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Radio Free Asia: Junta Forces Launch Offensive on Villages Along Historic Myanmar Railway

Junta troops sent to repair part of a colonial British-era railway in northern Myanmar’s Sagaing region have burned down some 800 houses in two townships since mid-August, forcing around 10,000 people to flee for their safety, residents and local armed groups say.

The north-south railway, which covers the 550-kilometer (340-mile) distance between Mandalay and Myitkyina in the north, could become a key strategic transport route linking two major cities in infrastructure-poor Myanmar.

The railway was built in 1896 by the Burma Railway Company under British rule. It served as the only public commuting option for those traveling between northern and central Myanmar for decades.

But since the military’s February 2021 coup d’etat, the tracks run through townships that have seen some of the fiercest fighting between the junta and armed resistance groups.

In mid-August a team of some 100 workers began repairs on the line in Sagaing city’s Ywar Htaung station, accompanied by around 200 troops, residents told RFA Burmese.

About 200 junta troops and 100 railway workers form the team that is repairing the tracks from Mandalay to Myitkyina. Credit: MRTV

As the team worked, the military escort began attacking villages along the tracks, said a person assisting victims of conflict in the eastern regions of Sagaing and Wetlet townships who, like others interviewed for this report, spoke on condition of anonymity citing fear of reprisal.

“Five people were killed in [Sagaing township’s] Kyun U Taw village … and in Wetlet, two residents of Nyaung Pin Gyi Taw village were killed,” the aid worker said. “Almost the entire village of Htan Gyi was destroyed – only 50 out of more than 400 houses are left … Nearly the entire village of Thone Sint Kan was also destroyed.”

And earlier this month, two railway workers were killed and two others lost their legs when they detonated a mine while repairing the track.

Attacking villages

The aid worker said that junta forces have been arresting civilians in Sagaing township and firing artillery shells at villages, wounding residents. Around 10,000 people have fled for safety in anticipation of the marauding troops, he said.

In total, troops have set fire to four villages each in Sagaing and Wetlet townships over the past two months, residents said.

“The junta troops are providing security for the train track repair team in Wetlet,” said a resident of the township. “The column has raided [the villages] along the railway tracks and now they are stationed in Thone Sint Kan, Thar Laing, Wet Lu Aing and Pauk Kan Bu Tar villages to provide security for running trains to repair the tracks … Many locals have fled.”

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The Mandalay-Myitkyina railroad is more than 340 miles long. Credit: MRTV

Anti-junta People’s Defense Force, or PDF, paramilitary groups have responded by destroying segments of the line, said Bo Ye Gaung, a fighter with the PDF in nearby Shwebo township.

“In the beginning, they carried out clearance operations up to the Wetlet area,” he said. “After that, they went around the villages near the railroad and burned and destroyed them.”

In any case, Bo Ye Gaung said, the junta will not be able to link Shwebo township to Myitkyina, in Kachin state, by railway because the terrain is too difficult to defend against attack.

Repairs ‘impossible’ amid PDF attacks

A leader of the Kyung Hla-Kanbalu activist group told RFA that the junta’s clearance operations are aimed at establishing control of three key supply routes between Mandalay and Myitkyina – a highway, a railway and a waterway along the Irrawaddy River.

“As far as we can guess, when transporting to the upper part [of Myanmar], they want to use the Mandalay-Myitkyina Road,” said the activist, who also declined to be named. “When they can’t use this strategic route by land, they have to use a waterway … But for when this route is inaccessible, we assume they are looking for another supporting route.”

Attempts by RFA to contact the junta’s spokespersons in Sagaing region and Kachin state for comment on the railway repairs went unanswered Thursday.

However, a regional railway official agreed with the assessment by the PDF’s Bo Ye Gaung, saying that even if the route between Mandalay and Myitkyina was repaired, it would be “impossible” to maintain due to regular attacks by the armed resistance using drones and remote-controlled mines.

Translated by Htin Aung Kyaw. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.

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