By Wa Lone and Poppy McPherson
(Reuters) – The rubble and ashes, dominated by a single golden pagoda, are almost all that remains of the wooden and brick houses most people had built for themselves in the quiet Buddhist-hearted riverside village of Bin from central Myanmar.
Bin is one of more than 100 villages partially or completely burned down by the Myanmar military since the start of this year, its homes among more than 5,500 civilian buildings razed to the ground as troops try to suppress opposition to the coup statehood last year, according to media compiled by activist group Data for Myanmar.
Dozens of satellite images reviewed by Reuters, provided by US earth-imaging company Planet Labs and US space agency NASA, show the widespread burning of villages in the central part of the country. The photos, largely confirming local media reports, are among the strongest evidence to date that the military is using widespread arson to step up its assault on resistance in the central region of Sagaing, where residents have told Reuters that there is armed opposition to the junta.
“It’s a campaign of terror,” Tom Andrews, the UN’s special envoy for human rights in Myanmar, told Reuters. “If you live in an area or a village that they (the junta) think is particularly favorable to those who have taken up arms, then you are, in their eyes, the enemy.”
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Andrews, who is based in the United States, told Reuters he spoke by phone with several witnesses and others providing him with information on the ground. He said these people told him that the military had increased attacks in Sagaing in recent months, with soldiers carrying out ground assaults and aircraft carrying out airstrikes.
The junta, which overthrew the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi on February 1, 2021, has declared all opposition illegal and says the military is seeking to restore order in the country. The Myanmar military did not respond to requests for comment on this story. In recent months, the junta has accused opposition forces of burning villages, without presenting evidence.
Military and pro-military militias have burned down villages in central Myanmar almost every day since December, according to reports from Myanmar’s BBC and local media compiled by Data For Myanmar and seen by Reuters. Publicly available NASA satellite photos confirm the location of nearly all of the largest fires.
Military attacks and arson have led to large-scale displacement, residents told Reuters. More than 52,000 people fled their homes in the last week of February alone, according to the United Nations.
The recent fires are the first time such a tactic has been seen in the once peaceful and mostly Buddhist central core. Over the past year, the region has been the scene of intense fighting between junta troops and groups belonging to the People’s Defense Forces (PDF), the armed wing of the National Unity Government (NUG). , who was ousted in the coup. The junta declared the NUG and PDF illegal and labeled them terrorists.
Reuters spoke to 14 villagers in the Sagaing area who described how soldiers burned down their settlements. Reuters was unable to confirm certain aspects of their accounts. But they were nonetheless consistent with the satellite images seen by the news agency.
Bin was set on fire by the army on January 31, according to seven residents who spoke to Reuters.
Photographs and videos of Bin taken by residents over the following days, seen by Reuters, show villagers making their way through a scorched wasteland. “We lost everything we had,” Maung Zaw, 41, a groundnut farmer, told Reuters by phone. “I will fight against this military dictatorship until the end.”
Three people said they helped carry elderly relatives and friends out of their homes when they were either on the verge of being set on fire or already in flames. A man, who asked not to be named for fear of military reprisals, told Reuters he had crawled into nearby fields and covered himself in tomato plants to hide from soldiers .
A satellite photo dated February 7, shared with Reuters by Planet Labs, shows much of the village reduced to ashes, with around 100 houses destroyed. A November 27 photo shows the village intact. Reuters also saw six photographs and a video taken by residents from a drone, showing the destruction.
Witnesses said no one was killed but they lost warehouses full of crops and animal feed as well as their homes, built over generations.
“We built our house all our lives, it was destroyed in a second,” said a teacher in his 20s from Bin, who asked not to be named, for fear of reprisals from the authorities. military.
Reuters could not reach local authorities in the area to confirm the attack on Bin and other villages.
The burning of villages and the displacement of residents in areas such as Sagaing and Magway – where much of the country’s crops are produced – will disrupt planting and harvesting, according to the Myanmar Food Security Cluster, a body coordinating the response. UN and food crisis aid organizations in the country. “The reduction in production in these areas will lead to a shortfall in the overall food supply and further drive up already high food prices,” the group told Reuters in a statement this week.
Beyond Bin’s shave, seven other people told Reuters they witnessed the burning of three other villages in the Sagaing region in February: Ohn Hnae Bok, Hna Ma Sar Yit and Chaung-U. Three NASA images and eight Planet Labs photos show that fires took place in these villages on the dates people described the attacks.
Two people from Hna Ma Sar Yit said soldiers shot two people while three elderly people were burned to death in their homes. Reuters could not independently verify their accounts. The Myanmar military has cut internet access in the Sagaing area, complicating efforts to authenticate information. The junta did not respond to requests for comment.
Burning villages is a decades-old tactic of the Myanmar military, several analysts told Reuters, used to starve insurgencies of support. More recently, the army destroyed hundreds of villages in 2017 pushing hundreds of thousands of Muslim Rohingya out of the Rakhine region.
Last month, the United States officially determined that Myanmar’s military had committed genocide against the Rohingya. The United Nations said Myanmar troops carried out a crackdown with “genocidal intent” that included massacres, arson and rape. Without evidence, the Myanmar military said the Rohingyas had burned down their own homes.
The army is “trying to crush, or at least reduce to a manageable level”, the resistance forces in Sagaing before the onset of the monsoon season in May or June, when troop movement becomes more difficult, it said. said Anthony Davis, a security analyst at the UK-based Janes Defense Intelligence Company.
The junta did not respond to requests for comment.
(Reporting by Wa Lone and Poppy McPherson; Editing by Bill Rigby)
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