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The story of a Pyu Saw Htee family in Sagaing Region

Originally published on Mohinga Matters

Ma Sint and her family are members of a Pyu Saw Htee, which is a pro-military militia. Ma Sint’s village is located in Sagaing Region, beside the Muu River, not so far from Depayin which is a notorious town where a crime was committed by pro-military thugs 20 years ago when a National League for Democracy (NLD) convoy carrying Aung San Suu Kyi and Tin Oo was attacked. 

About 70 people were killed on that fateful day in May 2003 while Aung San Suu Kyi barely escaped. Successive military regimes downplayed the incident as a clash between NLD supporters and its opponents. Internationally, it became known as the Depayin Massacre, and was likely plotted by the generals. Despite being near such a historical and political location, Ma Sint’s village was always more or less peaceful until February 2021 when the most recent military coup took place.  

According to Ma Sint, politics back in the day was nothing more than a harmless game between relatives. People were too busy weaving and looming fabrics to create traditional clothes for markets across the country. On a rare break, they had from working to put food on the table, politics was one of the many conversational topics they shared. 

“We have both red [NLD supporters] and green [military and its proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party – USDP] in the village, and everyone is related to each other,” she said. During the USDP administration from 2011 to 2015 and the NLD administration from 2016 to 2020, the community contributed to the greater good and put society ahead of politics. Better roads were built, and food safety and hygiene were prioritized.

“My brother-in-law and my uncle had been ward administrators under each party’s term. They coordinated well even when they were not in charge. One could not perform well without the support of the community, which was a mix of both political colours.”

Even when the election in 2020 was over, the atmosphere did not change overnight in the area. When the military coup was staged, anti-coup protests took place in the village just like the rest of the Sagaing Region. The majority of the village joined in, but military supporters did not. Children of military supporters also joined the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), but there was no arrest or dispute. Ma Sint’s village was at rest in the Sagaing Region that witnessed the greatest rage in terms of armed resistance on the country scale. At least, until several months later.

A drastic change happened in October 2022. On that day, a village next to Ma Sint’s was burned down by regime soldiers because they thought the People’s Defense Force (PDF) were hiding in the village. More than 300 households were destroyed, and some PDF members were captured. 

Later the word got out that there was a dalan (military informant) in Ma Sint’s village. One morning after that incident, the PDF stormed into her village and took out the man who was the accused informant. Since he was with a few men at that moment, a total of nine were killed on that day. While some were indeed military informers, a few were not. And one of them was the father of a teacher who joined the CDM. 

After this incident, a group of military supporters decided to form a village security force, including Ma Sint’s husband and his cousins. All of them had been members of the USDP, and for them, the task was simple: they would prevent the village from being burned down or attacked at all costs.

Since they were on good terms with the military, they assumed that assaults would only come from the PDF. Again, PDF members were also relatives, so they planned to talk them out of a potential conflict but they were also prepared to fight them if need be. For them, their lives were peaceful as long as the village remained quiet. 

There was no moral question over the military’s atrocities in other areas for it did not affect them. Ma Sint’s husband was even provided a pistol by the regime soldiers for leading such an initiative. Fortunately, there was no major clash or explosion in the area except for a minor blast here and there.

Ma Sint’s village was marked as a Pyu Saw Htee village. There were 200 households but the families gathered and lived in a compound with 13 houses. “I did not know what Pyu Saw Htee or PDF meant in the beginning. Later, somebody told me what they stood for. Still, I don’t feel any shame or inferiority if somebody calls me a Pyu Saw Htee today. For me, it is as simple as calling one an NLD supporter or a USDP supporter,” said Ma Sint.

One morning in April 2023, the PDF entered the village and fired into the sky while breaking into the compound. “We were woken up by the sound of gunshots which came closer and closer to our location. We knew right away that PDF was coming to get us. Our men with arms immediately went out and fled the scene. I ran to one of the smallest houses in the compound to hide,” she added.

The PDF did not hit the Pyu Saw Htee members. Their leader was wounded and carried away to another village. The PDF later surrounded the compound and set the whole area ablaze. Ma Sint was clever. She moved from one house to another until she was finally out of the compound. Her daughters who lived outside the area thought she was dead. All the 13 houses were burned down but no other house or civilians in the village were targeted. 

“They did not shoot or burn down any other houses, and left as soon as they were sure the Pyu Saw Htee compound was ruined”. Ma Sint did not blame anyone for this incident. She still considered it a power struggle between the red and the green.

“Look, I was present when the voting in the 2020 election took place, it was clear that the NLD won, so its supporters have every right to rage and fight. But just because they were right does not mean we were wrong to protect our backyard.”

Ma Sint and her daughters lost everything in the fire and left the village immediately after the incident. They tried to get in touch with families from afar and begged for a place to stay. 

When she retold this story, she was already settling into a new life in Yangon, selling Burmese snacks made of coconut and sticky rice in a market near her ward. Her husband and cousins remained in Sagaing to receive medical treatment.

It’s not that Ma Sint was not aware of violence in the other areas of the country. She learned about the airstrikes on Pazigyi which killed 170. She simply said she was not there during the incident so she would not know. For her, peace and justice do not necessarily have to come together. 

“I just wish for a day when either PDF or Pyu Saw Htee completely rule the village. I don’t care for whomever. I just wish the fighting stops and we can live out our days in peace,” said Ma Sint. 


*This story has been edited for brevity. To read the entire story go to Mohinga Matters, a platform where aspiring writers share their thoughts, ideas and opinions freely.

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