At least 19 troops loyal to Myanmar’s junta and two members of a militia formed to protect residents from the military were killed during a firefight in Saigaing region’s war-torn Kalay township, sources said Friday, as fighting drove some 3,000 civilians to flee for safety in the nearby mountains.
Fighting broke out between the military and members of the Kalay People’s Defense Force (PDF) around 2:00 p.m. on Thursday as junta soldiers began a raid on the villages of Doe Nwe and Ashaysee, around 30 miles south of downtown Kalay, a member of the PDF told RFA’s Myanmar Service, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
“The battle went on for six hours … and only ended after 8:00 p.m.,” the source said in recounting the fighting that killed the 19 people.
“Additionally, two [civilian] men from Tin Thar [village] who were on their way to Doe Nwe village on a motorcycle were killed when soldiers fired at them. Myint Thein and Tun Naung actually were ordinary villagers and not our fighters,” the militiaman said.
After a relatively quiet night, fighting resumed early on Friday morning, the PDF member said.
“They have been firing at us with heavy weapons since about 5:00 a.m. We are also hitting them back with Tumee [traditional flintlock] rifles and handmade rockets. They have not been able to get out of the village since yesterday. Our PDF teams have surrounded the village and attacked them. There are only injuries on our side. No deaths. Hold on, a rocket is coming our way. I'll call you back in a moment. "
PDF members later told RFA that two of their group had been killed and claimed that the military was “using drones” to track down their fighters.
Residents of the area confirmed to RFA that they had heard the sound of “hundreds of shells” beginning at 5:00 a.m. on Friday and said more than 3,000 people from nine of the surrounding villages had fled into the mountains beginning the previous night, when junta troops began conducting surprise checks and arrests.
“They were checking the cellphones of anyone they encountered, so we decided to leave,” said one villager, who declined to be named.
“Along the way, we saw many people from other villages fleeing the area too. There are four villages near Ashaysee village. A lot of men are among those who fled.”
A resident of Doe Nwe village said the region is currently dealing with an outbreak of COVID-19 infections and that many of those who fled lack access to medicine.
A Tin Thar villager told RFA that nearly everyone from the surrounding area had left.
“We are worried [the military] might set fire to the houses,” the villager said.
“Only some elderly and some family members of COVID-19 patients are left behind. Everyone believes the army will launch an all-out offensive against us. I’m in the forest myself now.”
Attempts by RFA to contact junta Deputy Information Minister Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun about the fighting in Kalay went unanswered Friday.
There have been at least seven clashes between the PDF and the military in Kalay since the junta ousted Myanmar’s democratically elected government on Feb. 1, the last of which was on June 27.
Junta troops remain stationed in the villages of Kyaukphu and Ashaysee and the Kalay PDF has warned residents to exercise caution.
Myanmar’s military says its takeover was warranted because former State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory in November 2020 general elections as the result of voter fraud. The junta has provided no evidence to back up its claims and violently responded to widespread protests, killing 912 people and arresting 5,277, according to the Bangkok-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).
Amid nationwide turmoil, the military has stepped up offensives in remote parts of the country of 54 million that have led to fierce battles with several local militias.
According to the United Nations and aid groups, conflict in Myanmar’s remote border regions has displaced an estimated 230,000 residents since the junta coup. They join more than 500,000 refugees from decades of conflict between the military and ethnic armies who were already counted as internally displaced persons (IDPs) at the end of 2020, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, a Norwegian NGO.
Reports of the clashes in Kalay came as sources told RFA that at least 23 villagers in Sagaing’s neighboring Kani township have been murdered by the military in the past 16 days, including 16 villagers who were discovered with their hands bound behind their backs and appeared to have been shot from behind, execution-style.
A resident named Tittar told RDA that junta troops entered the villages of Yin and Kone Thar on July 9 and 10 so that they could surveil Kani township from afar.
“When they were about to enter the villages, they started firing with heavy weapons. Four houses in our village were destroyed by the shelling. One house was set on fire. All the villagers fled in fear into the jungle as the army arrived. Some took their elderly on carts, motorcycles and tractors, he said.
“The soldiers followed into the forests and hunted the refugees down. Those who were found were tied with ropes and some were cut down with machetes. We also found trails of some who were tied to ropes and dragged away. The bodies were no longer recognizable as they were all bruised and mutilated.”
Tittar said people were killed and left in the forest, still bound, while others were “tied to small tree trunks and dragged along” to their deaths.
“Some of the bodies were piled up. All of them were simple farmers. None of them were PDF members,” he said, adding that several were people who couldn’t leave their elderly parents.
There were those who couldn't leave behind their parents who couldn’t run. Some were people who were asked by their parents to stay with them. People who were murdered ranged from a 63-year-old to a 21-year-old ... Some were tied and dragged. All of their clothes had been torn off and some of them no longer had pants on.”
In addition to the killings, residents said, junta troops destroyed more than 60 motorbikes, and burned down food storage containers and crops.
Another villager named Moe Thee said the men were shot dead by soldiers from behind.
“They didn’t kill them immediately after the arrests, the victims were tortured and killed,” he said.
“It looks like these people had their hands tied behind them and told to run and then shot from behind, like in the movies. It was totally inhumane.”
Other deaths included four villagers killed on July 1 whose bodies were discovered “in close proximity, with their heads blown off,” a resident said.
“They must have been shot at close range. The tops of the heads were gone. Only the mouth remained,” the resident said. “We couldn’t collect the bodies and had to set them on fire.”
The military has yet to comment on the allegations.
Children at risk
Also on Friday, the United Nations’ Child Rights Committee (CRC) issued a statement noting that since the coup, about 75 children had been killed, while around another 1,000 were arbitrarily detained and countless others deprived of essential medical care and education. The group warned that children’s rights are facing an onslaught that “risks leaving an entire generation damaged,” the agency said.
“Children are exposed to indiscriminate violence, random shootings and arbitrary arrests every day. They have guns pointed at them and see the same happen to their parents and siblings,” said Mikiko Otani, chair of the CRC.
The CRC said it is “profoundly concerned” at the major disruption of essential medical care and school education in the entire country, as well as access to safe drinking water and food for children in rural areas.
According to UNICEF, the U.N. children’s agency, a million children in Myanmar are missing key vaccinations. More than 40,000 children are no longer getting treatment for severe acute malnutrition.
“As a result of the military coup and conflicts, children’s right to life, survival and development have been repeatedly violated,” said Otani.
“If this crisis continues, an entire generation of children is at risk of suffering profound physical, psychological, emotional, educational and economic consequences, depriving them of a healthy and productive future.”
The CRC called for immediate action to resolve Myanmar’s political crisis and called on the country’s leadership to safeguard and promote children’s rights to the utmost degree.
Reported by Myanmar Service. Translation by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.