Myanmar’s displaced bear brunt of civil war

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News Desk

Yay Chan can just see his village from the hill where he’s standing on this sweltering October day in Myanmar’s western Sagaing region.

In front of him are the fertile farmlands of Kale Township, nearly fluorescent green after a wet monsoon season, stretching to what remains of his home village, Yae Shin.

When Myanmar’s armed forces first attacked Yae Shin, where protests erupted after the military coup in February 2021, Yay Chan said he joined a local defense force, helping to hold off the assault using a single-shot hunting rifle.

The village’s resistance force numbered only around 100. When the military returned in force the next year, the resistance didn’t stand a chance.

“At first, we just protested. And when the military marched into our region we defended against them. After the third clash, our whole village was burned down by the junta army,” said Yay Chan.

Sagaing a ‘hotbed’ of resistance to military rule
The 37-year-old is now an administrator at a camp for internally displaced people (IDP).

Around 1,800 people, the majority from his razed village, live here almost totally reliant on donations. There’s little work and virtually no medical care. The lucky ones have traded swathes of their family’s productive farmland for subsistence farming on small plots.

A nearby forested mountain is a last refuge where residents are ready to flee to at the first sounds of aircraft or incoming artillery.

“Sometimes they [the military] kidnap people from other villages and use them as human shields to advance. Their jets also bombed our village. Families are separated and on the run,” he said.

The military has razed around 75,000 homes since taking power, according to monitoring group Data for Myanmar. And more than two-thirds of those have been in the Sagaing region.

Since the coup, media often refers to this ethnic Bamar-majority region as a “hotbed” of resistance to military rule. One of the war’s first battles occurred in this township.

Since then, the valley has been carved up by anti-junta forces and the military and its militias.

But away from the frontline, this camp is what much of this “hotbed” resembles — civilians struggling to survive the conflict.

Survivors struggle with physical and emotional pain
Mg Si, 39, is one of those surviving. He and four friends took up arms against the military soon after the coup. Not long after that he was injured by a landmine. Shrapnel entered his back, paralyzing him from the waist down.

“I didn’t think it would make me paralyzed. I just treated the wound with the help of my comrades thinking that I will be back on my feet to fight again,” said Mg Si.

He doesn’t have the money to travel for treatment to a specialist in India. The major hospitals in this region have either been destroyed or are under military control.

He’s left sitting out the war, spending his time under the shade of his family’s one-room shelter.

“Since we are trapped here for now, I have to stay put. I don’t know when it will end. Now, my wife has to take care of my needs,” he said.

Mg Si said the worst part of his injury isn’t physical, but rather the shame he feels for burdening his family.

They no longer have income because he can’t work. He’s incontinent and his wife and daughter must take care of him. His daughter can’t attend school because of him. He said he doesn’t know whom to ask for help. There’s so few resources that make it to this camp.

As he told his story, he stared blankly into the distance. Recently his eyesight has started to fade too.

Educating children a huge challenge
If his daughter could attend school it would be in several one-room classes tucked between dense vegetation here.

Volunteers said the classes are limited in size and spread out to avoid detection by the military. Any large gathering — even a classroom — could become a target.

At one class, Khin Sabal Phyo, 23, is teaching around a dozen primary school students. She was studying history at a university in the city of Kale when the coup happened. She left her studies out of protest.

She said she doesn’t want a diploma while the military regime is in power. She’s not alone. This year, the number of students who took a national placement exam for university was only one-fifth of that under the civilian government.

Now she’s a volunteer, trying to teach a classroom of children without experience as a teacher or proper supplies. She said the military burned the village’s school to the ground — along with precious textbooks.

The civilian National Unity Government has raised funds for education outside of the military’s reach — like this classroom — but support is spread thin around the country.

Another teacher who goes by the name Rosie is leading a class of secondary students. She actually was a teacher before the war. But she joined the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) — a mass strike of government workers after the coup. Estimates put the number of CDM teachers like Rosie at more than 130,000.

The students here are lucky, Rosie explained. Many others can’t attend because they must work to help their family survive. Others have joined resistance groups and given their lives. The World Bank says only around 56% of those aged 6-22 years are enrolled in a school.

But she said they should keep resisting where they can, even if that means organizing their own barebones education. They’ve lost too much to turn back now, Rosie pointed out.

Camp residents worried about infiltrators
Yay Chan, the camp administrator, said they don’t have weapons to defend themselves against a ground assault by the military or pro-junta militias based nearby. So they’ve mined the perimeter.

Even then residents are worried about infiltrators. The camp rarely accepts people who don’t come from Yae Shin village.

“Our people have been suffering for years for the sake of revolution. We need food, medical supplies, raincoats and mosquito nets. I want to ask these from the [National Unity Government] so that we could endure more in the future,” said Yay Chan.

The tide may be finally turning in this war. Anti-junta groups across the country have recently made gains — including in the Sagaing Region.

After nearly three years, those at this camp say they are ready for a victory. Although they can’t imagine where they might find what they need to rebuild.

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