Myanmar one year after the coup: minority militias against the junta

Status: 02/01/2022 05:25 a.m

A year after the military coup in Myanmar, more and more young men are taking up arms: in the jungle, they are training with militias from ethnic minorities – to fight against the army.

By Lena Bodewein and Holger Senzel, ARD Studio Singapore

“What are you doing here?” a man in a camouflage uniform calls out to the young men in the forest clearing deep in the jungle in a border region of Myanmar. “We’re fighting for our homeland,” they shout in unison, then they start marching: soldiers of the “People’s Defense Force” (PDF), the so-called People’s Defense Forces. Because peaceful protest against the army’s assault rifles does little, more and more young men from the civilian resistance are taking up arms. Together with militias from the ethnic minorities, they train to fight against the army. Often with weapons from the Second World War or home-made hand grenades – each recruit is allowed to fire three cartridges during shooting practice, because ammunition is scarce. PDF fighters ambush army posts or ammunition transporters, engage regular troops in bloody battles. Their underground radio proudly announces the number of soldiers killed.

Radio NUG broadcasts twice a day on medium wave, warning of army attacks or giving tips on how to avoid Internet blocks. Calls for soldiers to defect, offers government officials leadership positions if they join the resistance. NUG stands for “National Unity Government”: Ministers and members of the formerly democratically elected parliament who fled the army after the coup and are now coordinating the resistance against the junta from a hidden location. “National unity” also includes the ethnic minorities, 135 of whom live mainly in the country’s border regions – Kachin, Chin, Karen, Shan, Hmong. They all maintain armed guerrilla forces. They used to do their own thing, but now they have settled their conflicts and are fighting the army together.

Weapons that are decades old or home-made weapons, only three shots per fighter for practice: the “People’s Defense Force” wants to fight against Myanmar’s army.

Image: AFP

Popularity for NUG among the population

Once the junta is no longer in power, the NUG wants to do everything right. More correct than the previously elected government. With the NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, it has primarily involved the urban population, the central regions and, above all, the majority of the Bamar population. The ethnic minorities, some of whom have been rebelling for decades and are waging an armed struggle for more independence, have never been a part of it. Now hatred of the junta has united them all: The armed organizations of the ethnic minorities are between 80,000 and 90,000 men and women strong, estimates Aung Zaw, publisher of Irrawaddy, an independent news website. Twelve ethnic armies are spread across Myanmar, he told an online panel discussion last Friday, and now they are working with the PDF’s People’s Defense Forces — and many parts of them have great military capabilities, Aung Zaw says.

So far, the ethnic groups have mainly been found in the country’s peripheral regions, but in cooperation with the PDF, more and more fighters are now going to the so-called Dry Area in central Myanmar, where the majority belong to the Bamar. They are people who left for the border regions to receive weapon training and have now come back to fight there, says a journalist who wishes to remain anonymous. The civilian population in villages and towns is donating what they can, she says – because they all want this fight against the Tatmadaw to be victorious.

The militias around the “People’s Defense Force” have set up camp in the jungle.

Image: AP

The Military: A State within a State

Tatmadaw is the name of the armed forces in Myanmar. To this day they maintain a veritable myth: the Tatmadaw brought independence to the country, guarantee national unity in the country torn apart by ethnic conflicts, and shake hands with the people to protect democracy. This is what General Min Aung Hlaing said in all seriousness as his soldiers fired on peaceful protesters on the streets of Myanmar.

The Tatmadaw is a state within a state – with its own schools and hospitals, isolated from the population. An army that has never fought against an external threat, but has only ever fought the enemy within, i.e. its own people. Almost the entire economy, trading companies, factories, banks, is in the hands of the military. In the jade trade, for example, this turns senior officers into millionaires, while ordinary soldiers are badly treated and badly paid.

General Min Aung Hlaing took power in Myanmar a year ago. Since then, the army has been firing at demonstrators from its own people.

Image: AP

More and more soldiers have deserted since the violence escalated, says Thinzar Shunlei Yi of People’s Soldiers, an organization that supports fugitive soldiers. So far, her organization has helped 8,000 people: “It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s the highest number in the history of Myanmar that so many soldiers have left the military installations with their strict conditions,” she says. “They don’t want to kill their own people. And they don’t think it’s right that the military used excuses as a reason for the coup. Like the election fraud by Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party – they don’t believe in that.”

Deserters talk about their reasons

Soldiers are now only allowed to leave the barracks in groups, and the army keeps some of the men’s pay because it is difficult to flee without money. This shows that the growing number of deserters is seen as a serious problem – even if many are still afraid to flee because they fear the army’s revenge on their families, believes Nyi Thuta, himself a former army captain and co-founder of ” People’s Soldiers”. Many deserters join the armed resistance, others no longer want to pick up a weapon and simply go into hiding.

In a weekly People’s Soldiers talk show, hosted by activist Shunlei, former soldiers talk about their way out of the army. “One of the soldiers said he doesn’t know if the NLD is 100 percent perfect, but he’s very sure the military is bad,” she says. “He himself had to force people to vote for a certain party in elections, nothing was free or fair in the military. And when the military justified the coup with electoral fraud, he felt betrayed. As if nothing he served for was true has.” Most of those who talk about their desertion on the show are concerned with preserving their dignity.

A 47-year-old man who used to work for an NGO has now joined the PDF. He doesn’t want to be recognized.

Image: AP

Shunlei herself grew up as the daughter of a high-ranking military man. She knows how strict and committed the Tatmadaw is and wants to build a bridge between the two sides: there used to be pride in being a soldier, and young people felt drawn to the uniform. Today they want to take off the uniform. People are at the center of the revolution, not the government, the military or any armed group, she says: “It’s about doing the right thing, not some illusion or some plan that the military dictates. For the first time in our history, we’re designing ourselves the plan for our future. It will take time, but we are patient, we are ambitious and we are brave. We will do it.”

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