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How do you escape the war? Three young men’s stories from Sagaing, Myanmar

‘It is Myanmar, so nowhere is safe.’

This is an illustration showing the map of Myanmar in deep purple. Overlayed on top is a target cross hair. The shadows of three people are seen walking away form the map. JC/TNH

Myanmar’s February 2021 military coup sparked a humanitarian, economic, and human rights crisis across the country. Peaceful protests soon evolved into an armed uprising, to which the military has retaliated with a scorched-earth campaign targeting not only armed combatants but also their civilian support base.

Sagaing, a formerly peaceful region in the country’s agricultural heartlands, has borne the brunt of the military’s violence. Since the coup, the region has been a hotbed of armed resistance, and the junta has retaliated with airstrikes, arson, and mass killings. Nearly half of the roughly two million people internally displaced across Myanmar since the coup are from Sagaing, according to the UN, which found that Sagaing also faces some of the country’s most acute food insecurity.

Even for those who manage to flee, there is little respite. As the military works to cut off the movement of supplies and personnel to the armed resistance, it has subjected people from Sagaing to particular scrutiny, leaving host communities afraid to associate with them and making it difficult for them to find jobs or housing.

Then last week, the junta – facing an unprecedented battlefield challenge from armed opposition forces – announced a mandatory conscription law for young men and women across the country.

The New Humanitarian spoke recently with three young men from Sagaing. All were teachers in the state school system before the coup and joined the countrywide Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) soon after. Now scattered domestically and abroad, they are still struggling to find safety and a means of survival. Due to the risks of military reprisals, they have been given pseudonyms.

This illustration shows a hand holding a piece of chalk. In the background you can see rocks over a bright yellow color.

‘I used to only hold chalk, and now I have to go up and down the mining site’ - Aung, aged 36

When the coup happened, Aung was living with his wife and two children in his native Kanbalu township and working as a middle school principal. He joined the CDM four days later and returned to his village soon after.

Within months, war was at his doorstep. “Heavy weapons were falling and homes were burning,” he said. “We had to flee into the forest and live in a tent.”  As the fighting continued to intensify, the family fled the village altogether and began staying with friends and relatives in towns across the region. In August 2022 they moved in with Aung’s in-laws.

There, they were able to escape the fighting, but Aung struggled to find work. After three months, he headed north to Hpakant, Kachin State, to try his luck in the world’s most lucrative jade mines.

It took him six days to get there. Armed clashes left him camping by the side of the road. He also had to pass through military checkpoints. “I was the only one male among the passengers, so they looked through all my belongings and inspected me in many ways, including by taking off my clothes,” he said.

When they noticed the prefix “5/”, which signifies a Sagaing native, on his National Registration Card, he faced further problems. “Because I am ‘5/’, they really checked me thoroughly for a long time,” he said.

Finally reaching Hpakant, he moved into a roadside tent with other migrants from Sagaing and began working as a yemase. The term, which translates literally to “unwashed”, refers to the muddy stones for which informal miners clamber, with the hope of claiming a share of the wealth from mines that generate billions of dollars annually.

But while the mines have lured hundreds of thousands of people over the past two decades, nearly all of the wealth has ended up in the hands of business elites with close ties to the military and armed groups, while yemase like Aung are left scavenging through waste heaps prone to deadly collapse.

The situation has become even more desperate since the coup, which not only drove a collapse in the country’s formal economy, but also in its rule of law. Migration from Sagaing has particularly increased, according to local media, which also found that these newcomers are especially vulnerable. When a mining site collapsed during the rainy season last August, the largest population among the 42 people left missing was from Sagaing.

Although Aung has managed to stay safe, he said he is barely getting by. Inexperienced at searching for jade, he only found three big rocks in his first nine months. He sold them for a million kyats ($477) in total but had to give half the profits to his boss in exchange for food and accommodation.

“It’s really difficult living like this because I used to only hold chalk, and now I have to go up and down the mining site and sometimes even run to escape landslides,” he said. “If I tried to explain all of my difficulties, there would be no end.”

