THE PEACEFUL PHASE
When the Burmese military staged a coup on February 1st, it was not clear what the reaction of the people might be, but most of all, how the military would have reacted to any type of resistance.
It took only 24 hours for the people to recover from the initial shock and start protesting with the first “banging of pans and pots” campaigns. Then, on February 4th, Doctor Tayzar San led the first street protests in Mandalay. I remember people wondering whether he was real, or if he was a fake protester paid by the Junta to trap pro-democracy activists. “He is my friend, he is real”, someone tweeted.
February 6th marked the first anti-coup mass protest, with thousands of Burmese people taking to the streets to demand for the return of democracy. The military regime had blocked the internet the day before, in an attempt to disrupt the protests, but it was too late.
Despite the internet ban, some activists managed to use some Thai sim cards, and started streaming the protests. I called my friends in Myanmar and started describing them what I was seeing on Facebook live. I remember Ei Thinzar Maung in Hledan calling the people to join her.
I had goosebumps, I felt hopeful and at the same time I was feeling very nervous. The Tatmadaw is known for its brutality. Most of us remember the 2007 Saffron Revolution, some still carry the scars of the 1988 Uprising.
In the first week, the mood was festive. Protests were incredibly peaceful and colorful. The creativity of the new generation was in full display, with memes, costumes and parades. Water and flowers were offered to the police, and the attention of the world was all on #WhatsHappeningInMyanmar.
History seemed to favour the peaceful approach, the world was praising the pro-democracy movement. Many started drawing comparisons with the Sudanese Revolution that brought dictator Al-Bashir down.
But it did not last long.
The mood changed when in Naypyidaw, 19 year old Myat Thet Thet Khaing was shot in the head by the police. It was February 9th. She died ten days later.
On February 15th, the infamous infantry 77 LID, one of the most brutal divisions of the Tatmadaw (the Burmese military), was spotted in Yangon. By then it was clear that the Junta had no intention to let the peaceful protests go on. Internet was heavily restricted, journalists persecuted.
On February 28th when 18 people were killed in one day, we all started doubting whether peaceful protests could still be effective. Violence then escalated very quickly.
38 people were killed on March 3rd. The first episodes of extreme torture under custody were reported. 18 people died on March 14th in Hlaing Thar Yar. A 7 year old girl was shot on March 23rd while running into her father’s arms, the first of nearly 80 children killed by the military in the first 6 months. Still most protests were peaceful, but the sight of extreme violence became more common on Twitter and Facebook, that people started to live in constant terror. Protesters started defending themselves by setting frontlines, with the goal to protect themselves with homemade shields, slingshots and even molotovs.
Armed Forces Day was the day we all realised that peaceful protests alone were not going to work. It was March 27th. On that day the Tatmadaw killed 114 people while coup leader and commander-in-chief General Min Aung Hlaing was celebrating his army in Naypyidaw. The Tatmadaw also attacked Day Pu No in Karen State with an airstrike. That evening General Min Aung Hlaing had a gala dinner. Drones “painted” his portrait in the sky.
Simply put: the military did not let the people protest peacefully, leaving only one path for the Revolution.
As of August 18th, over 1000 people have been killed by Burmese soldiers, and over 5000 are currently in prison or detained without trial. The Tatmadaw forced protesters to defend themselves. It’s unconceivable to just stand and watch your own people being slaughtered, arrested and tortured, without any type of resistance. As revolution leader Ko Wai Moe Naing said in April: “No violence alone is not sustainable in the long run”. “The revolution is based on four pillars: peaceful protests, Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), political opposition (CRPH) and armed resistance”.
Most Burmese people have never thought of violence as a solution, but the Junta left them with no other choice. And the international community did very little to stop the atrocities.
“WHEN SECURITY FORCES ARE THE MURDERERS, WHO CAN YOU CALL FOR HELP?“
THE BIRTH OF A NEW ARMED RESISTANCE
Many protesters left the cities to reach the so called “liberated areas” in Karen and Kachin State, regions controlled by Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAO) that oppose the Tatmadaw since Burma’s independence from the British in 1948. They were not escaping the regime. They wanted to confront the regime, and to do so they needed military training that only EAOs could provide. KIA (Kachin Independence Army) and KNLA (Karen National Liberation Army) are two of over a dozen militias that have been fighting against the mainly Bamar Burmese Army for decades.
