In the weeks following the February 1 military coup, Andrew joined millions in Myanmar to peacefully demonstrate a return to civilian rule.
Less than two months later, the 27-year-old was training to kill soldiers with a wooden hunting rifle in the jungles of his hometown of Kayah, on Myanmar’s southeastern border with Thailand.
“Before the coup, I couldn’t even kill an animal,” said Andrew, who in common with other resistance fighters interviewed by Al Jazeera preferred that his name not be revealed for security reasons. “When I saw the military killing civilians, I felt very sad and worried … I thought I was fighting for the people against the 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, he has arrested more than 6,000 and has used tactics that include torture and enforced disappearances since he took power in the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.
Some of the fighters have enlisted in ethnic armed organizations on the country’s borders, where ethnic minorities have fought for decades against Myanmar’s Tatmadaw army for self-determination and rights. Others, such as Andrew, have joined one of dozens of civil defense forces that have emerged in cities and towns since late March.
But while ethnic armed groups have had years to develop resources and capability, civil defense forces are armed primarily with single-shot hunting rifles and other homemade weapons, and many fighters have had only a few weeks of training. in combat.
Faced with an army that has amassed more than $ 2 billion in weapons and has 70 years of experience repressing civilian populations, the new revolutionaries told Al Jazeera that they were willing to test the odds because they considered the resistance armed was the only option left to overthrow. the regime.
“We have carried out protests across the country and started a civil disobedience movement against the military in the hope of restoring civil democracy, but these methods alone did not work,” said Neino, a former university professor. who now leads the political arm of a civil resistance. group in the state of Chin and the neighboring region of Sagaing. “We’ve done everything we can, and taking up arms is the only way left to win it,” he added.
Salai Vakok, a 23-year-old community development worker turned resistance fighter, also in Chin State, began picking up hunting rifles in his hometown of Mindat shortly after Tatmadaw began killing protesters in mid-February.
“We used to expect people from outside the country to fight for us, but that never happened,” he said.
“Never in my life did I think I would own a gun … but I quickly changed my mind after learning of the killing of innocent and unarmed civilians across the country and especially in the lowlands. I couldn’t keep quiet. “To avenge the fallen heroes and show my solidarity, I decided to take up arms.”
The Tatmadaw has responded to the resistance armed with indiscriminate air and ground attacks and to starve to death for aid, food and supplies to civilian populations, following patterns of violence he has been executing for a long time in ethnic areas. Nearly 230,000 people have fled their homes since the coup; many hidden in the jungle.
In Kayah and neighboring Shan state, where civilian fighters joined local ethnic armed groups to carry out a ten-day resistance in late May during which they claim to have killed more than 120 regime forces, the Tatmadaw has murdered humanitarian volunteers who provided food aid and also shot dead displaced people returning to the city to obtain rice and supplies. On May 24, regime forces fired artillery on a Catholic church where more than 300 refugees were found and killed four of them.
On June 9, a Expert warned by the UN of “mass starvation, disease and exposure deaths” in Kayah state after the Tatmadaw cut off access to food, water and medicine to more than 100,000 displaced civilians.
The Mindat municipality of Salai Vakok is also facing a growing humanitarian emergency after Tatmadaw responded to civil resistance in mid-May by launching attacks on residential areas and blocking the supply of food and water to displaced populations. He has also been accused of arresting civilians and using them as human shields to deter the resistance.
He said the attacks have bolstered his decision to continue fighting, but he has not been able to do so since he was wounded by artillery fire in last month’s offensive. “When I recover, I have made a firm decision to continue fighting, no matter what happens until the regime falls,” he told Al Jazeera.
Urban resistance appears to be growing as well, mainly as a result of young people joining underground networks after attending short training camps with ethnic armed groups in the jungle. Upon returning to the cities, they adopt guerrilla tactics such as bombings, fires, and specific killings, including people suspected of being informants or people aligned with the army.
Frontier Myanmar news magazine reported that there are at least 10 urban rebel cells in Myanmar’s major cities, while Radio Free Asia has counted more than 300 explosions since the coup, mainly in police and administrative offices. and other facilities connected to the scheme.
“[The Tatmadaw] they are oppressing us with weapons. Should we kneel or should we fight? If we resist with just a three-finger salute, we will never get what we want, “said Gue Gue, a 29-year-old doctor and member of the clandestine resistance in Yangon.” We are not armed by choice; we wanted to ask peacefully. “
But he said he lives in constant fear of informants. “In urban areas we have to live in secret or they could kill us … We can’t sleep soundly,” Gue Gue said.
Another concern for resistance fighters is their families: since the coup, at least 76 people have been detained when security forces were unable to find the person they tried to detain, according to a rights documentation group. humans.
“I told my parents that if the military was looking for me, they would say they were trying to convince me not to take up arms, but that I was not listening,” Salai Vakok said. He has cut off contact with his family since joining the resistance, but heard that they were among thousands displaced by May’s clashes in Mindat and are now hiding in the jungle.
The committee representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), made up of elected lawmakers overthrown in 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) designated by the CRPH. announced the establishment of a People’s Defense Force at the national level, a forerunner of a federal army that would unite the country’s ethnic armed groups and civil defense forces under central command. For now, however, most groups operate independently or in smaller alliances.
Khu Te Bu, NUG deputy interior minister, told Al Jazeera that he hoped fighting across the country would worsen in the coming weeks and months, but was concerned that civilian defense forces would be overrun and not they had enough training to defeat the Tatmadaw.
“They use handmade weapons, but they can’t protect people from an army that has been preparing and building the arms supply for so many years,” he said.
On May 26, the NUG announced a code of conduct. Aimed at all armed resistance groups, he says fighters must prevent harm to the civilian population and minimize collateral damage.
Khu Te Bu says he hopes resistance groups can come together against a common enemy and says the NUG has an important role to play in ensuring that groups have a strong awareness of the rules of war, including how to protect them. civilians and handle prisoners. of war.
“[Resistance groups] it cannot break international norms because the military does not comply with them, “he said.” They must systematically respond to enemies … to protect human rights. “
With scarce weapons and funds, civilian fighters say they hope the 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 help us with food and commodities,” Salai Vakok said.
As violence continues and deaths and displacement increase, resistance fighters are also hoping Myanmar will not fade from global attention.
“Myanmar is now like a slaughterhouse. People are killed every day like animals, ”said Gue Gue.