Members of a People's Defence Force aligned with the National Unity Government patrol Sagaing Region's Tabayin Township in February 2022. (Mar Naw | Frontier)

‘Killing the weeds’: Village warfare in Myingyan

The post-coup conflict in Myanmar’s Dry Zone has pitted villages against each other, while the junta’s boosting of allied militias has deepened the cycle of violence.


Ko Tin was so exhausted from staying up late to fill out paperwork that he slept through the sound of explosions that roused the rest of the town.

When he went out for his morning walk, he noticed people gathering at a pagoda on a hilltop, from where they were watching a plume of smoke rising about two miles away.

“Some village was burned down this morning,” someone in the crowd explained to him when he reached the top.

The 38-year-old regime-appointed administrator of Si Mee Khon town was looking down at Son village, a small settlement in Mandalay Region’s Myingyan Township.

Part of Myanmar’s central Dry Zone, Myingyan has been wracked with brutal conflict since the military seized power in February 2021. Pro-democracy armed groups, broadly known as People’s Defence Forces, have fought to oust the military and its officials from their villages. At the same time, they have battled their neighbours in pro-military militias, known as the Pyusawhti, amid a growing cycle of violence between communities.

In the early morning of May 9, allied pro-democracy forces raided Son village, a community known for supporting the military. A three-hour shootout ended with the PDFs occupying the village, destroying four Pyusawhti bases and killing five enemy combatants.

But by the end of the day, over 30 civilian residents were also dead, including women and three children – one of them the four-year-old daughter of the local pro-military militia leader. The circumstances of their deaths are hotly disputed.

“They wanted our village to disappear from the earth,” resident Daw Swe Moe, 58, told Frontier. “Many innocent people died who weren’t involved in the militia, but there’s nothing we can do.”

The regime claimed the civilian victims were killed by drone-dropped bombs and small arms fire from the PDFs, while resistance groups claimed they were killed by mortars fired by military vessels docked at Si Mee Khon’s port on the Ayeyarwady River.

Swe Moe confirmed that some of the people were killed by explosions, but said in the chaos it was impossible to tell the source or type of the munitions.

In photos viewed by Frontier, some of the bodies were charred, a few beyond recognition, by what seemed like explosives, but others appeared to have been hit only by small arms fire. All looked to be wearing ordinary civilian clothing.

The military regime put the death toll at 17 males and 16 females, with 14 injured and 50 homes destroyed.

When the battle was over, the resistance forces tried to reassure the surviving villagers, saying they’d only burn the homes of militia members and wouldn’t harm them. But Swe Moe said the houses of non-militia people were also torched, and while she did not personally see the PDFs kill villagers, she held them responsible for their deaths by launching the attack in the first place.

But international humanitarian law is vague about whether attacking a civilian settlement with military installations is acceptable.

The International Committee of the Red Cross says international law prohibits attacks that are “expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life… which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated”.

Ko Tin, who asked to be identified by a nickname, said he isn’t sure of the details of what happened in Son, partly because all of Myingyan Township is under an internet blackout, and because Son villagers are pariahs in the wider community.

“Nearby villages dare not help Son village,” he said in a low voice. “We don’t want to accept Son villagers as refugees either because they are a Pyusawhti village and can bring trouble.”

His willingness to defer to public opinion, including anti-military sentiment, may explain why he has managed to survive so long as a military-appointed local administrator in Myingyan, where so many others have been assassinated.

Ko Tin claimed that 25 villages in the north of the township have no regime-appointed administrator, because they’ve either been killed or fled their post, leaving him responsible for administrative procedures for all of them, like approving travel documents.

The cycle of violence

Killing regime administrators and other allegedly pro-military civilians has been a staple of the armed uprising against the 2021 military coup.

In northern Myingyan, Son is one of just two villages that are known to support the military and its proxy political party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party. In 2020, the National League for Democracy humiliated the USDP with a second consecutive landslide electoral victory in the country, which the military refused to recognise, seizing power instead.

Mass protests against the coup were met with massacres by security forces, leading pro-democracy activists to form their own armed groups. The Dry Zone – which comprises parts of Mandalay, Magway and Sagaing regions – is far from Myanmar’s borderlands, which have established gun smuggling routes and ethnic armed groups that have been fighting for autonomy for decades.

A demonstration against the military coup in Myingyan town on February 8, 2021. (AFP)

The new militias were therefore poorly equipped and inexperienced, prompting them to go after softer targets – assassinating regime administrators, civil servants, USDP members and alleged informants.

“It’s like killing the weeds before you harvest,” said Ko Nway Oo, spokesperson for the Civilian Defence and Security Organization of Myaung, one of the groups that participated in the Son raid. (Nway Oo is a nom de guerre that means “spring” in Burmese, a reference to the Spring Revolution, as the uprising is known).

The CDSOM is under the National Unity Government, a parallel administration appointed by elected lawmakers deposed in the coup, which has published a military code of conduct that prohibits harming civilians. But the NUG has given mixed messages on assassinating informants, who are often unarmed and therefore likely to be civilians under international humanitarian law, but who are killed without a proper trial.