The training usually lasts 2-3 weeks. Men and women from all over the country receive basic training in combat and tactics, learning how to shoot with guns and how to use explosives. Fitness is one of the main focuses as well.
Many hope that this unlikely but necessary alliance is laying down the basis of a future Federal Army.
After the training, the trainees return to their homes to organize small armed groups with the goal of defending the civil population from the regime’s brutality, while opening a new front in the central area of the country in order to stretch its manpower. Finding weapons is the main problem. Improvised weapons have been spotted on various pictures found on social media. In the black market on the Thai border, an M16 costs around 1000 USD, an AK47 around 3000 USD, a machine gun 9000 USd, all prohibitive prices for most young fighters, who can only rely on underground donations. Help might come from EAOs, as some recent news suggest.
These groups are usually referred to as People Defence Forces (PDF) and Urban Guerilla (UG). The difference between the two is often unclear, but while PDF is officially recognized as the armed wing of the National Unity Government (NUG), UG groups are independent, and as their name suggests, they mainly operate in urban areas. To add to the confusion, UGs often refer to themselves as PDF, despite not being fully supported (at least, officially) by the shadow government.
The number of pro-democracy fighters who received some sort of training so far, is estimated to exceed 10,000. The number of PDF or UG cells could be in the hundreds or even thousands. This extreme fragmentation, coupled with the lack of a central leadership, makes it hard for the military regime to control the resistance, making the Tatmadaw’s advantage in terms of numbers, technology and sheer power, less relevant. PDF and UG avoid direct confrontations and adopt guerilla warfare tactics, like ambushes, bombings and targeted assassinations, depriving the opponent of its technological superiority. For the Tatmadaw it is almost impossible to deploy its fighter jets, helicopters and missiles against small groups of fighters, especially in urban areas.
Explosions near Junta-controlled buildings and electricity offices, sabotages, and killings of policemen, ward administrators and regime’s informants, are a daily occurrence. On August 8th, PDF was able to damage 4 fighter jets in Magwe. On August 14th 4 policemen have been killed on a train in Yangon.
ONE WAR, MANY FRONTS
“First they came for the Karens and we didn’t speak out; then they came for the Rohingya and we didn’t speak out; now they are coming for all of us.”
In “ethnic regions”, the situation is different. EAOs have been opposing the regime for many years, and are better organised and more equipped to fight the Tatmadaw in a “conventional” war.
Since the military coup, ethnic Bamars are coming to realise how ethnic groups were suffering over the past 70 years, but past disagreements with the the previous NLD government is the reason why ethnic minorities, their political and armed organisations are still wary of the NUG to some degree.
Even though EAOs and ethnic Bamars from the central regions share the same enemy now, it’s undeniable that EAOs’ real goal is to gain autonomy or even independence for their people and territory.
Despite this, 7 of the 10 original signatories of the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with the Tatmadaw, decided to side with the NUG.
For most EAOs this coup, and the prospect of a weaker Tatmadaw, is an opportunity to promote and advance their own agendas.
The Arakan Army (AA) is a perfect example of this. After a short and widely criticized post-coup collaboration with the State Administration Council (SAC, the military regime’s government), the Arakan Army is trying to take advantage of a tacit ceasefire with the Tatmadaw to strengthen its control over its territory without confronting the enemy. Since the coup, Rakhine State is acting like an autonomous region (there have been no protests against the coup), with AA taking control of the administration. Moreover, the Junta delisted the Arakan Army as a terrorist group. The Tatmadaw is currently fighting on numerous fronts, and it is surely not keen to resume a war against the Arakan Army, which proved to be a fierce opponent in the past few years. Over 80,000 Rakhine people remain displaced after conflicts erupted in 2019-2020. Clashes between the two, have been therefore limited to a few operations in Shan State, where AA fights alongside KIA.
The relationship between AA and KIA goes back to 2009, when AA was established in Kachin State’s Laiza, with the help of KIA itself. Funded by its own community (through donations and taxations) and the jade trade, it has been able to obtain advanced and expensive weapons and ammunitions through KIA, the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and the black market on the Thai or Indian border. There are concerns about abuse of power by the AA. Forceful collection of food by its troops has been reported in Chin State and in Rohingya villages as well. Nevertheless the achievements of the Arakan army in a 12 years period are remarkable.
