In Sagaing Region, women who have lost their homes to brutal attacks by junta forces continue to defy their oppressors
Charred wood and blackened sheets of corrugated metal were all that welcomed Hla May* when she returned to her home.
The air in her village was still thick with the acrid smell of smoke. And with every gust of wind, ashes stirred and swirled, making it that much harder to breathe.
But Hla May was not reduced to despair the way her home had been reduced to ashes. As she surveyed the devastation, she gripped a piece of corrugated tin—part of what had once been her home—and braced herself to speak.
“You can burn our village, but not our spirit and our soil,” she said defiantly.
The others who gathered around her repeated her words, which had become the newest slogan of their movement to resist Myanmar’s brutal military regime.
“If we stop protesting after the fire, they will think we have given up. They will think we are afraid,” Hla May continued, her voice rising.
Around a quarter of the roughly 800 homes in Pan Ywar, a village in Sagaing Region’s Pale Township, were burned to the ground on January 31, the eve of the first anniversary of last year’s coup. They were among the thousands that the military has torched around the country since seizing power.
Sagaing Region has borne the brunt of the junta’s scorched-earth campaign to eradicate opposition to its rule. According to one estimate, around 60% of the more than 6,000 homes set on fire by regime forces since the coup were in Sagaing.
Despite the junta’s efforts to terrorise civilians into submission, however, the resistance movement continues to grow. And women, including ordinary housewives like 48-year-old Hla May, have been at the forefront of this struggle.
‘I remain strong’
On the night that their village was set alight, Hla May and the other residents of Pan Ywar were hiding in the forest. They had fled with a few emergency provisions after learning that soldiers were approaching the nearby village of Mweton.
Helplessly, they watched as first Mweton, and then Pan Ywar, were consumed by fire.
“Some started crying when they saw the flames, but not me. Our houses didn’t burn down because of our negligence. They were intentionally set on fire,” said Hla May.
“I am not sad. I remain strong,” she added.
Even after they returned to the village the next day and saw the extent of the damage, Hla May did not shed a tear. She just examined the ruins and thought about those responsible for laying waste to their lives.
The marauders who did this didn’t just take things of value, such as food and vehicles, she said. They took everything they could lay their hands on, and destroyed everything else.
“They take whatever they want, even children’s toys,” she said.
Hla May used to be a farmer. Now, however, she lives in the forest, surviving on food donated by other villages.
“I had to give up my work. I couldn’t do it anymore. But to tell the truth, I’m not interested in doing my work now. All I want to do is focus on winning the revolution,” she said.
‘We can’t just surrender’
For 20-year-old Nyein, who also lived in Pan Ywar until it came under attack, these past few weeks have been the hardest of her life.
An avid gardener, Nyein was devastated when she saw that the plants she had cultivated with such care had been set ablaze by junta troops.
“I’m sad. I feel like I have nothing left,” she said, describing how she felt as if all her happiest memories had been crushed in a single night of wanton destruction.
But even so, she said she did not regret her opposition to the regime.
“We can’t just surrender without resisting. It can’t be helped that they burned down our houses because of that,” she said.
Like others from Pan Ywar—some of whom had spent years working in the city to save enough money to build their homes—Nyein now lives on a bamboo mat under a tarpaulin sheet.
Forced to flee with nothing but the clothes on her back, she said she had to go for days without bathing when she first arrived in the forest. Feminine hygiene products are still unavailable, she added.
There is enough food to eat for now, she said. She wasn’t sure, however, how long it would last. She said she would just have to deal with her current situation one day at a time.
But even under these circumstances, she and other women in the village decided to hold a protest against the junta 11 days after their homes were destroyed.
Brandishing fragments of their former lives as symbols of defiance, they demanded that the junta give up power and restore the country’s rightful government.
‘Fight until the bitter end’
The sight of flames rising from her village didn’t really upset Aye Nge; it wasn’t until the next day, when she returned to where her home had once stood, that the tears began to flow.
Surrounded by a scene of utter destruction, she cried inconsolably for some time, knowing how much it had cost her parents to build their home.
“Some people worked like slaves to build their homes. They were good homes,” she said in a low voice.
But even after losing her home and all of her possessions, Aye Nge said she was prepared to make even greater sacrifices if need be to bring down a dictatorship that had inflicted so much suffering on the country.
“We didn’t think they would be this cruel. We were hurt deeply by their actions. We will fight against the military regime until our last breath, through our pain and sadness,” she said.
“I have lost my home, but even if I lose my life, I will continue the fight in spirit until the military regime is gone,” she added.
This was a sentiment shared by many of the women of Pan Ywar.
“We will uproot the military council, no matter how difficult it is. We will never surrender. We will never get down on our knees. We will continue the revolution from the jungle or anywhere else,” said Hla May.
“No matter what, we must fight until the bitter end. We must keep up the fight, even if we are left with nothing. Only then will life be better for our next generation,” said Nyein.
“We won’t give up just because they burned our village,” she added.
*All names have been changed to protect the identities of the women interviewed for this article
This article was originally published in Burmese by HI Burma