Julian (pseudonym) shows how the junta’s use of arson has incurred extreme devastation.
The tragic news of civilian villages being burnt down by junta soldiers is no longer strange for Myanmar people. Between September 2021 and May 2022, Myanmar Witness verified almost 200 fires set by the military as part of arson warfare against civilians, concentrated in Sagaing and Magway, where local resistance forces were active and strong. The burnings become more frequent and increasingly massive as both armed resistance and counterinsurgency operations intensified. Myanmar users on Google or on social media like Facebook would often encounter numerous verified, unverified, and local updates on such attacks.
Burning down villages is an integral part of the Myanmar military’s ‘four cuts’ strategy – cutting resistance forces’ access to food, funds, information, and recruits. The aim of the strategy is to undermine resistance forces’ support from local populations, although in practice, this tactic has only intensified hatred and loathing against the junta. Both the National Unity Government (NUG) and international and local NGOs have attempted to systematically record those incidents and crimes against humanity conducted by the military, including arson attacks. In this short article, I highlight how the indiscriminate and intentional burning of villages incurs extreme economic and social devastation. I posit that arson not only destroys the livelihoods of citizens but also results in unbearable social-psychological damage, as civilians lose their homes, places, and identities.
A livelihood comprises people, their capabilities, means of living, as well as the assets required to perform their economic activities to meet their basic needs. The sustainable livelihoods framework, as a pro-poor policy framework, tells us that in order for livelihoods to be sustainable, it is crucial to consider and fulfill a wide range of skills, assets (tangible and intangible), and resources required for people to cope with external shocks and vulnerabilities. Livelihood functions operate as an ecosystem; a disruption in one element significantly affects the overall operation. For instance, farmers essentially require land, cattle, seed, capital, and labor with farming skills. They cannot perform their tasks without any of those baseline requirements, or if they lose any of these needed assets. Also, farmers cannot easily switch to another livelihood as they require essential skills and capacities that need to be acquired over a certain period of time. Here, I use the term livelihood to highlight two things: (1) a livelihood of a person or a household depends on (at least) the skills or the conventional ways of doing business and the assets required to perform the tasks, and (2) as livelihoods operate as ecosystems, affected livelihoods are difficult to either reinstitute or substitute.
From a livelihoods perspective, the burning down of villages means the destruction of the existing patterns of neighborhoods and villages. After arson, all of the villagers’ basic human needs – food stocks, clothes, shelter – are effectively destroyed. Also, villagers lose not only their crops and cattle, which are essential assets to farming, but also their belongings and properties that constitute the cash flow and capital for their livelihoods. Therefore, it would be wrong to assume that the farmers can effortlessly resume their farming activities and rebuild their livelihoods soon after the arson attacks.
According to data gathered by the Ministry of Home Affairs and Immigration of NUG, over 41,000 houses were burnt down by the military junta in 2022. Another source, Data for Myanmar, has recorded over 60,000 houses destroyed by arson, 80 percent of which are in Sagaing. The story of Thantlang in Chin State is well-known—almost the entire town was torched and destroyed. With this scale of destruction, it is unimaginable how many livelihoods have been affected or completely destroyed.
A recent example of the impact of arson on livelihoods was the burning down of villages in Sagaing Region, which have been home to traditional weaving practices. In late March 2023, the junta troops torched at least 14 villages in the area, including Htoo Gyi, Telpin, Pa Hlaing, and Tintel villages, which are home to traditional Seik Kun fabric. While weaving is the only source of income for 80 percent of these villages, the fire destroyed 250 looms, crops, agricultural assets, and a total of 1,000 homes. Looms are crucial physical assets that the villagers had long depended on; therefore, it is fair to say that the fire effectively burnt down their livelihoods and their traditional ways of life. More than that, looms and weaving are invaluable aspects of intangible cultural heritage specific to Sagaing, where the Seik Kun fabric has long been produced. A small number of handmade looms were graciously donated by some local organizations; however, it is far from reinstituting their livelihoods to previous levels.
The actual effects of such destructions are, therefore, beyond what we can quantify. Until now, the junta’s burning down of houses and villages has effectively destroyed the livelihoods of millions of citizens. As previously discussed, livelihoods are difficult to reinstitute or substitute. The immediate and long-term effects of this subsequently lead to the disruption of incomes, and therefore, the widening and deepening of poverty at both micro- and macro- levels.