AA’s general Twan Mrat Naing, recently stated that the process to reach independence in Arakan (the “Rakhita way”), is currently at at the third of a four steps.
KIA and KNLA have been quick to denounce the coup. New fightings have erupted in Kachin State, where the Tatmadaw launched airstrikes and used heavy artillery, displacing thousands of people. Even KIA headquarters in Laiza have been attacked in recent weeks. KIA launched successful counter-attacks not only within its territory, but in Shan State and Mandalay region as well, conquering numerous Tatmadaw and Police posts. Among these successful operations, the shooting down of a Tatmadaw helicopter in May, in which a MANPAD (Man-portable air-defense system) appears to have been used, caused a sensation. While it is known that KIA is capable of producing weapons and ammunition, the presence of such a sophisticated weapon is considered a surprise by many, and its origin is still a mystery. One important battle that often goes unnoticed, is the one to control the jade trade, one of the most lucrative businesses in Myanmar. The Tatmadaw has been exploiting Jade mines in the Kachin State for decades, but jade, along with timber and gold, is a source of revenue for EAOs as well, including KIA and AA. A report by Global Witness revealed that in 2014 the jade industry in Kachin State was worth 31 billion USD, “but it mostly benefits a few powerful military officials and cronies” (source: Straitstimes).
Another reason of conflict with the Tatmadaw is the Myitsone Dam project, a large dam and hydroelectric power project that requires the inundation of dozens Kachin villages and the displacement of thousands of people. The project’s goal is to produce electricity for export to Yunnan, China. It was suspended in 2011 by the Thein Sein’s government, but there are fears that it could be resumed under Min Aung Hlaing’s regime.
In Karen State, according to the KNU (Karen National Union, the political wing of KNLA), there have been 133 clashes since February 1st in the Mutraw district alone, with 65 Tatmadaw and Border Guard Forces (a Tatmadaw proxy) soldiers allegedly killed by the KNLA.
KNU Brigade 5’s Major Saw Kalae Do said there were at least 580 armed engagements between the military and KNLA troops from May 1 to July 31, during which 349 military troops were killed, compared to just 10 KNLA deaths.
The Tatmadaw launched frequent airstrikes, especially in the Mutraw area, and burnt entire villages, displacing nearly 50,000 people who fled to the jungles. Clashes between KNLA and the Karen State Border Guard Force (BGF), a militia controlled by the Tatmadaw, have been reported. The KNLA has been fighting against the Tatmadaw for self determination since 1949, in what is considered one of the world’s longest ongoing conflicts.
In Karenni (Kayah) State the cities of Loikaw and Demoso have constantly been under attack by the Junta and the PNO (Pa-O National Organization) since May, forcing various local PDF groups to join together and form the KNDF (Karenni Nationalities Defense Force) which fights alongside the relatively small Karenni Army (KA). According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), there have been over 120,000 civilians who had to flee their homes in Karenni and Shan State.
In Chin State, the resistance against the military has been particularly fierce especially in Mindat. Hunting with handmade rifles (“tumi”), is part of the local tradition, and CDF (Chin Defence Force) fighters are showing their shooting skills by inflicting heavy losses to the much better equipped but lesser skilled Tatmadaw (the CDF claimed to have killed around 200 Burmese soldiers). The regime imposed martial law in Mindat town, proposed (and broke) temporary ceasefires and sent more troops into the area, causing the displacement of thousands of civilians into jungles and mountains. In an attempt to weaken the opponent and procure more weapons, the CDF announced it will welcome and provide 5 million kyats (around 3000 USD) for defecting soldiers who surrender their weapons. The Chin National Front (CNF), one of the signatories of the National Ceasefire agreement, signed an agreement with the NUG to fight against the dictatorship. CNF is believed to have little military power, but given that its main objective is self-determination, the move is seen as significant.
Sagaing and Kalay, in Sagaing region, have a strong Chin presence, and this might partially explain the successes of the PDF in this region. Resistance fighters are using handmade rifles and even arrows to fight against the military regime.
In recent weeks, around Kani, dead bodies of over 40 civilian fighters have been discovered, showing signs of torture believed to be inflicted by the Tatmadaw.