“We aren’t afraid of soldiers with guns; we’re more afraid of one informant who can undermine the entire squad and our plans,” said Bo Mike, the nom de guerre of an officer from the NUG-aligned Myingyan Black Tiger group, another force involved in the Son raid.

But a report by Brussels-based thinktank International Crisis Group, published in 2022, found that resistance attacks on pro-military communities had encouraged them to form their own militias in self-defence. Officially called People’s Militias, they’re more commonly known as Pyusawhti, a reference to a semi-mythical warrior king who is said to have defeated four giant evil monsters while armed with only a bow and arrow.

Swe Moe, whose brother joined the Son village militia, said it was formed for protection, not to attack pro-democracy forces, and they were initially armed with mostly homemade weapons.

But while the junta was at first unwilling to arm such militias, it has increasingly equipped them with modern weapons, supported their growth and used them as auxiliaries in brutal campaigns across the Dry Zone. This, in turn, has turbocharged conflict at the local level between pro and anti military communities.

“At first, people just hated each other,” she said of the divisions that began to intensify after the coup. “Now they kill each other.”

“I honestly didn’t think forming a militia would lead to such a tragedy,” Swe Moe said of the May 9 killings.

The regime’s boosting of militias, which often remain informal entities with loose membership, has also helped to blur the lines between civilians and combatants. Nway Oo said that between May and November last year, the CDSOM killed 44 alleged military informants who he claimed were also Pyusawhti members.

Nway Oo added that resistance forces first tried to attack Son village in 2022 but the Pyusawhti repelled them. As a reward for their defence of the village, a prominent local military supporter and Pyusawhti patron, Ma Thidar Yumon, gave the Son militia new weapons, Ko Tin claimed.

Resistance fighters have accused Thidar Yumon of ordering the murders of several NLD members and PDF supporters in Mandalay Region, including an incident in November 2022 when six civilians were massacred in Natogyi Township after a junta-appointed administrator and his son were assassinated.

“Whenever the PDF kills an informant, the Pyusawhti group led by Thidar Yumon takes revenge and kills PDF supporters,” said Bo Mike, claiming she’s responsible for at least 20 deaths.

In January, she was given the Mingala Dhamma Zawtika award by the pro-military Young Men’s Buddhist Association, recognising her as a staunch “defender” of Buddhism.

Pyusawhti under siege

PDFs have been particularly successful in Sagaing Region but have struggled to replicate that in Mandalay. Many PDF fighters from Mandalay are therefore primarily based in neighbouring Sagaing, launching operations across the regional border and then returning to camps in Sagaing when the mission is complete.

But the Mandalay PDF, which participated in the Son raid, has grown significantly stronger over the last year, and has helped to bolster other resistance forces in the area.

Although officially an NUG outfit, the Mandalay PDF operates under the command of the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, one of the most powerful ethnic armed groups in the country. The TNLA mainly operates in northern Shan State, including some areas that border Mandalay, and has a long-standing presence in Mandalay’s Mogok Township.

Bo Mike and Nway Oo both confirmed resistance groups are trying to penetrate deeper into Mandalay Region, including by seizing Si Mee Khon town, and have grown more powerful with the support of the Mandalay PDF. Son village was the last pro-military outpost before Si Mee Khon, which hosts a river port that can receive large vessels, and is defended by a big military garrison.

Bo Mike also accused Son village of regularly hosting junta soldiers as they moved around the township, and said the militia joined them in fighting, raiding and looting.

Si Mee Khon was also an important transit point for the massive slabs of marble shipped from Madaya Township in Mandalay Region to build regime leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s infamous giant Buddha statue in the capital Nay Pyi Taw, consecrated last year. Ko Tin said residents of Son were scorned by neighbouring communities for volunteering to help transport the marble in 2022.

As resistance forces grow stronger in Myingyan, life in pro-military villages becomes more difficult. When PDFs gained control of important roads, they cut off Pyusawhti villages from deliveries of food, fuel and other provisions. The military has long used a similar tactic against villages it suspects of supporting its enemies, in what has been widely decried as a form of collective punishment.

Swe Moe said Son village has endured a rice shortage since clashes intensified in the area in January this year. Many villagers have also lost their jobs, and other villages refuse to trade or work with them.

But while many of the villagers support the military, some don’t, and even those who do are essentially trapped.

“People want to move out of the village, but the militia said they would seize the homes and properties of anyone who leaves,” Swe Moe said.

Such militias also practice forced recruitment. Last year, 42-year-old truck driver U Kyaw Htay Myint and his two sons fled Kyi village, the other Pyusawhti stronghold in northern Myingyan, moving to Myingyan town so the sons wouldn’t have to serve in the militia.

Despite this, Kyaw Htay Myint still supports the military and blames the PDFs for the spiralling violence.

“I don’t think there can be a peaceful solution,” he said. “The trust between communities is totally lost. This will only end when one side disappears.”

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