This aerial photo shows protesters marching on a road during a demonstration against the military coup in Shwebo in Myanmar's Sagaing Region on 13 February, 2021. (Photo: STR / AFP)

This aerial photo shows protesters marching on a road during a demonstration against the military coup in Shwebo in Myanmar's Sagaing Region on 13 February, 2021. (Photo: STR / AFP)

Myanmar’s Dry Zone: The History of a Tinderbox

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The Dry Zone has traditionally not suffered violence at the hands of the Myanmar military. But decades of mismanagement and strained living conditions have fueled anti-junta resistance in the military’s Buddhist-Bamar heartland.

The civil wars unleashed in the wake of the 1 February coup by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing have put the Myanmar military in the unenviable position of fighting along at least four remote fronts in areas controlled by ethnic armed organisations. For the first time in more than 40 years, however, the military is losing its struggle against guerilla fighters in its very heartland, the area in and around the Dry Zone in the Mandalay, Magway, and Sagaing regions.

As elsewhere in the country, protests against the coup erupted in the Dry Zone after the coup, and in some Dry Zone villages, have continued every day since. Local defence forces were formed as early as March in this region to protect communities from the military’s disproportionately brutal crackdowns. Numbering in the hundreds, these local forces have received explosives and training from seasoned ethnic armed groups and have exacted an unknown number of military casualties. Four local defence forces in the Dry Zone reportedly have crafted makeshift anti-aircraft weapons out of the MyTel (a mobile phone company partially owned by the military) towers they destroyed. Since May, the military has hit back hard, deploying artillery, heavy weapons, armoured vehicles, and – since December – two dozen air strikes. More than 750 civilians have died since last April in the three central regions: Mandalay, Magway, and Sagaing. These regions are home to 20 per cent of the national population, but according to data shared by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, the region accounts for more than half of the civilian deaths since the coup.

The contrast between present and past is stark. In the Buddhist-Bamar majority Dry Zone, residents had not suffered the inhumane counterinsurgency campaigns of the military in at least 4-5 decades. Nor have sit-tat soldiers met violent deaths therein. But the actual situation was far from idyllic: the military put the area under an abusive occupation and considered the area successfully pacified. Located between the Irrawaddy and Chindwin basins, the Dry Zone is bounded in the west by the Rakhine Yoma mountain range, which breaks up the annual monsoon and creates a rain shadow in the lowlands to the east, where there is much less rain than elsewhere in the country.

As a testament to the military’s complacency, garrisoned troops have since 1988 preyed upon the Dry Zone’s almost mythically renowned small farmers. The farmers were ordered off their land by local or regional commanders and their family plots handed to mostly Yangon-based cronies, Thai or Chinese timber exporters and mineral miners. Heartland farmers endured forced cropping policies from 1992 and subsequent failed agri-business experiments, like orders to raise jatropha curcas as a biofuel to reduce national dependence on diesel imports.

After 1988, the Dry Zone, like other parts of the country, also suffered from the reckless resource extraction of the pre-2011 juntas. The area nonetheless still retains valuable underground resources. In Sagaing Region, substantial deposits of copper have led to major investments by Chinese companies and junta-related firms. The Chinese extraction methods led to serious environmental and social consequences. A small portion of Myanmar’s global rare earth monopoly on dysprosium is located in the region. And unlicensed Chinese gold miners have spent the last six years operating in various Dry Zone areas with impunity, poisoning drinking and irrigation water and providing no employment.

Myanmar’s conventional army is ill-equipped to fight the highly cellularised and widespread guerrilla groups in its own heartland. If history is any guide, local resistance will prevail in the Dry Zone, whereas unity around anything but the definition of the enemy will remain out of Myanmar’s grasp.

The Dry Zone matters in the hearts and minds of the soldiers and the broader Buddhist-Bamar majority population. All were educated on Buddhism’s centrality birthing the last Burmese dynasty, before the British robbed the territory of its independence and installed a secular colonial state now blamed for many things, but above all the harm it caused the faith. Aung Zeya (later self-declared ‘Alaungpaya’ or ‘the Victorious’) hailed from the Dry Zone village of Moksobo in Shwebo. He established the 1754-1885 Konbaung kingdom, centered in and around Mandalay. Before the British takeover in three 19th century wars, Konbaung monarchs re-elevated the Buddhist sangha to privileged status and major landownership. Today, some of Myanmar’s most powerful monks, such a Sitagu Sayadaw, run highly profitable, influential religious-economic-industrial-transport-social networks in the Dry Zone. According to government data, this area is home to 84,000 monks as well as the nation’s largest teaching monasteries. Many monks are probably apolitical, but the junta lacks any insurance that they will not radicalise in the face of such suffering.

Given the centrality of the Dry Zone in Myanmar’s founding history, it is no wonder that the depredations that it has suffered would lead to resentment against the military. The region has endured decades of forced labor and nonexistent public services like health care and education. Extreme poverty throughout all iterations of military rule has led some families to enlist their sons to fill out the ranks of the military.

Households here have gradually come apart over the last 30 years, as prior juntas have confiscated land and mounted unscientific (and failed) experiments in agriculture and forestry. This heartland now has pockets of townships that look like moonscapes as a result of thoroughly unregulated copper and gold mining in places such as Letpadaung and Salingyi. By the late 1990s, as moneylenders’ interest rates skyrocketed, the region suffered an almost complete destruction of the social fabric. Small-holder households had little choice but to send all of their young — from 14-35 years of age — away to look for work in Yangon, Mandalay or abroad. The mythical image of post-colonial Myanmar, as a nation at its heart made up of 60,000 or more self-sustaining, calm Buddhist villages, stands in stark contrast to the Dry Zone of the last thirty years, when all families grew dependent on remittances to pay for water pumps, diesel, rice seeds, food, tuition for the younger kids and medical care for the elderly.

Myanmar’s conventional army is ill-equipped to fight the highly cellularised and widespread guerrilla groups in its own heartland. If history is any guide, local resistance will prevail in the Dry Zone, whereas unity around anything but the definition of the enemy will remain out of Myanmar’s grasp. In Myanmar’s Spring Revolution, the armed groups in the Dry Zone may prove to be the game changer in a decades-old struggle between a militarised state and a deeply aggrieved society. However, a defeat of the military is just the first step in righting the wrongs of history. To date, little in the way of vision has been offered as to how to unravel decades of rage, sorrow, penury and deprivation.



Editor’s Note: This analysis is the first in a series, examining patterns of resistance to the State Administration Council regime in various townships of Myanmar’s Dry Zone. Over the next few months, the author will explore the many variations on Dry Zone villages and towns, looking at the diverse histories of grievance and oppression, as well as how communities have responded differently based on available (or unavailable) social capital, resources and leadership.

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