Fighting has at times broken out between the military and resistance forces, leaving him hiding inside his tent until the sounds of gunfire subside. Once, he narrowly escaped being crushed when a mining company vehicle drove into his tent. Not knowing who he can trust, he also rarely leaves his mining site. “Because my ID says 5/, I don’t travel anywhere and it’s even difficult to greet people I don’t know,” he said. 

Still, he feels better off than back home, where a military airstrike in his township last April killed at least 145 people. “It is Myanmar, so nowhere is safe,” he said. “But compared with Sagaing, at least I have a place to live and food to eat.”

He also maintains his commitment to the CDM. “I’m really struggling, but I will be satisfied if I have made this sacrifice for the people. My difficulties will be worth it.”

This illustration shows a person with a backpack in a forest with very tall trees. Out of the tree trunks you see a military boot walking out of a trunk to the right and a end of a rifle coming out of another tree on the left.

‘Even when I was crossing my own country, I had to travel like a thief’ - David, aged 37

When the coup happened, David was a classroom and physical education teacher at a government high school in his native Tamu, a town on Myanmar’s western border with India. He joined the CDM three weeks later, before fleeing in March 2021 to his sister’s house in a nearby village.

David was relatively safe there for a while, until rumours started spreading that he had used his experience teaching sports to train youth for the armed resistance movement. “That fake news became a bigger issue than my joining the CDM,” he said.

In October 2021, he fled across the border into Manipur, India, where he spent the next year and a half as a day labourer on construction sites but had to stop when tensions between Manipur’s ethnic Meitis and Kukis erupted into mob violence.

“Sometimes, I had to flee the house that I had rented and hide in the forest, so it became difficult to find work,” he said. “I couldn’t even go outside much because I didn’t have any documents.”

India does not legally recognise refugees, and although the border state of Mizoram has nonetheless taken in tens of thousands of Myanmar nationals since the coup, Manipur has routinely arrested them with the encouragement of the chief minister.

The situation has only worsened amid the current conflict, as authorities attempt to deflect longstanding political grievances among the state’s warring communities and instead blame refugees from Myanmar for provoking the crisis. In August, authorities in Manipur began collecting the refugees’ biometric data, in what many feared was an attempt to further remove them from the state. “It was really scary for us as refugees,” said David. “If we didn’t participate in the biodata collection, the ward authorities came and angrily told us we weren’t allowed to stay.”

In September 2023, he decided to flee again – this time, for Malaysia. It is a route taken by tens of thousands of people from his ethnic Chin minority over the past three decades, many later resettling in third countries as refugees.

To get there, he faced an overland journey of nearly 2,000 miles with hazards at every step. Fresh clashes between the military and resistance forces at the Tamu border left him struggling to find a driver willing to take him back into Myanmar. After finally hiring a motorcycle driver, he had to pause and sleep on the roadside to avoid military checkpoints.

Reaching the town of Kalay in the Sagaing region, his options for road travel further diminished due to the conflict so he boarded a flight to Yangon instead. With money borrowed from his sister, he then hired smugglers to take him the rest of the way. “Even when I was crossing my own country, I had to travel like a thief,” he said. “Sometimes, when there was a surprise check on the road, we got out of the car and hid in the forest. There was also no food along the way, and sometimes I wasn’t even allowed to urinate.”

Nearing the Thai border, he walked for hours through the jungle, and then boarded a crowded van that drove through the night. “We couldn't say anything, and we didn’t know where they were taking us,” he said.

Finally, he did reach Kuala Lumpur, but only to face a new set of troubles. Lacking legal status, he now works as a kitchen helper just to survive. “I have to force myself to do this work because I’m in another country,” he said. “In the past, I used to ask students to do things, but now the situation has completely changed. Sometimes, I’m crying inside.”

Although he applied for protection through the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, he has so far not received any response. In the meantime, he is particularly vulnerable to arrest. Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and has deported hundreds of Myanmar nationals since the coup.

