Inside Myanmar’s anti-junta rebel forces
Ethnic rebels wage jungle warfare against the military dictatorship in hopes of restoring democracy.
A dozen young soldiers in flip-flops prepare a mortar shot next to an abandoned shed nearly engulfed by the dense Burmese jungle. They are located near a road, which connects the towns of Myawaddy and Lay Lay Kay in Myanmar’s Karen State, close to the border with Thailand.
A year ago, these soldiers were engineering and law students, but following the military coup in February 2021 they decided to leave school and join the guerrillas. Now, they are an artillery squad from the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), an ethnic armed group which is a member of the pro-democracy alliance fighting the military government. The KNLA has spent months training new recruits. They are beginning to gain ground against Myanmar’s army, the Tatmadaw.
Fighting an army with homemade weapons
Taking advantage of the clear morning sky, unit commander Saw Da Baw checks the coordinates on his cell phone while one of his men adjusts the crank. Saw Da Baw is a veteran soldier, already in his forties. He loads up a self-made 60 millimeter grenade and the projectile is fired towards a Tatmadaw base, located some 300 meters (around 330 yards) away.
The squadron’s cheer rings out above the explosion in the distance: It was a direct hit.
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Da Baw points up at the homemade drone that guided the shot: “Long live the Karen Air Force!” he quips. His troops do not have airplanes or helicopters like the Tatmadaw, but the new generation of recruits has proven to be versatile in improvising all kinds of weapons, including drones.
The Cobra Column, the name of this rebel regiment, is a multi-ethnic force, with Karen, Rohingya, and even Burmese — the majority ethnic group in Myanmar — among its ranks. Some are members of the KNLA, a group with more than 70 years of experience fighting the Tatmadaw. Others belong to the People’s Defense Forces (PDF), which formed after the coup and are more or less under the command of the National Unity Government (NUG), which is fighting for its legitimacy against the military.
Why they fight
The violent repression of the army has united the group under the common goal of returning democracy to Myanmar. But each of them has a different story to tell about becoming a guerrilla fighter.
Nou Aprilsay, a 19-year-old Karen soldier from the Irrawaddy river delta, announced to her parents a year ago that she was leaving home to join the rebels. “I am not afraid of dying,” she told DW. “If I stayed in the city, the army would have raped and killed me like they did my friends. If I go down fighting, my death will at least serve the revolution.”
Thu Rain, a 26-year-old Burmese, says he had no choice but to fight after seeing his best friend die during a peaceful demonstration against the dictatorship. The date when his friend was killed by the military is now inscribed as a tattoo on Thu Rain’s hand. Thu Rain used to be an electrician. He is now a sniper. Another tattoo on his hand, this one listing possible settings for his scope, serves as a symbol of his new life.
When he killed a soldier for the first time, Thu Rain felt “that he was settling a debt, nothing more, nothing less,” he says while holding his Ruger sniper rifle, a modern American weapon that stands out from the guns wielded by his comrades.
Most of them carry M16s, Kalashnikovs, or MA rifles stolen from the Tatmadaw. “Despite everything, I’m not here for revenge. I fight to give people back the rights that were stolen from us,” he says.
Rebels struggle with lack of supplies
In moments of calm, the soldiers take the opportunity to cook rice, play cards, sing and play a guitar that is missing a string. “We barely get medicines or the weapons we need,” says the guitar player as he chews on areca palm nut. “A string replacement is the least of our priorities.”
The harsh conditions in which the fighters live mean they can’t even provide proper treatment to soldiers suffering from malaria or dengue fever.
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Fighter Khu Ree Du notes that other pro-democracy forces also struggle with the shortage of weapons and basic resources. The 26-year-old had run a farmers’ association until the military junta returned to power in February 2021. He is now a commander of the Karenni Nationalities Defence Force, another armed formation fighting against the coup masterminds.
“I would like to be Ukrainian,” Khu Ree Du says, noting with frustration the massive aid shipments send to Ukraine by Western governments. “Europe has a lot at stake in Ukraine, but here we’ve been fighting for more than a year against the dictatorship and the genocide and it is as if we do not exist,” he adds. “Luckily, where we lack guns, we find will.”
“No one will rescue us but ourselves”
As the oppression of the junta grows stronger, more young people join what they call a democratic revolution.
At 17, Ma Ye Ynint M’ay is too young to be a soldier, according to the alliance’s rules. But this girl, a member of the Bamar ethnic group, says she can’t go back to her hometown after she was involved in a bombing attack on a building housing security forces.
“No one forced me to join the revolution,” she says with conviction. “In Thailand, a group of kids got stuck in a cave and all the international community went there to help them,” says the 17-year-old, referring to the tense Tham Luang cave rescue in 2018.
“Here teenagers like me die by the hundreds every week killed by hunger, airstrikes and even executions, but no one cares. That’s why the youth need to fight,” she says. “Because no one will come here to rescue us but ourselves.”
After two months attacking military bases and planting landmines targeting the Tatmadaw patrols, Ye Ynint M’ay and her family fled to an area controlled by the Karen National Defence Organisation. There, rebel officials granted her an exemption that allowed her to join the ranks of the People’s Defense Forces. She has now finished her training as a PDF commando and even found love with another guerrilla fighter while awaiting the next call to front line.
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Veteran leader Khu Hte Bu is 62 years old and has been challenging several Myanmar dictatorships from the jungle for more than 40 years. “I am now a deputy minister of the unity government,” he says. “The Burmese people have enjoyed some years of democracy and that has changed the minds of many, allowing us to unite against the military.”
Speaking from decades-long experience, Khu Hte Bu predicts a future full of challenges and sacrifices. “We have the support of the people, the right and the will to win this fight,” he says. “There is a chance to create a nation for everyone for the first time in our history. But the Burmese military has China and Russia behind it. Who do we have?”