On the morning of March 8, two men from villages in Yinmarbin township, Sagaing region, took their elderly parents to a monastery in Letpan Taw, a village surrounded on three sides by the Yamar River, amid concerns over the approach of the soldiers of the junta.
Both Htoo Kyaw and Htay believed the monastery would be the safest place for their loved ones while regime forces moved through the area. The army quickly proved them wrong.
As the two men and most of the other able-bodied villagers fled to safety, a column of about 150 junta troops charged into Letpan Taw after burning several other villages along the way. To ensure that their advance was not impeded, they fired in front of them with heavy artillery.
A shell fell on the monastery. Eleven people who had taken refuge inside were killed instantly. (Myanmar Now reported at the time that six people had been found dead according to reports received after the incident.)
Eight of the victims were elderly residents too weak to run. The other three were a mother and her two young sons.
“We sent them there because we didn’t imagine they would be cruel enough to shoot at a monastery,” said Htoo Kyaw, who lost his grandmother and aunt in the attack.
Htay, whose grandmother and aunt also died, was also in a state of disbelief. “It makes me feel guilty, like I contributed to their deaths,” he said.
“Everything collapsed. I can barely stand now,” said the husband of the 32-year-old woman who was killed with their two sons, aged 5 and 11.
“No time to prepare”
The military column that attacked Letpan Taw arrived in the area two days earlier. Earlier, in late February, he had attacked two other villages in the township, Chin Pone and Thapyay Aye, burning down the homes of fleeing residents.
When the troops reached Thakyar Sat and Si Hlaing, two villages on the banks of the Yamar River, on March 6, they immediately set about doing the same. As they approached Letpan Taw, they continued to burn other houses, including some where villagers were hiding.
Residents of Letpan Taw initially thought they would be spared due to the relative isolation of their village. The only way to get there is to cross the river from Aung Chan Thar, another village on the opposite bank.
“The village is almost entirely surrounded by the river, so people didn’t think the army would go there. But they did, and no one had time to prepare,” said a Letpan Taw villager who did not want to be identified.
“They fired at us with machine guns. It was like it was raining bullets. They also used heavy artillery. Everyone scattered like ants,” he added.
To escape, those still at Letpan Taw—which included people from villages already under attack—crossed the river to Kanthar and kept running until they reached the villages of Ohn Taw and by Shwe Nyaung Bin.
According to another resident, a shell landed on the dining hall of the village monastery, causing extensive damage to the roof and door. A number of bodies were also seen lying on the ground, he said.
“We couldn’t see the extent of their injuries, as they were face down. But some had been hit by shrapnel in the back of the neck,” he said.
The assault on Letpan Taw was over by 11 a.m. Worried for his grandmother and aunt, Htoo Kyaw returned to the village with three other people almost as soon as the gunfire stopped.
However, they came back too soon. As they searched for the wounded, they encountered soldiers who immediately arrested them and tied their hands behind their backs.
It was as they passed through the monastery compound that Htoo Kyaw saw the bodies of those who had been killed laid out in a row.
“They were lined up on the ground. I could easily identify my grandmother as one of them,” he said.
Htoo Kyaw and the others were then blindfolded. They stayed that way until evening, when the bodies were gone.
Next to the monastery, a house was on fire. Htoo Kyaw said he believed that was where the bodies went.
For the next three days, he and the three other residents were forced to act as porters for the soldiers as they continued through the villages of Kanthar, Thee Kone and Obo. They were released unharmed on March 11.
Meanwhile, other villagers returned to Letpan Taw on the morning of March 9 to find the charred remains of 10 people in two houses.
Only the body of a woman had not been reduced to ashes.
Five days later, a ceremony was held for the victims of the attack. Because the monks of Letpan Taw Monastery had also been forced to flee, others from a nearby village were invited to bless the deceased.
Worse to come
“We are very scared of these raids, but we were told it would only get worse, so we don’t know what to do or where to run,” Htoo Kyaw said.
What makes the situation particularly alarming for many, he added, is the fact that they now know that even monasteries are not safe.
“We used to think of monasteries as places of refuge, but now soldiers even use them as base camps. It means the only way to protect our elderly is to send them away, like to Mandalay,” he said.
A Kanthar village defense force chief said it was also becoming increasingly difficult to protect civilians when fighting back against regime forces.
“We engaged them while they were stationed at Letpan Taw and Kanthar monasteries, but we could not force them to leave as they had more men and superior firepower,” he said. -he declares.
Since the beginning of the month, the regime has stepped up its attacks in Sagaing, where it also cut internet access on March 3 as part of a campaign to crush resistance to its rule.
Although resistance forces in the region say they can still mount effective attacks using explosives, they also recognize that it will take a more concerted effort to keep pressure on the regime.
To that end, the defense department of the shadow government of national unity told Myanmar Now that it is in the process of integrating defense forces scattered across the country, with the aim of boosting their numbers.
Meanwhile, popular support for the armed resistance movement seems stronger than ever, despite the high number of civilian casualties.
A farmer from Letpan Taw said the junta’s deliberate targeting of helpless civilians only served to make the country’s would-be leaders more hated.
“The people of Myanmar are now more determined than ever to prevent the military from retaining power or returning to power,” he said.