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

In the weeks following the military coup on February 1, Andrew and millions of people across Myanmar demonstrated peacefully to demand the restoration of civil rule.

Less than two months later, the 27-year-old was being trained to kill soldiers with wooden shotguns in the jungles of his hometown of Kayah State, which borders Thailand in southeastern Myanmar.

“Before the coup, I couldn’t even kill an animal,” Andrew said. Like other resistance fighters interviewed by Al Jazeera, he would not disclose his name for security reasons. “When I saw the army killing civilians, I felt very sad and troubled… My mentality is that I am fighting for the people and opposing the evil military dictator.”

Andrew is one of a growing number of civilians in the country, many of them young people. They took up arms to suppress an army that killed more than 860 people, mainly in anti-coup protests, arresting more than 6,000 people, and Used include torture and enforced disappearance since it seized power from the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.

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

Some fighters have joined ethnic armed groups in the border areas of the country, where ethnic minorities have been fighting with the armed forces of the Burmese army for decades to fight for the right to self-determination and rights. Others, such as Andrew, have joined one of the dozens of civil defense forces that have sprung up in the town since late March.

However, although ethnic armed groups have developed resources and capabilities for many years, most civil defense forces are equipped with single-shot shotguns and other self-made weapons, and many fighters only have a few weeks of combat training.

Faced with an army with more than $2 billion in weapons and 70 years of experience in suppressing civilians, the new revolutionaries told Al Jazeera that they were willing to test the possibilities because they believed armed resistance was the only option. regime.

“We conducted a nationwide protest and launched a civil disobedience campaign against the military, hoping to restore civilian democracy, but these methods alone will not work,” a former university lecturer and the political department that now leads the civilian resistance movement Said Neno. The group is in Chin State and the neighboring Sagaing area. “We have done everything we can, and taking up arms is the only way to win this victory,” she added.

Salai Vakok, a 23-year-old resistance fighter from a community development worker who was also in Chin State, began collecting shotguns in his home town of Minda shortly after the armed forces began shooting protesters in mid-February.

He said: “We used to hope that people from abroad would fight for us, but this never happened.”

“I never thought in my life that I would have a weapon… But after learning that innocent and unarmed civilians were killed across the country, especially in the lowlands, I quickly changed my mind. I couldn’t remain silent. For the sake of the dead. The hero avenged my unity, and I decided to take up arms.”

Myanmar Army responds to armed resistance Indiscriminate air and ground attacks And through long-term violence in ethnic minority areas, civilians cannot get aid, food, and supplies. Since the coup, nearly 230,000 people have fled their homes; many are hiding in the jungle.

In Kayah and neighboring Shan State, civilian fighters joined local minority armed groups in a 10-day resistance in late May. During this period, they claimed to have killed more than 120 regime troops. The armed forces shot and killed food aid transporters. Humanitarian volunteers and also shot and killed displaced people who returned to town to buy rice and supplies. On May 24, government forces opened fire on a Catholic church where more than 300 people had taken refuge, killing 4 people.

June 9th, a UN experts warn After the Tatmadaw cut off access to food, water and medicine for more than 100,000 displaced civilians, Kayah State “has mass deaths due to hunger, disease and exposure.”

After the Myanmar Army responded to civilian resistance in mid-May, the Mindat town of Salai Vakok also faced a growing humanitarian emergency, launching attacks on residential areas and preventing the supply of food and water to the displaced. It is also accused of arresting civilians and using them as human shields to deter resistance fighters.

The civilian resistance fighters are facing a heavily armed army that was accused of “crimes against humanity” in a brutal attack on the Rohingya in 2017 [File: Stringer/EPA]

He said the attack strengthened his determination to continue fighting, but since he was injured by artillery fire in the attack last month, he has been unable to hold on. “When I recovered, I had made a firm decision to continue fighting anyway until the regime fell,” he told Al Jazeera.

Guerrilla tactics

Urban resistance also seems to be increasing, mainly because young people join in underground networks after participating in short-term training camps for ethnic armed groups in the jungle. After returning to the city, they adopted guerrilla tactics, including bombing, arson, and targeted clearance, including those suspected of being informants or allied with the army.

The current affairs magazine “Myanmar Border” reported that there are at least 10 urban rebel groups in Myanmar’s major cities, and Radio Free Asia has counted more than 300 bombings since the coup d’etat, mainly in police and administrative offices, as well as other regime-related incidents. In the facility.

“[The Tatmadaw] Use guns to oppress us. Should we kneel or fight back? Gue Gue, a 29-year-old doctor who is a member of the Yangon Underground Resistance Organization, said: “If we only use three-finger salute to resist, we will never get what we want.” “We are not choosing arms; that’s because we can’t pass. Quietly asking to get what we want.”

But he said he has been living in fear of informants. “We must live secretly in urban areas, otherwise we may be killed…We can’t sleep well,” Gue Gue said.

Another concern of the resistance fighters is their families: According to a human rights documentation organization, since the coup, at least 76 people have been detained because the security forces could not find the person they wanted to arrest.

“I told my parents that if the army searched me, they said they tried to persuade me not to take up arms, but I didn’t listen,” Salai Vakok said. Since he joined the resistance movement, he has severed contact with his family, but it is said that they were one of the thousands who were displaced by the conflict in Mindat in May and are now hiding in the jungle.

Demonstrators in Mandalay armed with homemade weapons during protests in April.More and more protesters join the rebels because they believe it is the only way to restore democracy [File: Stringer/EPA]

The Committee of Representatives of the People’s Chamber (CRPH), composed of elected legislators overthrown in the coup, announced on March 14 that it supported civilians’ right to self-defense, and on May 5 announced the National Unity Government (NUG) appointed by CRPH Announced The predecessor of the National People’s Defence Force is the predecessor of the Federal Army, which will unite the nation’s national armed groups and civil defense forces under the central command. However, most groups currently operate independently or in smaller alliances.

NUG Deputy Interior Minister Khu Te Bu told Al Jazeera that he expects fighting across the country to worsen in the coming weeks and months, but he is worried that the civil defense force will not have enough firepower and lack sufficient training to defeat the Burmese army.

“They use hand-made weapons, but they cannot protect the people from the army that has been preparing and building weapons supplies for years,” he said.

On May 26, NUG announced a code of conduct. It stated to all armed resistance groups that combatants must avoid harming civilians and minimize collateral damage.

Khu Te Bu said he hopes that resistance groups can unite against a common enemy, and that NUG can play an important role in ensuring that these groups have a strong understanding of the rules of war, including how to protect civilians and handle wars against prisoners.

Some protesters sought basic training from ethnic armed groups that have fought with the Burmese army for many years [File: Kantarawaddy Times via AFP]

“[Resistance groups] You cannot violate international rules just because the military does not abide by them,” he said. “They must deal with the enemy systematically… to protect human rights. “

Due to the shortage of weapons and funds, civilian fighters expressed that they hope that NUG can also provide human resources and material support in the near future. “If they really want to help us, they can send soldiers or provide us with modern weapons, or at least they can support us with food and goods,” Salai Vakok said.

As the violence continues and deaths and displacements increase, resistance fighters also hope that Myanmar will not disappear from the attention of the world.

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

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