“We don’t have guns. But I have a knife,” says Daw Ai Thon. “If they tried to rape us, I would like to use it.”
In the five months since the signing of a so-called nationwide ceasefire agreement that excluded a number of key ethnic armed groups, fighting between the Myanmar military and non-state armies in northern Shan has increased dramatically. Thousands of civilians have fled their villages after coming under attack, many afraid of being used as porters or guides by the armed forces. They have sought shelter in IDP camps or with friends and relatives.
But in one Ta’ang village in the remote hills of Kutkai, not everyone has left. A few brave people have stayed behind. They are all women – determined to do whatever is in their power to guard their homes and property from Tatmadaw marauding.
The Myanmar Times travelled to Ngot Ngar village, in the hills above Nant Phat Kar town, to meet them and find out why they decided to stay behind when everyone else had fled.
Daw O Khe is in her late 50s with strong features and a steady gaze. Her home is a sprawling single room, dark and cool, lit by shafts of light that filter through the wooden walls, with a cooking fire smouldering in an ashy pile in the corner.
She sits by a large pile of rice sacks. There are similar piles all around the house, but they are not all hers. She is guarding the rice of all the villagers. At night she and another 11 women all sleep in her house, protecting each other – and the rice – from possible Tatmadaw assault.
By day, while the other women tend their farms, she stands guard alone. “I am a leader. When I told them it was best that they stayed they accepted that,” she says of her fellow guardians, who are mostly in their 30s and 40s.
“If we weren’t here and the Tatmadaw came they might burn the houses, and steal things. They already stole all the solar panels. They can’t do that if we are here.”
All the women, she says, carry knives, but they know that they are no match for Tatmadaw guns.
“If the Tatmadaw want to do something it will be hard for us to stop them. But if they come, I will swear at them,” she adds. “Because we are together they won’t be able to do much.”
Ngot Ngar village, home to 176 households and around 800 people, is no stranger to fighting. But an incident in early March marked the tipping point of fear for most of the community.
“Before when they used to fire on the village we had hiding places and we would run there and wait and then come back when it was over,” says U Aik Yee, 30.
“But on February 19 and 20 they used big weapons. We had to move to the jungle and wait more than a week,” he says, showing bombed roofs and bullet holes in houses. He points to a dent in the cement where a mortar landed but did not explode, just inches from the wall of his house. He was on the other side when it hit the ground.
U Aik Yee is back for the first time since he and his family fled. He volunteered to take us up the mountain on his motorbike via a steep, churned-up back road after a woman who had made a trip to the market assured him it was free from Tatmadaw presence that day. He will return to the IDP camp before it gets dark, though.
An emaciated kitten wanders up to him mewing. “My cat,” he says sadly. “I had to leave it behind too.”
After hiding out in the jungle following that assault the villagers eventually returned home, but on March 4 the Tatmadaw sent notice they wanted the men to attend a meeting in the centre of the village, assuring them they had nothing to worry about, says U Aung Myat, chair of the Kutkai Ta’ang Literature and Culture Organisation.
But when the villagers arrived, the Tatmadaw detained 14 of the youngest and strongest men and took them into the jungle. It is a practice that has occurred elsewhere in the region recently.
Last month The Myanmar Times reported that in less than two weeks as many as 100 people had been detained in similar ruses across a number of villages in northern Shan.
“When [they took away the men] we knew we couldn’t stay any longer. It was too dangerous,” says U Aik Yee.
In the end, 10 detainees managed to escape when the Tatmadaw troops that took them came under attack from the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA). They fled into the jungle. “When the firing started, we all ran,” recounts 22-year-old Ai Sak, who is now living in Nant Phat Kar IDP camp.
According to U Aung Myat, the four remaining captives are being held in Kutkai, accused of being involved with the TNLA. “If they are not TNLA they should let them go, but they have not,” he says.
This fear of men being captured by the Tatmadaw and forced to be guides, porters or worse frightened the villagers even more than the bombing, they say.
“They are worse to the men than the women. My husband did not dare to stay. I said to my husband you must go, but I will stay,” recalls Daw O Khe.
“She is very brave,” says U Aik Yee.
But the women see it as a matter of necessity. “We have no choice. We have to stay,” says Daw O Khe, “We have to be brave because everyone has to go to the IDP camps, and if we do not stay we will lose everything.”
It is the longest she has been parted from her husband. “It is lonely, not having anyone here for support,” she says. “And it is hard for the younger women who are apart from their husbands.”
Despite 12 of them being crammed into a small house, she laughs when asked if they have arguments about housework or daily life. “Not at all. We are all from the same village. We are all good friends. If one of us has to go the toilet in the dark, one of the others will always go with her.”
In an adjoining village, Daw Ai Thon, 48, shares a house with four other women guardians. She does not see herself as brave either, but her rice and her house are all she has.
“Mainly we guard the rice, our houses and other people’s houses too. If the Tatmadaw come and we are not here I am scared they will burn our rice and houses.”
“I don’t think Ta’ang women are braver than men. I feel so scared living here while my husband is away, but I have to look after my house. I do not know what we will do to defend ourselves if the Tatmadaw come again, but one or two of us speak Myanmar. So we will plead with them and tell them we have nothing to do with the TNLA.”
The women are well aware though of the Tatmadaw’s reputation of using rape as a weapon of war.
“Yes, we do have fear of that, but we’re living together so it should not happen,” says Daw Ai Thon. She has her knife ready in case.
When the topic of rape is raised with Daw O Khe she looks uncomfortable and less than assured for the only time in the interview.
“We are frightened of this, but we are together. It just can’t happen,” she says, her words more confident than she appears.
She worries for the future, but again plans action. “These two months are so important. We have to plant our rice and harvest tea. If we can’t work now, what about next year? What will we eat? When we think about the future our heads are so confused and tired.”
But she is not prepared to give up.
“We have a plan to protest. To talk to the head minister for the peace process and to the ward and township administrators and ask for peace. If there is no peace we will protest.”
Women have been conspicuously excluded from Myanmar’s peace negotiations, but Daw O Khe says she wants to be involved. “I’d like to work for peace negotiations and to present [my ideas] to the authorities. I will dare to speak out if I get the chance.”