, making them easy prey for mosquitoes.

Children have become ill with what Ms. Radi Ohm believes is dengue, though she is unable to conduct tests. She also stated that at least 1,000 of the estimated 7,000 people in various jungle encampments in Kalay are exhibiting Covid-19 symptoms such as loss of taste and low oxygen levels.

Myanmar has been devastated by the Delta variant, and the military is withholding medical care from those suspected of supporting the resistance. There is at least a 10-mile distance between forest camps.

Ms. Radi Ohm walks through swollen streams and on rain-slickened trails. According to witnesses, when Tatmadaw helicopters or drones swoop over the canopy, the villagers dive under boulders or large trees.

Several people have been killed as a result of military airstrikes. “I just hope I can save some people from disease and miscarriage,” Ms. Radi Ohm said. “It breaks my heart.”

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Myanmar’s Army Escalates Attacks on a Struggling Resistance