With immigration authorities frequently raiding workplaces and immigrant housing areas, David is always on alert. “I don’t feel safe at my current job because my employers told me that if there was a problem, they wouldn’t take responsibility,” he said. “I walk quickly on the way so as not to encounter any police.”

This illustration shows the silhouette of a person standing in front of a computer that is much much larger than the person. On the screen we see two dice the dice facet that faces the viewer shows skulls.

‘When I said I was from Sagaing, people wouldn’t accept me’ - Thet, aged 32

When the coup happened, Thet, a former government school teacher, was living with his parents in Sagaing region’s Taze township and working on his master’s thesis, with a plan to become a college tutor after completing his degree.

Instead, he joined the CDM and participated in street demonstrations, until the military started shooting protesters across the country. “The situation gradually deteriorated, and the youth started gathering, collecting weapons, and taking up arms,” he recalled.

Over the following months, the military scaled up its surveillance and arrests, at times abetted by local informants. In one incident, they killed four civilians in Thet’s village and burnt down homes and property, including his family’s rice mill.

By the end of the year, village raids and arson attacks had become frequent occurrences. “Soldiers were coming into the village early in the morning and at night, and we had to flee. I fled my village eight times because of soldiers coming in,” said Thet. “I didn’t have peace of mind, because they were burning houses, and we could see it from a distance… but we couldn’t do anything.”

With Thet being a young man and a member of the CDM, his parents became increasingly worried about his safety and encouraged him to flee. So when a family he knew in Tachileik, a bustling town on Myanmar’s eastern border with Thailand, offered him a place to stay, he decided to go.

He completed the 600-mile trip without incident, but couldn’t find a job when he arrived, even when responding to vacancies posted on Facebook (Meta) that called for workers in Tachileik. “When I said I was from Sagaing, people wouldn’t accept me,” he said.

And although he felt uncomfortable staying with his host family for so long, he faced the same issue when looking for a room to rent. “Wherever I went, when I said I was from Sagaing, people didn’t want to rent to me, because they knew that it could bring some problems on them to be associated with me.”

Still, he initially avoided one of the main industries in Tachileik: its online gaming businesses and casinos. Since the coup, many of these facilities have become fronts for industrial-scale scams whereby fraudulent online identities are used to lure people around the world into romantic relationships and then convince them to invest in fake cryptocurrencies.

The industry, reportedly worth billions of dollars, relies heavily on both domestic and transnational human trafficking. A UN report published last August found that around 120,000 people had been trafficked into the industry in Myanmar alone, many of them subjected to torture, beatings, and sexual violence while being forced to scam victims.

“When I was searching here and there for work, I was really worried,” said Thet. “I had heard about human trafficking and cryptocurrency scams, and I didn’t want to do that kind of work.” But after more than six months of searching for other options, desperate for an income, he finally conceded and applied for a job with an online gaming company.

Luckily for Thet, he wasn’t trafficked. His job, as a customer service agent, came through as advertised. But after a few months, he was sent to Kawthaung, a coastal city nearly 1,000 miles away on Myanmar’s southernmost point. There, he worked 12-hour shifts – sometimes all day and sometimes all night – helping customers from the Philippines to deposit and withdraw money from their gaming accounts.

Fourteen months later, he was reassigned to Tachileik, where he observed that the pattern in new workers has followed the pattern in conflict and displacement across the country.

“At first, when there was a lot of fighting in Sagaing and Magway… there were many young people from Sagaing and Magway at the worksites,” he said. “Later on, there were more crises across the country, so many people started coming here from various areas, backgrounds and communities.”

Although he is unhappy at his current job and worries constantly about his family, he knows he cannot go back. “All the shops were closed and the roads were destroyed,” he said. “It’s like a completely broken town.”

JC is the artist name for an illustrator from Myanmar’s Kayin community. Edited by Ali M. Latifi and Andrew Gully.

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