The Yaw Valley, one of the most remote and bucolic areas in Myanmar’s Buddhist heartland, has seen fierce skirmishes between the military and local resistance forces. The junta sees the area as strategic as it sits on the road to the military’s headquarters at Kalay airport.
Since May, one of the most remote, bucolic and peaceful areas in Myanmar’s Buddhist heartland has turned into a war zone. This area is the northern-most part of the Magway Region, a tiny tendril west of Mandalay and Sagaing. It is cut off by the Pondaung Mountains, with the Chin mountains on the west.
Some call the area the ‘Yaw Valley’. Bureaucrats call it the Gangaw District. It comprises the Saw and Htilin townships and the Kyaukthu sub-township. The area is inhabited by an estimated 250,000 people as of 2019. This valley is known widely for the witchcraft practiced by women of the area. Its self-identifying ‘Yaw’ inhabitants believe they have a unique language and culture, though all government documents list them as part of the 98 per cent ‘Bamar’ population of the district.
There has been a consistent pattern of death and destruction in the area since skirmishes between the military and local resistance forces broke out after the 1 February 2021 coup. Since 1990, this region has always overwhelmingly voted for the National League for Democracy whenever there was an option to do so. But it was never home to dissident movements, whether large or small. Anti-coup protests began in early February 2021. Groups of students, farmers, daily labourers, small business people and members of the Civil Disobedience Movement formed a series of overlapping strike committees and networks. They included almost the entire health service, some police and administrators.
By March, local communities gave rise to defence forces under a variety of names, with younger members quickly taking the lead to leverage all available technology and local resources to prepare for war. They built far-reaching mesh networks alongside dozens of Signal chat groups. By May, they set about harassing the military, but in June and July Covid-19 hit the valley. Resisters turned to saving the lives of infected grandparents, parents and the unknown numbers of those taken down by the virus. By September, however, the war was on again. People’s Defence Force (PDF) resistance groups were on the move, with help from a couple dozen more PDFs from nearby townships and from Chin State.
Around the middle of 2021, when local anti-coup guerillas began to hit government and army contacts in the Yaw Valley, Gangaw district became unexpectedly prominent in the sit-tat’s (Myanmar military’s) tactical and strategic thinking. This was largely because of Gangaw’s location as a transit point for troops and trucks to get to the military’s strategic headquarters in Kalay. From Kalay, the Northwestern Command located in Monywa intended to pacify the entire northwest. The road had long been plied by overloaded trucks full of Dry Zone crops headed for the Indian border, and back with imports.
A key road connects Mandalay, to Monywa, Pale, Gangaw and Kalay. In Gangaw, the road takes a 90-degree turn to begin the 83-mile (134 km) route to Kalay. The military uses the road to move troops, ammunition, and heavy artillery. The final 20 miles or so of the road is mostly a dirt track, with a few local stretches here and there interspersed with patches of gravel. The slower the convoys go, the more open they are to attack by what are now as many as two dozen PDFs mining and attacking the Gangaw-Kalay route. As it becomes unpassable during the annual rains from May to September, the sit-tat is adamant in regaining control of the strategic artery. Additionally, a north-south road in the southern half of Saw runs to the crossroads at Gangaw.
Although small PDFs were active against the military and government here as early as April 2021, the military’s deployment of disproportionately deadly violence in this once-placid valley did not begin until May. The PDFs would lay mines on the key Pale-Gangaw-Kalay road at night, or set explosives to go off where troops were camped. For trucks that made it through, hundreds of one-shot htumee (a traditional one-shot rifle) former hunters hidden in the scrub would shoot soldiers jumping out of burning trucks. Elsewhere in the valley, other PDFs lobbed mostly homemade explosives at the 368th Artillery Base that takes up the southern half of Saw, and at police and General Administration Department offices. In response, the sit-tat deployed artillery units and hundreds of soldiers, hunting PDF members, burning structures and shooting fleeing civilians.
On September 9-10, a military operation saw many deaths in the villages of Myin-Thar, Mway Lay and Yay Shin in Gangaw. At least 24 civilian deaths were reported. Hundreds fled into hiding. The infirm and elderly who could not flee were later found dead in the charred remains of their homes. They were tied to their chairs, either shot or burned to death. The episode was covered widely by the media, and shocked many people in Myanmar.
Around the middle of 2021, when local anti-coup guerillas began to hit government and army contacts in the Yaw Valley, Gangaw district became unexpectedly prominent in the sit-tat’s (Myanmar military’s) tactical and strategic thinking.
The assaults constituted an attempt by the sit-tat to terrorise residents of the Yaw Valley, but here again, the tacticians miscalculated. New PDFs sprang up and existing ones found themselves inundated with fresh support and new recruits. Resistance forces regularly stole out after the 8pm curfew to lay Improvised Explosive Devices on the two main roads. By December, their toolkits had expanded: assassinations, homemade rocket-propelled grenade launchers and homemade bombs. The bombs were dropped from drones and htumee riflemen killed troops as they dropped from Air Force helicopters.
In December, the military become more adamant to exert control on the Dry Zone (the Mandalay-Magway-Sagaing regions). It concentrated army, air force and even navy (riverine) assets on elements opposed to its pacification of the northwest. Some villages in the Yaw Valley were among the hardest hit. Hnan Khar was damaged so much that its residents could no longer recognise what or even where the village once was. After weeks of research, the author (and her local partners) could not even estimate the number of civilian casualties. Many of the villagers had fled to forests on the nearby hills which had already been cleared by cronies linked to the regime. Others continued onwards to towns or cities where they have relatives.
The ensuing conflict between the sit-tat and local resistance forces in the Yaw Valley has seen least 200 soldiers killed by PDF guerrillas. The Pale-Gangaw-Kalay Road is no safer for the sit-tat than it was before the December offensive began, while hapless villages along that road have been shelled over and over again. There appears to be no end to the violence in sight. As recently as 28 February, at least 7 were killed in a 100-soldier offensive in three villages in northern Gangaw.
Editor’s Note: This analysis is the second in a series, examining patterns of resistance to the State Administration Council regime in various townships of Myanmar’s Dry Zone.
Mary Callahan is an associate professor at the University of Washington.