The junta’s armed forces plan to intensify their anti-resistance activities in northwestern Myanmar’s Sagaing Region with the help of allied militias, a spokesperson for the coup regime said in a recent press conference.
“We will be accelerating the implementation of a defence system for the people by the people,” junta information officer Gen Zaw Min Tun said in Naypyitaw on March 24.
Members of what locals call the “Pyu Saw Htee” groups—trained and armed by the military—have been present during raids on villages in the region alongside Myanmar army soldiers.
During a meeting with army chief Min Aung Hlaing in February, Sagaing’s chief minister Myat Kyaw said that more than 2,000 weapons had been distributed to a total of 77 such militias in the region, according to leaked records from the discussion.
He also reportedly asked that the military council rally more civil servants to take part in combat training.
Naga, a leader of a local defence force in Sagaing’s Pale Township, told Myanmar Now that the Pyu Saw Htee groups were formed under military pressure and were not as populous or its members are as committed as the junta has suggested.
“Those people are not taking up arms because they have any strong political opinions. They’re only doing what the military is telling them to do because they’re scared of them,” Naga told Myanmar Now.
“The military threatened to harm their families if they didn’t do their bidding. I’ve seen such people myself,” he added.
Myanmar Now was unable to verify Naga’s claims about the Pyu Saw Htee network.
Junta spokesperson Zaw Min Tun said in the Naypyitaw press conference that the militias were part of the “People Protection System,” but that the military could not guarantee its members’ safety.
“No government of any country can provide 100 percent protection. We are trying our best to keep peace, stability and rule of law,” he said.
In early March, the military council cut off internet access to all of Sagaing Region with the exception of four cities in a move that locals and resistance forces speculated would be followed by escalating army operations.
According to figures compiled by Data For Myanmar, which is monitoring human rights abuses, nearly 2,500 civilian homes have been torched and destroyed by the military in Sagaing since the coup in February last year.
The junta has repeatedly blamed the arson on the anti-coup People’s Defence Force (PDF), which are backed by the shadow National Unity Government representing the administration elected before the coup.
“They’re the ones who forcefully torched and destroyed houses and propagandised that it was done by the army,” Zaw Min Tun said of the PDF at the recent press conference.
He suggested that the fires allegedly set by the resistance forces had also engulfed the homes of supporters of the ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) party.
“When there’s a fire in the village, it doesn’t matter if one is a military supporter or a NLD [National League for Democracy] supporter, the house is going to get destroyed. The fire is not going to skip one’s house just because they support the NLD,” he said.
Local defence force leader Naga dismissed the general’s claims as baseless, and noted that they were reminiscent of other allegations made by the military against groups to which it has been opposed.
“They have killed countless people and destroyed countless houses and they still have the guts to say blatant lies like this,” he said. “It’s just so childish that they are claiming we destroyed our own houses. This is a method they’ve been using for years. They’ve been committing atrocities and putting the blame on revolutionary forces for decades.”
The army repeatedly accused the Rohingya community in Rakhine State of setting fire to their own homes amid scorched earth military operations that forced some 700,000 people to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh in 2017.
Myanmar continues to face genocide charges filed by Gambia in the International Court of Justice in the Hague, Netherlands, over the country’s crimes against the Rohingya.
On March 21, American Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said in Washington DC that the US recognised the Myanmar army’s atrocities against the Rohingya as a genocide.