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Myanmar Communities Take Up Arms to Resist Junta

Protesters against Myanmar's junta burn the flag of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), in Mandalay, Myanmar, June 5, 2021.

Communities across Myanmar are forming armed bands with mostly crude guns and explosives in an increasingly violent resistance to the military junta that toppled the country’s democratically elected government more than four months ago, raising fears of a sweeping civil war.

Dominated by Myanmar’s ethnic Burman majority, the military has been at war with an evolving cast of ethnic minority armies fighting for autonomy on patches of land along the borders since the country’s independence from Britain in 1948.

The Feb. 1 coup has drawn the fighting deeper into the country and pitted the military against ethnic Burmans as well, as peaceful protests against the junta give way to sporadic firefights with police and soldiers, assassinations of suspected junta collaborators and bombings in the face of the military’s bloody crackdown.

On the brink

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a Myanmar advocacy group based in Mae Sot, Thailand, claims the junta has killed more than 850 civilians in its bid to put down the resistance, although the junta disputes the figure.

Reacting to the bloodshed, United Nations officials have been warning since early April that Myanmar might tip into full-blown civil war.

Those fears are echoed by Myanmar’s so-called National Unity Government, a shadow administration pulling together ousted lawmakers, ethnic minorities and protest leaders to challenge the new junta.

“Every village in the country, every town in the country, every city in the country, every tribe … [is] on the edge of defending themselves, because no one as human being are just [going] to wait and be killed without any defense,” NUG spokesperson Dr. Sasa, who goes by one name, told VOA recently.

“Why do we say civil war? It’s not just against one group and one group. It will be one group [the junta] against … hundreds of groups, or even thousands of groups,” he said.

The new armed bands sprouting up across the country go by many names, usually a “defense force” or “civil army” affixed to their city, state, or region. No one knows exactly how many there are.

The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, a U.S. research organization that tracks conflict-related violence, counted nearly 70 such groups as of late May, about 20 of them active. A local think tank, The Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security, says some 120 civil defense groups have declared themselves since the coup but it cannot tell how many of them are real.

A rising tide

What is clear is that the level of violence across Myanmar is rising along with their numbers.

ACLED has counted 270 attacks on civilians in the second quarter of the year to date, up 72% from the quarter before. It has also counted 578 explosions and 533 battles so far this quarter, up more than 640% and 250%, respectively.

The Myanmar Institute’s executive director, Min Zaw Oo, said he and his team have counted attacks targeting the military regime and suspected collaborators in 66 towns and cities in the past two weeks alone. The vast majority have used homemade bombs, and include a sharp rise in assassinations, mostly targeting local ward administrators accused of feeding information to the junta.

Min Zaw Oo said the administrators are members of the local communities and the main points of contact most citizens have with the state.

“The opposition forces see them as the pillar of the regime’s governance, so they’re targeting them,” he said.

A spokesperson for the junta could not be reached for comment.

In Chin State, on Myanmar’s western border with India, denizens of the capital city of Hakha have formed the Chinland Defense Force, pooling their single-round “tumi” rifles once used for hunting game, and some basic explosives know-how employed for fishing or breaking rock in more peaceful days.

A member of the group said seeing their friends and neighbors shot, arrested and tortured by the junta left them no choice.

‘One way left’

“We cannot accept [this] kind of terrorism,” the young man said, requesting anonymity for his safety. “We were thinking [of] various ways to protest and also express our voice, but there is only one way left, which is [why] we are right now holding weapons.”

He claimed the group has killed more than 30 police and soldiers in and around Hakha since early May and that the group has lost five of its own to the junta’s forces. He feared worse to come.

“It’s highly likely that we might experience the … very intense civil war, because the feeling and the fear of … people have exploded in terms of hating the military activities against the innocent civilians,” he said.

The young man said he and the others have steeled themselves for the fight.

“I am afraid that we might lose our loved people from day by day. However, if it is necessary, I think their bravery will be rewarded,” he said. “I’m worried, but I think sometimes it is necessary and we have to sacrifice.”

On May 5, the NUG announced the launch of a People’s Defense Force to resist the junta and help persuade the generals to cede power. The aim is to pull together the myriad new groups under one umbrella as a forerunner to a planned Federal Union Army that will one day incorporate the country’s ethnic forces as well.

At arm’s length

Sasa said the NUG was communicating and coordinating with the new armed groups “as much as possible” but would not elaborate on who or what the PDF actually consists of. He conceded it was impossible to connect with all the groups amid the turmoil and that for the time being they would have to run on their own resources.

Min Zaw Oo sees little sign of much coordination either between the new armed groups and the NUG or among the groups themselves.

“Some of them are linked to the NUG, some are not necessarily, but that could change in the future,” he said. “What we are observing right now is still very loosely affiliated and loosely coordinated.”

He said the armed resistance away from the borderland strongholds of the ethnic armies would struggle to survive for long without some centralized chain of command. With little training and only the most modest munitions, he said they were also unlikely to tip Myanmar into a wider civil war, unless another country chose to arm them.

Min Zaw Oo said Myanmar’s immediate neighbors India, China and Thailand would not do so, prizing stability in the country — or the closest thing to it — above all else.

Some of Myanmar’s ethnic armies have made common cause with the NUG in its aim to oust the junta and even opened their jungle redoubts to protesters from the cities for a crash course in guerrilla warfare. However, Min Zaw Oo said they have been reluctant to arm them, either because they can’t spare the weapons or fear incurring the military’s full wrath and firepower if they do.

Without a substantial and steady supply of artillery and modern weapons to the new armed groups, he said, “the low-intensity violence and clashes may continue to some extent, but we may not see the larger outbreak of ... civil war.”