Myanmar anti-coup resistance drags military into bloody stalemate

Dissidents have attacked and disabled cell towers belonging to a military-owned company to deprive the junta of revenue. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (AFP) - Corpses piled high next to a rice field in northern Myanmar show the bloody consequence of a hot-blooded, uncoordinated attack by villagers on battle-hardened junta troops.

Eight months after deposing Aung San Suu Kyi's government, Myanmar's military regime finds itself mired in a bloody stalemate, unable to crush fighters resisting its rule who are themselves not strong enough to topple a powerful army.

"We need to be wise with our timing and plan," a member of the local "People's Defence Force" told AFP after the September 25 clash in the small northwestern village of Gone Nyin.

Similar clashes between anti-coup militias and junta troops have escalated in recent weeks, along with bomb blasts and targeted killings of those suspected of collaborating with the regime, leading to bloody reprisals on both sides.

Local media last week reported a whole family - including a 12-year-old child - had been shot dead for allegedly helping troops during a search for protesters.

Dissidents have also attacked and disabled cell towers belonging to a military-owned company to deprive the junta of revenue.

A parallel government made up largely of lawmakers from Suu Kyi's party has also sought to fan the flames, calling for a "defensive war" against junta troops and assets.

Villagers have accused soldiers of torching their homes and massacring their neighbours in acts of vengeance directed at those resisting military rule.

Almost the entire population of the western town of Thantlang fled after troops fired artillery shells following clashes with anti-junta fighters last month, a 50-year-old resident told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Terrified inhabitants had used buckets of water to fight a blaze that started after a shell hit a house and threatened to consume others in the neighbourhood, he said.

The fire service was not working because the wife of the head of the fire department was hit by a shell fragment during the fighting, he said, with the tide turning thanks to a sudden change in the weather. "Due to the help of God, it rained that day," he said.

Many made the arduous journey across rivers and hills to cross into India for the relative safety of a refugee camp.

On the other side of the country, villagers in eastern Kayah state also fled army shelling after clashes earlier this week, according to a local anti-junta militia.

More than 1,100 civilians have been killed and some 8,000 arrested since the coup, according to local observers. The junta says the death toll is much lower and denies its troops have committed massacres and torched homes.

The military has ramped up violence to "crush dissent and prevent the resistance movement from gaining any ground" after the NUG's call to arms, Manny Maung, Myanmar researcher at Human Rights Watch told AFP.

As fighting rages, democracy icon Suu Kyi, 76, is all but absent from the scene, with contact with the outside world limited to meetings with her lawyers ahead of hearings in her trial in a junta court.

Non-violence is a core principle of Suu Kyi's and was a defining characteristic of the democracy movement she led against a previous junta decades ago.

But many in Myanmar now believe violent tactics are the only way to root out military dominance of the country's politics and economy.

"Much of the population is determined to prevent a return to military rule, at the cost of their lives if necessary," said Richard Horsey of the International Crisis Group. "The stage is set for an extended violent stalemate."

For those caught in Sagaing, which has seen some of the most intense recent clashes, there is no end in sight.

Farmers "cannot grow food on their farms," a Buddhist monk from Kani village, upstream from Gone Nyin, told AFP.

"They have to run and hide often," said the monk, who wished to remain anonymous. "They are exhausted. But they do not like the army."

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