Coup Era Has Not Been Easy For Myanmar Women

Khine Thu fled her home in Myanmar’s northwestern Sagaing region for the first time, fleeing into the jungle as soldiers stormed her village. Though she has lost count of how many times she has fled since she thinks it might be about 15.
“We run whenever we hear soldiers coming,” she said. “We escape into the forest and return to the village when the soldiers are gone.”
109 people have been killed in the region since July, according to a report Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG) submitted to the UN Human Rights Council on September 19.
Human rights groups and local media documented mass killings in July in Depayin and Kani townships, where 73 people died. As security forces maintain a presence in the area’s villages, women are living with the effects of conflict on a daily basis. The military blocked internet access in 10 townships in the Sagaing region this month, including Kani, raising fears that the military may intensify its attacks.
The violence began in Khine Thu’s village of Satpyarkyin in Depayin township on June 14, when soldiers opened fire and killed one person after the bodies of two daughters of a military administrator were found in a nearby village.
As a result of the soldiers’ return on July 2, at least 32 local people were killed by indiscriminate shelling and small arms fire, according to the NUG report. Meanwhile, Myanmar Now reported that 10,000 people from eleven villages fled their homes following the clashes.
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
As well as the other women Al Jazeera spoke to, Khine Thu requested anonymity for fear of reprisals. She said soldiers have been in and out since then, and that she and other villagers were always ready to flee. When the soldiers leave, the village remains.
Shops and markets are closed.
When hiding in the forest for days or weeks at a time, she said, the villagers have difficulty meeting their basic needs.
“We couldn’t get water sometimes,” she said. On some days, we ate only one meal, or rice with salt and oil or fish paste. I’m depressed, and sometimes I don’t even want to live anymore.”
Aye Chan, a local resident, said people do not have access to medicine and rely on plants and herbs to treat their ailments.
Khine Thu and she have stopped working as hired farmhands due to the danger.
“We can’t live in peace.”. We can’t work. “We are dependent on other people’s donations and run around for safety whenever [soldiers] arrive,” said Aye Chan. The presence of soldiers in our village affects us mentally and physically. We are unable to eat or sleep.
In the weeks following its seizure of power from the elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the military has used force and widespread arrests to crush mass protests and a civil disobedience movement.
Over 1,100 people have been killed and more than 8,200 arrested since then, according to a rights group tracking the military’s abuses, Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) or AAPP.
In an effort to resist military rule peacefully, many people have taken up arms. Some have joined existing ethnic armed organisations, while others have joined local resistance groups founded across the country in recent months, including in areas like Depayin and Kani, where the majority-Bamar residents reside.
It also announced in May the formation of a national-level People’s Defence Force (PDF), whose size and activities remain largely unknown. On September 7, it proclaimed a “people’s defensive war,” calling on citizens to “revolt” against the military.
Many local armed resistance groups, which also call themselves PDFs but are not affiliated with the NUG, face a military that has accumulated at least $2.4 billion in weapons over the past decade, armed with little more than single-shot hunting rifles and with little training or combat experience.
Asymmetrical tactics, including ambushes on military convoys and police stations, have been used to claim hundreds of military soldiers dead. In response, the military has indiscriminately attacked their communities, just as it has in areas with ethnic armed groups since the 1960s.
In the past, the military has labeled ethnic armed groups as “insurgents” or “terrorists” and targeted ethnic areas under the guise of national security. It now follows a similar narrative.
According to a statement released by the military on August 28, PDFs, the NUG, and the committee that appointed them are considered terrorist organizations. Anyone who encourages people to participate in terrorist acts, shelters members of these groups, or provides financial support to them would also be considered terrorists.
Earlier this year, a United Nations-appointed fact-finding mission described how the military uses rape to terrorize and punish ethnic minorities, saying such acts are “part of a deliberate, well-planned strategy to intimidate, terrorize and punish civilians.”
In May, a 15-year-old girl in Sagaing region was raped and killed by soldiers, according to an ethnic Chin rights group, and in July, Radio Free Asia reported that a woman in Kachin State was found raped and stabbed to death near a military outpost on the way to her farm and that the military was investigating the case.
Thandar Aye, a women’s rights activist who works in the Sagaing region and neighboring Chin State, told Al Jazeera that soldiers commonly harass women verbally, and she worries that additional cases of physical or sexual assault may go unreported due to social stigma and fear of retaliation from the military.
Women in the region, she added, avoid leaving their homes even during the day due to concern that soldiers could sexually assault them. “Women cannot go out freely,” she said. “Most women are just staying inside their houses and facing food shortages.”
Phyoe, a grocery store owner from Chyaung Ma village, told Al Jazeera that she goes out as little as possible for this reason.
“I heard that women were raped in some other villages and regions, so I am really afraid that it could happen to me,” she said.
She is among at least 15,000 civilians displaced by intense clashes since April in Kani Township, located 100km (62 miles) southwest of Depayin.
“When [soldiers] come, we close everything and run again. Only elderly and women with small children who cannot run are left in the village,” said Phyoe, who, like Khine Thu, can no longer remember the number of times she and her family have fled.
In July, 43 bodies were found in four locations of Kani township, according to the NUG report; the AAPP and media documented signs of torture on most of the bodies. The military has not released any public statements or responded to media inquiries in response to the deaths.
“[Soldiers] accused normal locals of participating in the PDF, and they killed many people who were taking refuge in the forest,” said Phyoe. “We aren’t safe at home, and we aren’t safe in the forest either … We have been sleepless since soldiers came to our village.”
Soldiers have twice occupied Phyoe’s house; they have also stolen valuables from her home and emptied the shelves of her family’s grocery store.
She said Chyaung Ma’s streets are deserted after dark, and when soldiers come through, locals who remain in the village are too afraid to move around inside their homes for fear they could be shot.
Unable to earn an income or buy goods, her family is now relying on food donations from relatives and other villagers.
“[Soldiers’] presence in our village and all the cruel things [they did] really affected our lives and survival,” she said.
Thuzar also runs a small shop and lives in Na Myar village, which lies 30km (18 miles) east of Satpyarkyin in Depayin township. She too has been in and out of the forest since soldiers fired artillery and raided her village on August 9.
“Everyone in the village prepared a few things in case the soldiers came, but when they actually came, we escaped in a hurry, so we couldn’t bring much with us,” she said.
With only trees and some small tarpaulins to provide shelter from the rain, they watched as artillery struck a nearby herd of goats.
“The images of dead goats were so grotesque,” said Thuzar. “We are depressed and hurt mentally because we have seen many things that we shouldn’t see.”
When the soldiers left on August 9, villagers returned home to find their property vandalized and looted. “[Soldiers] took all the food from our refrigerator and ransacked our wardrobe,” she said. “We had locked the door of one room, and they destroyed the door…They took everything. They didn’t even leave the 2,000 Myanmar kyat ($1.20) in my daughter’s school bag.”
Among other things, soldiers trashed her friend’s refrigerator by filling it with sand, and in some houses where elderly people were left behind, “one soldier talked to them at the front door while other soldiers went into the house from the back and took whatever they wanted.”
Later in August, soldiers occupied the village for about 10 days. Thuzar returned home to find her chickens gone and more than 30 houses raided. At a grocery store at the entrance to the village, locals discovered piles of gunny sacks doused in paraffin oil. “If [soldiers] had lit them, our whole village would have turned to ashes,” she said.
Thuzar and her husband closed their shop after the coup and began farming rice instead.
Now she worries that they won’t have time to finish planting before the end of the rainy season in October.
When things calm down, we go back for a few days and everyone rushes to plant,” she said.

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