Analysis: Myanmar turmoil deepens as clashes spread

·4 min read
Displaced people flee violence at the town of Depayin in Myanmar's Sagaing region

(Reuters) - The farming town of Depayin joined Myanmar's list of shattered communities when the army moved in to crush a local anti-junta militia armed with makeshift weapons.

When army trucks arrived at Depayin around dawn last Friday, local youths assembled to fight back but were quickly overwhelmed, six residents told Reuters by telephone. Dozens of people were killed afterwards by the soldiers and thousands have since fled with whatever they could carry, the residents said.

The state-run Global New Light of Myanmar said "armed terrorists" had ambushed security forces, killing one and wounding six. It said the attackers retreated after retaliation.

Local medics said 41 bodies had been found. The People's Defence Force (PDF) said it had lost 26 of its members, but it pledged to keep fighting the army, known as the Tatmadaw.

Reuters could not independently confirm these figures.

Pictures posted on social media showed at least 10 dead bodies, some lying in fields outside Depayin. Residents told Reuters these pictures were taken there.

"We have only spirit. No weapons, no proper skills to fight in a battle," said one 58-year-old Depayin resident who gave his name only as Tun as he feared being identified.

A spokesman for Myanmar's military authorities did not answer calls requesting comment. The army says that it has only used proportionate force against threats to state security.

Local officials and police declined to comment when contacted by telephone.

Five months after the military ousted elected civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Depayin's descent into bloodshed echoed that in other towns where conflicts have flared anew in a country that already had some two dozen ethnic armed groups.

Battles have been waged everywhere from the hilly borderlands to urban Mandalay, with almost daily bombings in the business hub of Yangon and dozens of killings of pro-military officials. More than 230,000 people have fled their homes.

Despite stifling the biggest street protests, the army has been unable to impose control. But its opponents are also ill-equipped and disorganised, they acknowledge themselves, a view echoed by security analysts.

"REVOLUTION"

Amid bean and rice fields bordered with toddy palms, Depayin lies in the heartland of the predominantly Buddhist ethnic Bamar majority - the core of the army as well of support for Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD).

After the Feb. 1 coup that ended Myanmar's tentative transition to democracy, Depayin youths began regular protests and set up an anti-junta People's Defence Force armed with a few flintlock rifles, some airguns and catapults, residents said.

"The youth in our area are active in the revolution," said San Myo Lwin, 30, a local activist now working in South Korea.

Two daughters of a junta-appointed village administrator were stabbed to death in mid-June - among at least 57 people killed for alleged links to the military, according to a Reuters count. Nobody claimed the killings. Local police declined to comment.

On Friday, resistance in Depayin fell quickly as the youths retreated to a monastery and came under fire from rocket-propelled grenades, residents said.

Local medics said 41 bodies had been found. The PDF said it had lost 26 of its members.

State media has pointed to the scale of the turmoil across Myanmar with regular reports of localised clashes and the arrest of opponents of the military authorities.

In late June, armoured vehicles were deployed to quell an outbreak of fighting in Mandalay, Myanmar's second biggest city.

Bombings have also increased in frequency - particularly in Yangon, the former capital and still the business centre. Across Myanmar, at least 12 such attacks have already taken place in July, according to a Reuters count. No group has claimed responsibility.

"Things risk slipping into a pattern of garrisoning with forays into the hinterland to deal with rebellious villagers rather than governing," said Anthony Davis, a security analyst with British-based Jane’s intelligence company.

The army does not give casualty numbers, but verified images shared on social media of soldiers killed in battle have made clear it is also suffering losses. An army spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.

There are also signs of the insurgents getting better equipment.

The army said it had seized 100 firearms last month and that those arrested with them had confessed to getting weapons and training from the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). The KIA did not respond to requests for comment.

The army has also accused two other ethnic armed groups of training its opponents. The factions have not responded.

Myanmar also has long borders with India, Thailand and China across which weapons were smuggled during previous spells of conflict.

A Myanmar army spokesman did not answer calls seeking comment on the arming of its opponents. Reuters was also unable to reach members of the People's Defence Forces for comment.

"Both sides are facing losses and casualties, both sides are failing. The question is which one can endure longest," said Khin Zaw Win, the director of the Tampadipa Institute policy think tank in Yangon.

(Reporting by Reuters staff; Writing by Matthew Tostevin; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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