Shan State on the other hand, is dealing with its internal divisions, and different militias are fighting against each other, despite calls by Shan activists to pay attention to #WhatsHappeningInMyanmar. On February 2nd, the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) quickly denounced the coup, but it then got caught up in territorial disputes with other Shan militias, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Shan State Progressive Party (SSPP). SSPP is believed to be supported by the United Wa State Army (UWSA).
TNLA and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), two members of the Northern Alliance (together with AA and KIA), claim an attack against the 99th LID, one of the most violent divisions of the Tatmadaw.
The United Wa State Army (UWSA), instead, has mostly remained silent since the coup. It’s probably the largest and best equipped EAO in Myanmar, thanks to its close ties with China. Similarly to Rakhine State, being a de-facto autonomous region, its direct involvement in current Myanmar’s affairs is unlikely. But it still plays a role as one of the major suppliers of weapons for other EAOs like KIA and AA.
The Wa National Party (WNP) chairman Sai Pao Nup has recently resigned after signing a joint statement with USDP (the pro-Junta political party), promising to collaborate with the regime.
What about the Rohingya?
At the end of March, the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO) claimed to have killed 22 Tatmadaw soldiers in Rakhine State. It is unclear whether these claims are true, as the RSO is believed to be defunct since 1998. An unverified RSO account appeared on Twitter in May.
An interview with ARSA chief Abu Ammar about the current situation, recently appeared on YouTube. Attacks launched by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on police posts in 2017, were used by the Tatmadaw as the pretext to start its genocidal campaign that killed thousands of innocent Rohingyas and forced over 700.000 people to flee to Bangladesh. Since then ARSA kept a low profile, but it is believed to still be active . ARSA is, considered by many as a terrorist organisation and most Rohingyas don’t support it.
It’s important to notice that EAOs’ role is not restricted to military operations. They are political entities that regulate the economy and provide much needed health care and education in the regions where they operate. They usually enjoy local support by the people, but they are not immune to episodes of abuse of power and human rights violations such as forced labour, recruitment of child soldiers, forced taxations, and extra-judicial killings.
In recent days two senior commanders of the Karen National Defence Organisation (KNDO) have admitted that soldiers under their control killed 25 unarmed men in June.The victims were believed to be spies, while State media (controlled by the regime), claimed they were construction workers. KNU suspended both commanders, while an investigation is underway.
THE MANY FACES OF THE OPPRESSOR
The Tatmadaw, despite employing 300,000-350,000 soldiers, has historically relied on hundreds of small proxy militias.
Pyu Saw Htee (People’s Militia) is a community militia supervised by the Tatmadaw. Security forces or village headmen recruit civilians to be trained by the military to counter the anti-regime movement locally. The recent release of thousands of non-political prisoners, including murderers and drug dealers, could be related to the recruitment of new people for these military proxies.
The Tatmadaw also relies on Border Guard Forces (BGF or Neh San Tat), that operate near border areas of Kachin, Karen and Shan State. These groups are integrated in the Tatmadaw, and are supervised as well as financially supported by the regime.
A non-armed group plays a huge role for the regime: its vast network of informants. Informants (“dalan” in Burmese) are civilians who collaborate with the Burmese military by monitoring anti-regime activities in their area. They have been existing for decades, even under the NLD government (police and military are not under civilian control). Their reports lead to the arrests or even murders of activists, resistance fighters, journalists and CDM workers. People are usually aware of the identity of these spies, who often are Junta appointed local administrators.
Local administrators and informants are recently being targeted and killed by resistance fighters who are trying to discourage people from helping and supporting the regime or possibly by the Junta itself, for not fully collaborating.
The Special Intelligence Deparment (also known as Special Branch), just like the Police, has always been under direct control of the Tatmadaw since Burma’s independence, even during the 2010-2020 civilian governments. Its size and structure is not clear, but its role post-coup has likely increased, monitoring activists, resistance fighters and politicians in the hiding. The recent acquisitions of new surveillance technology from Israel, China and Europe suggest a will to modernize the agency.
The Tatmadaw itself is composed of 300.000 – 350.000 units (one of the largest armies in the world, and much larger than all EAOs put together), and , most of whom are ethnic Bamars. The large majority of these units are non-fighting personnel (doctors, office workers, etc.). Soldiers with real fighting experience are believed to be around 100.000, while police forces are believed to be around 80.000.