Another devastating effect of the ‘burning down’ operations by the junta is the socio-psychological damages incurred by the loss of ‘homes’. It is important here to distinguish between house and home to appreciate the value of the latter. Unlike the former which usually denotes physical building, homes are places of activities and memories with loved ones, to which people and communities have strong and irreplaceable social and emotional attachments. For some, these memories are embedded and passed through generations. Moreover, poor villagers have to work hard tirelessly for decades in order to be able to own their houses. In this regard, their homes are the rewards for their dedicated work throughout their lives. It is, therefore, unsurprising that they have strong emotional attachments to their homes. While we can visualize or denote the monetary value of houses as buildings from an economic, monetary, and engineering perspectives, outsiders cannot determine the value of homes of specific people (i.e., families).
Therefore, when villages are torched by the junta soldiers, the junta destroys not just physical buildings but also homes – memories, emotions, and lifelong efforts. In a news video by Myanmar Now, we can observe and reflect on the villagers’ tragedy, hatred, and pain in their speeches over their losses of homes. One interviewee mentioned, before bursting into tears, how she had worked hard in the decades since she had been married, despite her fear of snakes and other cunning creatures, own a house, which now had been burnt down. For her and many others, arson is not just an economic loss; it is a social, emotional, and psychological tragedy. Each and everyone has their own unique stories with their families in those places called ‘homes’, which are now burnt in fire. The junta would not, and the NUG could not, provide alternative housing arrangements through resettlement plans, at least in the near future. Even if, hypothetically, they could receive new houses with equal monetary value with their ‘homes’ soon, still we could not be able to compensate for the social costs and emotional pains of such loss.
In the same Myanmar Now video, some villagers expressed their devastation on learning their valued village pagoda had been destroyed along with fire. Fire is indiscriminate in that it destroys all village infrastructure. Community places such as pagodas, churches, schools, and so on have symbolic value for the community; therefore, people also have certain emotional attachments with those places. These are the places where they grow up and do social activities with neighborhoods such as donations, ordinations of their kids, etc.—all of which have now turned into ashes. The ‘burning down’ of villages, in this regard, means the destruction of the places where people have their sense of belonging, or in other words, identities.
This essay is not intended to be a policy paper, so I do not want to load it with policy recommendations. Instead, I do have two purposes for writing this piece. First, I want to demonstrate to the readers how tragic and inhumane these ‘burning down’ operations are. They cause unbearable consequences for the affected beyond what can be quantified or understood from the outside.
Second, the stakeholders involved in the revolutionary against the military junta such as the NUG, National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC), Ethnic Revolutionary Organizations (EROs), political parties, and others should be more empathetic towards the sufferings and pain by the citizens, especially in the conflict areas. These sufferings are widespread, intense, immeasurable, horrendous, and unbearable. More than 60,000 houses have been burnt down, and the numbers are constantly rising. At present, the UN estimates more than 1.4 million people are internally displaced, and it is likely that the actual numbers could be a lot higher. It is understandable that these stakeholders are focusing on urgent matters such as revolutionary finance, building up the People’s Defense Forces, conducting foreign affairs, peace-making and confidence-building, as well as leading discussions on the political arrangements of a federal democratic union. However, political stakeholders should also take into account the immense challenges that ordinary citizens face on a daily basis, be considerate of their sacrifices and pain, and if possible, prioritize these issues in the near future. For instance, by solely focusing on the impact of arson on local populations, the urgent need for resettlement planning in the post-coup political setting is evident.
The junta’s cruelty in burning down villages is only one small aspect of the coup’s political consequences. I did not even discuss other tragedies, such as execution, rape, and the loss of family members. Even in this partial story, it is evident how the destruction of livelihoods of millions of people have been destroyed. It bears witness to the immeasurable social and psychological pain of such loss.
People have been resilient against the consequences of the coup for more than two years and will continue to do so. They are dedicated to bearing fruitful political outcomes to end the dictatorship. At the same time, we, especially the vital political stakeholders in the revolution, should acknowledge, recognize, and empathize with the extent of the sacrifices of ordinary people along with this revolution, and be considerate and people-oriented actors in this political turmoil.
Julian (pseudonym) is currently a Burmese postgraduate student at the University of Oxford. The views expressed in this article are solely the author’s own. The author thanks two anonymous reviewers and two editors from Tea Circle for their helpful feedback and edits on this essay.