Ma Soe Soe is among tens of thousands of villagers who have fled punitive raids by the military targeting civilians in Sagaing Region’s rural areas, only to return to find their homes reduced to ashes. The 42-year-old and her four children abandoned their village in Tabayin Township in August last year, sheltering with relatives nearby as soldiers went on a rampage that left a devastated landscape in its wake.
“When I returned to my village, it was hard to find my house because it was burned to the ground. I don’t even have a pot to cook rice in anymore. Everything was destroyed,” she said.
The February 2021 coup and violent crackdown on peaceful protests sparked a nationwide uprising, with newly created People’s Defence Forces fighting and carving out strongholds in parts of Sagaing and Magway regions, areas that had not seen armed conflict for decades. But battlefield successes for the resistance have come with a steep cost on civilians.
Soe Soe’s three-room house was one of 700 allegedly destroyed in the attack on her village, part of the Tatmadaw’s strategy of ramping up pressure on civilian populations in an attempt to break widespread popular support for the PDFs.
With little money or resources to rebuild their homes, many villagers have to stay in temporary accommodations at makeshift camps, or like Soe Soe’s family, at a monastery. But thanks to the initiative of one of Myanmar’s countless humanitarian charities that pre-dated the coup, she and others now live in newly built huts made from the wood and fronds of palm trees.
The Special and Choice (S&C) charity, supported by donations, has so far built around 800 palm huts in four Sagaing townships – Shwebo, Tabayin, Ayadaw and Ye-U – and aims to complete 2,000 by the end of this year.
The rooves are made with thatched palm fronds, typically held up with wooden pillars, while the walls are made from slats of wood, or occasionally corrugated iron. Each hut costs K200,000 (US$95) and measures 27 square meters. S&C also helps build schools out of the same materials and installs solar panels in villages with no access to electricity.
“We want to help the people. We really feel sorry for them,” said Ko Soe Moe Aung, the founder of S&C, which was set up in 2019 and has some 70 volunteers. Originally called Soe Moe Aung and Friends, during the pandemic the group delivered and refilled oxygen cylinders and transported patients to COVID-19 centres and other healthcare facilities.
“Since the coup, things have gotten even worse,” he said.
Picking up the pieces
“People save for years to build their houses. We build huts for them for free to ease their pain,” Soe Moe Aung said.
Palm trees, which are cheap and easy to transport, are plentiful in the Dry Zone of central Myanmar – but so are intimidating military checkpoints.
“To get through their security gates, we have to pay K5,000, sometimes K10,000, to the soldiers. But the military hasn’t arrested any of us yet,” Soe Moe Aung said. “The PDFs usually provide security when we reach their areas of control.”
The S&C has been raising funds from local and foreign donors but said it hasn’t received any support from the National Unity Government, the parallel administration appointed by elected lawmakers deposed in the coup, or international organisations.
“We pay for our activities just with donations from ordinary people,” he explained.
Ma Hla Hla – who lives with her husband, 12-year-old daughter and 71-year-old mother in Tabayin – also saw her life turned upside down when her village was raided in October last year. Her home was burned to the ground and she claims two men from the village were killed in the attack.
“We are so furious with them. There are no words to describe their brutality,” she said of the military.
Like most people in her village, she took important documents with her when she fled, such as proof of land ownership and motorcycle registration papers. But other things were lost in the raid, like the family’s storage of rice, which they depended on for sustenance and income, and household items like their television and furniture. Objects with a sentimental value, like family photographs, were also lost forever.
Hla Hla said it was hard to know what was stolen and what was destroyed, since the soldiers looted the village and then torched everything before they left. The family of four is now living in one of S&C’s huts, painfully reflecting on the decades of memories attached to their lost home.
“We have no money to rebuild our house, so our only option is to stay in an S&C palm hut. We had accumulated over many years the things destroyed in the fire. I’m not sure we’d be able to get them back even after 20 more years,” she said. “I’m starting to believe that this happened to me because of my previous life’s karma.”
She said that she spent K300,000 to buy lightbulbs, sockets and wires to connect the new hut to the electricity grid, but said most other villagers can’t afford this, and so must make do without power.
An avalanche of need
While recipients of S&C huts were overwhelmed with gratitude, the huts are still a far cry from a proper home, and the magnitude of the population’s needs is enormous.
According to independent research group Data for Myanmar, the military and affiliated groups destroyed over 60,000 civilian houses across the country between May 2021 and March this year. Compared to S&C’s annual goal of building 2,000 huts, nearly 48,000 of those destroyed houses were in Sagaing – and more homes are torched and bombed nearly every day.
The constant bombardment leaves villagers in such a precarious position that many are afraid to even try to start again.
“I had a loom that brought in money for my children’s school fees,” Soe Soe said. “I have four children and can’t afford to send them to university or school right now. I don’t have enough money to buy a new loom. I’d be afraid to buy one even if I did have the money, because it might get burned too.”
Instead of saving money for a new home, which could get burned down again, Soe Soe is staying in the S&C hut and donating her spare income to other villagers in greater need. The hut she now lives in only has one room, compared to three in her destroyed home, and she feels sad for her children, who no longer have any privacy.
“The palm huts aren’t very comfortable, but I’m really grateful to the donors,” said U Aung Ko, 56, who lost his home and all his possessions when soldiers torched his village in Shwebo Township.
S&C wants to build more low-cost palm huts as quickly as possible but the activists fear they won’t be able to get enough palm leaves in the coming weeks to keep up with the number of houses the military is destroying. Soe Moe Aung said they were also considering using iron frames and metal roofs if they run out of palm materials, but these would be more expensive.
“Without their gift, we wouldn’t have a place to live,” said Aung Ko. “As for the military, I don’t have any words for them.”
Village names have been withheld for security reasons.