Unlike the EAOs and PDF, The Tatmadaw has access to unlimited financial resources. Through conglomerates MEHL and MEC, the generals have stakes in every sector of Myanmar’s economy, like banking, tourism, mining, telecommunications…they exploit natural resources (legally and illegally) like timber, jade, oil and gas (through State controlled MOGE) and are involved in illegal trades. Drug trafficking is a major source of income, especially in Shan State, where the Tatmadaw encourages poppy cultivation in areas under its control with the help of BGF.
This wealth is used to produce or buy weapons, especially from Russia and China, despite a non-binding arms embargo adopted by the UN. The EU has stricter sanctions that block EU companies from selling weapons to the Junta, but various loopholes and triangulations help European companies sell dual-use drones and bullets to the regime.
“Oppose those relying on external elements,
oppose those trying to jeopardize the stability of the State and progress of the nation,
oppose foreign nations interfering in internal affairs of the State,
crush all all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy.”
(common Tatmadaw propaganda poster seen in various cities)
Tatmadaw soldiers often join the military as teenagers or even children forcibly or for lack of other options. While some may be moved by a genuine desire to defend the Country, most would probably prefer other jobs, but lack the necessary education, skills or opportunities leave few choices. Soldiers believe their goal is to protect Myanmar from a foreign invasion, to protect the unity of the country and to protect Myanmar’s Buddhist identity from Islam. Xenophobia and Islamophobia are therefore deeply rooted in this military institution. Troops are taught to believe that the military is the only entity that can keep the country together. Common slogans are “Only when the Tatmadaw is strong, the Nation is strong”, or “Tatmadaw and the people in eternal unity, anyone attempting to divide them is our enemy”. Therefore Security forces often see pro-democracy protesters and EAOs as enemies of the State, terrorists, and even as US or Western proxies.
But this mentality might not be as deeply rooted as in the past. The Tatmadaw is a conservative institution, but Burmese society underwent deep changes in the last 10 years. The widespread use of social media and the less frequent recruitment of children (hence a longer exposure to civil society and education) might have changed the mentality of the troops in ways that the generals might not expect. While some divisions are blindly following orders, perpetrating their brutal repression on civilians, there are some anecdotal evidences of soldiers not fully complying. The coup might not be so popular among the troops. After all many soldiers including high-rank ones, may have voted NLD in past elections.
Defections are going to play a huge role. So far they have been an insignificant factor, with only 1000-1500 defectors in 6 months. According to various interviews with defected soldiers, around 70% of the Tatmadaw’s forces would like to leave the Tatmadaw. As reported by German media DW, the main obstacles are the fear of reprisal and the strict control the Burmese army has over its troops to prevent defections. The military controls every aspect of a soldier’s life. A soldier’s family usually lives in a military compound with limited access to the outside world. Soldiers’ social media access is heavily restricted and under surveillance. Even their finances and freedom of movement are under the regime’s control. Another factor is the uncertainty of the future, as grim as military life can be, returning to a civilian life can be scary. NUG has a hard task, finding ways to promote and guarantee safe desertions.
Defections usually happen near “liberated” areas, like Karen and Kachin State, where soldiers can surrender and find protection from the Burmese army. Building safe corridors, or liberating additional areas, especially in central areas, might prove crucial.
NUG has been announcing a D-DAY for months, without clarifying what it means. Could the threat of a full-blown war induce more defections from Tatmadaw soldiers?
Despite the disparity in terms of power and size between the pro-democracy movement and the Tatmadaw, it would be a mistake to believe that the Revolution has little chances to succeed.
As we have seen in Vietnam or more recently in Afghanistan, where the Taliban defeated the much larger and better equipped Afghan army (backed by the US), motivations play a huge role.
The pro-democracy movement is fighting for basic human rights, and so far it has been able to put all differences aside to fight a single common enemy. Years of “divide et impera” by the Burmese army, may finally backfire. On the other side the Tatmadaw, often seen as a monolithic institution, is fighting for a less noble cause, on multiple fronts, against multiple highly motivated enemies, under growing internal and external pressure.
The goal of the Resistance at the moment, is to wear down the Tatmadaw, preventing it from gaining control of the country, all while keeping the Revolution alive. One small crack may change the course of history.
As Henry Kissinger said, about the Vietnam war:
“the guerrilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win”.
(Disclaimer: the goal of this article is to introduce the reader to the many armed groups that are currently playing a role in the ongoing Myanmar Revolution. It is by no means an academic paper)