“Our only option”: Burmese civilians take up arms for democracy | Conflict News

In the weeks following the February 1 military coup, Andrew joined millions across Myanmar in a peaceful protest for a return to civilian rule.

Less than two months later, the 27-year-old was practicing killing soldiers with a wooden hunting rifle in the jungle of his home state of Kayah, on Myanmar’s southeastern border with Thailand.

“Before the coup, I couldn’t even kill an animal,” said Andrew, who, like other resistance fighters interviewed by Al Jazeera, preferred that his name not be disclosed for security reasons. “When I saw the army killing civilians, I felt really sad and confused… I thought to myself that I was fighting for the people against evil military dictators. “

Andrew is among a growing number of civilians across the country, many of them young, who have taken up arms to bring down an army that has killed more than 860 people, mostly in protests against the coup, arrested over 6,000 and used tactics including torture and enforced disappearances since taking power in the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Members of the Chinland Defense Force (CDF) armed group inspect weapons on a Burmese army vehicle after ambushing a convoy in Chin State, western Myanmar [File: Chin World via AFP]

Some of the fighters enlisted in ethnic armed organizations in the border regions of the country, where ethnic minorities have fought for decades against the Burmese army, the Tatmadaw, for self-determination and rights. Others, like Andrew, have joined one of the dozens of civil defense forces that have sprung up in towns and villages since the end of March.

But while the armed ethnic groups have had years to develop their resources and capabilities, the civilian defense forces are mostly armed with single shot shotguns and other homemade weapons, and many combatants have failed. followed only a few weeks of combat training.

Faced with an army that has amassed more than $ 2 billion in arms and has 70 years of experience in suppressing civilian populations, the New Revolutionaries told Al Jazeera they were ready to test the odds because ‘they felt that armed resistance was the only option left to bring down the regime.

“We have led nationwide protests and launched a civil disobedience movement against the military in hopes of restoring civil democracy, but these methods alone have not worked,” said Neino, a former professor. of university which now heads the political arm of a civil resistance. in Chin State and neighboring Sagaing region. “We have done everything we can, and taking up arms is the only way to win this,” she added.

Salai Vakok, a 23-year-old community development worker turned resistant, also in Chin state, began collecting shotguns in his home commune of Mindat shortly after the Tatmadaw began shooting protesters in mid-February.

“We used to hope that people from outside the country would fight for us, but that never happened,” he said.

“I never thought in my life that I would hold a gun… but I quickly changed my mind after learning of the murder of innocent unarmed civilians across the country and especially in the plains. I couldn’t stay silent. To avenge the fallen heroes and show my solidarity, I decided to take up arms.

The Tatmadaw responded to armed resistance with indiscriminate air and ground attacks and denying access to aid, food and supplies to civilian populations, following the patterns of violence it has long carried out in ethnic areas. Nearly 230,000 people have fled their homes since the coup; many are hiding in the jungle.

In Kayah and neighboring Shan State, where civilian fighters joined local armed ethnic groups in a 10-day resistance in late May in which they claim to have killed more than 120 members of the regime’s forces, the Tatmadaw has shot dead humanitarian volunteers providing aid also shot dead displaced people returning to town for rice and supplies. On May 24, regime forces fired artillery at a Catholic church where more than 300 people had taken refuge, killing four of them.

On June 9, a An informed UN expert “mass deaths from starvation, disease and exposure” in Kayah state after Tatmadaw cut off access to food, water and medicine for over 100,000 displaced civilians .

Mindat commune of Salai Vakok is also facing a growing humanitarian emergency after the Tatmadaw responded to civil resistance in mid-May by launching attacks on residential areas and blocking food and water supplies to residents. displaced populations. He was also accused of arresting civilians and using them as human shields to deter resistance fighters.

Civil resistance fighters face a formidably armed army which has been accused of “crimes against humanity” in its brutal attacks on the Rohingya in 2017 [File: Stringer/EPA]

He said the attacks strengthened his resolve to continue fighting, but he has been unable to do so since he was wounded by artillery fire during last month’s offensive. “When I recover, I made a firm decision to continue fighting no matter what until the fall of the regime,” he told Al Jazeera.

Guerrilla tactics

Urban resistance also appears to be increasing, in large part due to young people who banded together in underground networks after participating in short training camps with armed ethnic groups in the jungle. Back in the cities, they adopt guerrilla tactics including bombing, arson and targeted assassinations, including people suspected of being informants or people aligned with the military.

Frontier Myanmar news magazine reported that there are at least 10 urban rebel cells in major cities of Myanmar, while Radio Free Asia has counted more than 300 explosions since the coup, mostly in police stations. and administrative and other facilities related to the plan.

“[The Tatmadaw] oppress us with guns. Should we kneel or fight? If we resist with just a three-fingered salute, we’ll never get what we want, ”said Gue Gue, a 29-year-old doctor and member of the underground resistance in Yangon. “We are not armed by choice; it is because we could not get what we wanted by asking peacefully.

But he said he lived in constant fear of informants. “We in urban areas have to live in secret or we could be killed… We cannot sleep soundly,” said Gue Gue.

Another concern for resistance fighters is their families: since the coup, at least 76 people have been arrested when security forces could not find the person they were seeking to arrest, according to a group. documentation on human rights.

“I told my parents that if the military were looking for me, say that they were trying to convince me not to take up arms, but that I was not listening,” said Salai Vakok. He has cut off contact with his family since joining the resistance, but has learned that they were among the thousands of people displaced by May’s clashes in Mindat and are now hiding in the jungle.

Protesters in Mandalay armed with homemade weapons during a demonstration in April. More and more demonstrators join rebel forces because they see it as the only way to restore democracy [File: Stringer/EPA]

The Committee representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), made up of elected deputies overthrown by the coup, announced on March 14 its support for the right of civilians to defend themselves, and on May 5, the government of national unity (NUG) appointed by the CRPH. announced the creation a People’s Defense Force at the national level, the precursor of a federal army which would bring together the country’s ethnic armed groups and the civil defense forces under a central command. Currently, however, most groups operate independently or in smaller alliances.

NUG deputy home affairs minister Khu Te Bu told Al Jazeera he expected fighting across the country to worsen in the weeks and months to come, but feared the forces defenses are outdated and lacking sufficient training to defeat the Tatmadaw.

“They use homemade weapons, but they cannot protect the population against an army which has been preparing and increasing its supply of arms for so many years,” he said.

On May 26, NUG announced a code of conduct. Addressed to all armed resistance groups, he said fighters must avoid injuring civilians and minimize collateral damage.

Khu Te Bu says he hopes resistance groups can unite against a common enemy, and says NUG has an important role to play in ensuring groups have a strong awareness of the rules of war, including how to protect civilians and deal with prisoners of war.

Some protesters sought basic training from ethnic armed organizations that have spent years fighting the Tatmadaw [File: Kantarawaddy Times via AFP]

“[Resistance groups] can’t just break international rules because the military doesn’t follow them, ”he said. “They must respond systematically to enemies… to protect human rights. “

With a shortage of arms and funds, civilian fighters say they hope NUG can also provide human resources and material support in the near future. “If they really want to help us, they can send fighters or provide us with modern weapons, or at least they can support us with food and basic items,” said Salai Vakok.

As the violence continues and deaths and displacement increase, resistance fighters also hope Myanmar does not disappear from the world’s attention.

“Myanmar is like a slaughterhouse now. People are killed daily like animals, ”said Gue Gue.

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