Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Longing for Home: Myanmar Exiles’ Hope Amidst the Struggle for Freedom

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Ma Yu sat there, her gaze fixed and her voice sorrowful, as if longing to go home, and she recited a traditional Inle poetry, uttering, “Shwe La Ye Tha… Wayy Dae Phoo Sar, Lah Chin Par Yae lay, Shwe La Mar_ Kyae Dway Wyine, and Maung Kyan Daing_ Mel Ma Par….”.

The communities residing around Inle Lake, one of Myanmar’s largest lakes located in Shan State, are known as In-Sa for the male locals and In-Su for the female residents.

Ma Yu recounted one of the unforgettable tragic events, her voice quivering with emotion, while gritting her teeth and speaking in her native Inle accent.

“They broke into our bedroom and searched through all our stuff. My laptop, which I have bought from the money that I saved up from many years of hard work, was also damaged. They also tortured my family members. They also threatened to shut down our house,” Ma Yu shared, gritting her teeth and speaking with a trembling voice.

Ma Yu’s house, where she was staying with her family, was raided by a group of about 40 SAC military forces on May 15, 2022.

Students and people peacefully protest against SAC
Students and people peacefully protest against SAC

Ma Yu wasn’t at home during the raid, but her family members went through a horrible experience of being tied up, beaten, and subjected to questioning by the SAC soldiers. Ma Yu described the upsetting incidents while expressing her sadness.

Ma Yu described her ordeal with sadness: “They searched for me at home but only discovered my older sister and brother-in-law, who had both been beaten by the SAC. Additionally, they beat the husband of my younger sister while binding his hands behind his back. When he saw his parents being bound, my nephew clenched his fist in fury. Tragically, the SAC members then punched him, causing him to lose his teeth.”

Ma Yu was one of the active participants in the nationwide peaceful anti-coup demonstrations. She is a single mother raising two children.

As a result of her active involvement in the protests, her home was targeted in a raid by the SAC. Fortunately, Ma Yu was able to escape. The SAC also issued a warning, summoning her to the police station for an investigation, threatening the closure of her house if she did not comply.

The SAC has been targeting people who are actively contesting their power, speaking out against it, or who have the potential to do so, frequently utilizing a variety of justifications for arrest and harassment.

Likewise, the SAC regime also keeps a close eye on the local populations in the Inle region, vigilant for any signs of potential movements or ongoing resistance against their rule.

To sustain their surveillance efforts, they engage with certain locals, offering incentives and providing military/security training. In order to continue their monitoring operations, they interact with some locals, providing incentives and military/security training. These trained individuals are expected to organize into a Pyu Saw Htee group (a loosely organized collection of villagers aligned with the military to counter insurgent or resistance movements) operating under the authority and control of the SAC regime.

“They use incentives like a sack of rice, a bottle of oil, and 1.5 lakh MMK (Myanmar Kyats) to persuade locals to take part in their military training programs. Initially, they targeted local individuals struggling with alcoholism and drug addiction. However, over time, even those who were struggling to make ends meet began to opt for these training due to the offered incentives,” Ma Yu revealed.

Since October 2022, at least 20 individuals in the Inn Paw Kone area of the Inle region have submitted their names to village leaders, to join the military training provided by the SAC, as reported by Shan Herald.

Two years following the military coup, in villages such as Ywar Kyi Htet, Inn Paw Khone, Minn Chaung Shayt, Minn Chaung Nauk, Kyay Sar Kone, Ywar Kyi Myauk, and Pa Yar Ngar Hsu, there are at least two members associated with Pyu Saw Htee in each village, according to accounts from local residents.

The current leader of Pyu Saw Htee, which operates on a nationwide scale, is Pho Thar Htoo, also known as Nyi Nyi Htun. He is recognized as the right-hand man of U Aung Kyi Win, who holds the position of the minister for Shan State Ethnic Affairs ministry appointed by the regime.

