The remains of burnt houses in Kinma village in Pauk Township, Magway Region in June 2021. (AFP)

No homecoming for many this Thingyan

Myanmar’s traditional new year festival normally sees millions returning to their hometowns, but the widening conflict and destruction of villages mean that for many this year, there is no going back.


“I want to go home… to mother’s warm house” – the lyrics of famed singer-songwriter Htoo Eain Thin will ring deep for many in Myanmar as the Thingyan festival approaches.

Normally, trains and buses are packed with city residents returning to their rural hometowns in the lead-up to the mid-April water festival, which celebrates the traditional Myanmar new year. But more than two years after the military coup, many have nowhere to go back to because their homes have been shelled, torched or seized by the military.

The United Nations estimates 1.3 million people have been displaced and tens of thousands of homes destroyed in response to the post-coup armed uprising against military rule.

Least likely to return home this year are those like Daw Thuzar Win* who have joined a reverse migration, fleeing from cities to rural areas to take up arms and fight the regime.

“We are determined to fight the terrorist military no matter what,” Thuzar Win told Frontier.  “Until we win, we won’t be able to go home. But I believe the revolution will succeed.”

The 35-year-old can’t go home even if she wants to. Now living in rural Sagaing Region, which has been wracked by the most intense violence since the coup, Thuzar Win’s family home and shop in Mandalay were seized by the military in retaliation for her joining the resistance. Her parents are in hiding.

Thuzar Win protests against the coup with students of Mandalay’s Yadanapon University in March 2021. (Supplied)

The coup marked the end of Thuzar Win’s life as an NGO worker and her pursuit of an MBA degree, as well as her ambitions to go into business and become a philanthropist for the elderly and poor. Instead, she plunged herself into peaceful street protests and supported workers and students on strike, risking arrest many times.

When the military response to peaceful demonstrations turned violent, she found herself fleeing as soldiers beat and arrested fellow protesters – one halted her motorbike and struck her with the butt of his rifle.

“I had a narrow escape from a very dangerous moment. My bones still don’t feel right. I had never seen a gun before,” she said.

After 10 days of recovery, she was back on the streets. During another protest soon after, a 55-year-old woman hid Thuzar Win and others in her home, refusing to hand them over to security forces outside. The protesters escaped out the back door as soldiers shot the woman dead, her daughter’s screams ringing in their ears.

Thuzar Win as a Buddhist nun with the name Thudhamasari, visiting the ruins of Kinma village in Magway Region. (Supplied)

Anxious for her safety, Thuzar Win’s mother begged her to enter a Buddhist convent as a nun, which she did on her 34th birthday in June 2021. But this didn’t keep her away from the conflict.

Taking the name Thudhamasari, she began bringing aid to civilians displaced by the fighting, visiting Kinma village in Pauk Township in Magway Region, which was almost entirely torched by the military, as well as to camps for internally displaced people in Saw Township, also in Magway.

But the ashes of Kinma convinced her that only an armed revolution – not peaceful boycotts nor Buddhist contemplation – would end the military’s tyranny.  

So, after just two months as a nun, she left and joined a guerrilla unit in Mandalay, acting as a scout and gathering intel on the military, as well as spreading information to the public through the Voice of Mandalay, a resistance-affiliated media outlet on Facebook. Due to regime crackdowns, she has since moved with her guerrilla comrades to rural Sagaing.

“I don’t regret my choice,” she said.

Thuzar Win, now a fighter in a resistance army based in Sagaing Region. (Supplied)

The ‘last generation’ to flee?

Dr Min Thein* also won’t be going home this year.

“To be honest, I want to go home. I believe the time will come when we will be free to return,” said the surgeon, who quit his government job at Loikaw General Hospital in Kayah State to join the mass strike of public servants dubbed the Civil Disobedience Movement.

He now volunteers in a mobile medical team providing basic healthcare to about 30,000 people displaced by conflict who are living in 30 camps in Demoso, Hpruso and Bawlakhe townships of Kayah, which is being pummelled by a major military offensive.

Min Thein said he is struggling so that this will be the “last generation” separated by war from their families, and admitted it pains him to think some people will be having fun during the festivities.

Home for the doctor is a village near the Sagaing regional capital Monywa, whose remaining residents had to flee twice last year due to military attacks.

For hundreds of thousands of others, like Ko Thura Aung*, Thingyan will be spent in a foreign country – in his case Thailand – where at least he might have the chance to join similar celebrations for Songkran, the traditional Thai new year.

A state middle school teacher from Bago Region, Thura Aung quit his job in protest after the coup, teaching instead at a school affiliated with the National Unity Government, a parallel cabinet appointed by elected lawmakers ousted by the military takeover. He fled the country in December 2021 when the junta issued a warrant for his arrest and settled in a Thai border town, where he works in construction but continues to assist the NUG’s education ministry.

He hopes to one day be able to return to his parents’ home in Bago but expects a long wait. “I believe in the revolution no matter how long it takes. We left our country, but we will keep going until victory,” Thura Aung told Frontier. “But I think it will take several more years before I can go home.”

*denotes use of pseudonym upon request for safety reasons

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