Tens of thousands flee amid massive military build-up in Wetlet Township

More than 600 junta troops have entered the township, as the regime moves to restart rail travel to the north

Residents of more than 50 villages have been forced to flee their homes in Sagaing Region’s Wetlet Township in recent days as junta troops flood into the area from the north, south, and east.

According to local sources, there are now six army columns, each with at least 100 troops, in the township.

Two of the columns came from Shwebo Township in the north, two from Sagaing Township in the south, and two from across the Ayeyarwady River to the east, the sources said.

“So many people have had to flee. We had to spend last night outside in the rain,” said one local man who was among the displaced.

According to the man, some of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) were able to take shelter with relatives or in schools or monasteries in other villages, but many others have had no choice but to huddle along roadsides until the columns passed.

Those who could stayed inside vehicles, while most had to construct makeshift tents to protect themselves from the rain, he said.

“Some of the elderly are in poor health, but people from the local civilian organisations came out to see them and provide them with medication,” he added.

The fact that the army columns have been moving in close proximity to each other has also made it difficult for the IDPs to know when they could safely return to their homes, according to locals.

While the exact number of IDPs in the township is unknown, it is believed to be in the tens of thousands, as so many villages have been affected.

Civilians routinely flee approaching regime forces, as the military is known to use civilians as human shields in conflict zones. In many cases, the hostages are later found dead.

On August 25, junta soldiers travelling north from Sagaing Township abducted and killed five civilians near the village of Kyeekan in Wetlet Township. One of the victims was a pregnant woman who was raped repeatedly before she was murdered.

Reopening the railway

Resistance groups operating in the area say they believe the recent military build-up is related to the regime’s efforts to reopen the Mandalay-Myitkyina railway line, which has not been in use since early 2020.

Reopening the line would make it easier for the military to transport supplies and reinforcements to the north, where it is fighting the Kachin Independence Army and other anti-junta forces.

“We think they’re trying to get the railway restarted. We’ve destroyed sections of it, so now they want to make sure they can secure passage for the train,” said the information officer for a local defence group.

He noted that all of the columns currently in Wetlet Township are marching along the rail line, and one is accompanying railway maintenance staff and two rail cars.

He added that resistance forces have not launched any attacks in the area recently because they lack the capacity to take on so many junta troops at once.

“We haven’t been able to clash with them, as we don’t have enough weapons and ammunition, and the [regime columns] are all within two miles of each other,” he said.

There are also reports of at least two more army columns near Wetlet Township—one close to the border with Sagaing Township, and another near the Ayeyarwady River.

Several villages in the township also have junta troops stationed in them, according to locals.

Nearly 50,000 people were displaced by conflict in Myanmar in the last week of August, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported on August 31.

Most of the IDPs were in Sagaing Region and Kachin, Karen (Kayin), and Karenni (Kayah) states, where the junta has faced fierce resistance to its rule since seizing power in a coup in February 2021.

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