The primary role of Pyu Saw Htee is to closely monitor the activities of local residents and report any significant developments to the SAC. If they have suspicions or hold animosity toward certain individuals, they may detain them providing various reasons. Additionally, they collaborate with the Pa-O militia group in various operations, as highlighted by Ma Yu Hliang Thinn during the JMC-Inle press release on a research paper.

“They disconnected the village’s electricity supply as part of their raid operation. They meticulously prepared for the raid, including the establishment of security checkpoints along the route to my house. Initially, three police officers arrived at my residence, but they were soon joined by additional police, soldiers, and members of militia groups, all arriving on five motor boats,” Ko Aung, who chose to use a pseudonym, recounting the events of the raid on his house.

The raid on Ko Aung’s house took place on March 21, 2023. Approximately 20 armed individuals, including SAC personnel and members of militia groups, dressed in full military attire, were involved in the operation.

The reason behind the raid stemmed from the discovery of a photograph of Ko Aung alongside a member of the local People’s Defense Force (PDF). This led them to Ko Aung’s home with suspicions of his potential affiliation with the PDF.

“They came to search for me based on a photograph where I was pictured with a person who is now a member of the PDF,” Ko Aung provided additional background. “The one in the picture was a former student of mine, and the photograph was taken back in 2019. He’d now joined the local PDF. As a result, they tried to arrest me and accused me of having ties to the PDF, stated Ko Aung.

Ko Aung explained how he responded to the SAC regime’s accusation and arrest attempt.

“I told them that I wasn’t involved in anything. I showed them the pictures of me and my student, which were taken in 2019 and had specific dates on my phone. I was able to avoid getting detained because of this evidence,” Ko Aung recounted.

Members of the SAC and militia groups, fully equipped, thoroughly searched through all belongings in Ko Aung’s house, including books, cabinets, and mobile phones.

The Justice Movement for Community – Inle, a local organization formed by people from Inle, has published the results of its study. A total of 95 local inhabitants in the Inle region were interviewed for the study, focusing on safety and security-related questions such as their sense of security in the area and their freedom of movement. An alarming 89% of the respondents indicated that they do not feel secure.

The presence of checkpoints established and manned jointly by the SAC regime personnel and members of militia groups from PNO exacerbates the sense of insecurity. At these checkpoints, they inspect ID cards, mobile phones and frequently subject locals to questioning, and usually resort to extortion. Additionally, these forces employ intimidation tactics, arbitrarily confiscating people’s belongings, and engaging in theft and property damage. Because of these acts, the people of the Inle region live in a constant state of fear and uncertainty.

“Affiliated members or villagers associated with Pyu Saw Htee are causing disruptions not just in the villages but also throughout the entire Inle area. They are involved in the distribution of drugs and gambling activities, as well as engaging in extortion and taxation,” explained a local resident of Inle who wished to goes by the name Ko Taung,

In 2022, Pyu Saw Htee members, along with SAC and the police, collected taxes amounting to at least 5 lakhs (500,000) MMK on a weekly basis from various gambling establishments in the Inle area.

On one hand, Pyu Saw Htee members are going around arresting drug users, demanding money for their release. These actions, according to local communities, are not driven by an intention to address drug issues, but to extort money from local communities.

Temple at Inle Lake
Temple at Inle Lake

The communities in Inle have always been united, evident during local festivals and events like boat competitions. However, regrettably, there has been a division among local Inle residents since the coup.

“It’s disheartening to witness this division among our locals. Creating divisions is a tactic often employed by oppressive military regimes. However, it is essential for our local residents to respond to these divisive tactics with care and wisdom,” expressed Ko Aung with a heavy heart.

Ma Yu still has hope of going back to her old house when conditions in Myanmar get better. For now, she finds herself far from home, seeking refuge in a foreign land, and it’s not an easy journey, Ma Yu expressed her deep longing for her homeland.

“It’s truly challenging to live in a foreign country. We have to pay for everything, and there’s also the language barrier. If it were possible, I would want to return to my homeland and live in our own country. However, as long as the dictatorship and regime persist, we must continue our resistance movements,” Ma Yu emphasized.

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