KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - As the death toll from the military crackdown against peaceful protesters in Myanmar mounts, some in the Southeast Asian nation are turning to armed combat to fight back. They are trading peaceful resistance against the coup in the cities and heading to the country’s remote borderlands to join a patchwork of rebel armies.
One of the oldest and largest ethnic armed groups, the Karen National Union (KNU), told VOA protesters coming from the lowlands of central Myanmar have been trekking to the rebels’ hilly jungle redouts for training since late March.
“We train people who want to be trained and who want to fight against the military regime,” said Maj. Gen. Nerdah Bo Mya, chief of staff of the Karen National Defense Organization, an armed wing of the KNU.
“We are [on] the same boat, helping one another. [We] help each other to survive and get rid of the military regime and to re-establish what we call the democratic government,” he said.
The general said ethnic Karenni, Rakhine and Shan rebel groups were doing the same.
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a local rights group, says security forces have killed more than 750 people by opening fire on the mass demonstrations that swept the country in the wake of the February 1 coup. The military junta disputes the number, putting the figure well under 300, and claims to be responding to the protests with all due restraint.
The protests have wilted from the pressure, but a dogged civil disobedience movement continues to cripple much of the public and private sectors, from banks to hospitals. Earlier this month the U.N.’s human rights chief, Michele Bachelet, warned that the country could still tip into an all-out civil war with “echoes of Syria.”
Come one, come all
The military has been battling sundry rebel armies vying for autonomy for each of their own ethnic minorities on Myanmar’s fringes for decades. What concerns the United Nations and others is the fighting spilling into Myanmar’s middle, home to the country’s ethnic majority Bamar, and where some of the largest protests against the coup have broken out.
Nerdah Bo Mya said many of the urban protesters turning to the KNU are coming with the intent of heading back to their towns and cities to put their new training to use.
“Definitely the purpose of coming to the area is to go back and to survive and also to train other people,” he said.
All were welcome — Karen, Bamar and otherwise — for a regimen of physical training, a crash course in guerrilla tactics and practice with small arms, “AK-47s, M-16s and so forth,” he said, but no explosives.
The general refused to say whether the trainees would be taking any of the weapons back with them.
He said the aim was to teach the protesters how to defend themselves and others from attack. But he also warned of a sweeping armed resistance if the junta refused to retreat, blurring the line between defense and offense.
“We’re training them to defend themselves … against the corrupt military regime,” he said. “They are not children anymore, so they know what to decide. If the [Myanmar] military regime is not giving up their power and [will not] hand over the power back to the democratic government, then there will be bloody battles in the cities, in the jungles, everywhere.”
A call to arms
One KNU trainee said he had given up on peaceful resistance.
“I don’t like protesting anymore. No, it doesn’t work. We just get shot. It’s over 700 people already,” he told VOA, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal from the military.
The 26-year-old said he left Yangon for the KNU’s bases along the Thai border soon after the coup, and that a friend who stayed behind was later hit in the head and killed by a stray bullet from security forces shooting at protesters up the street.
The young man from Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city and commercial capital, said he believed in meeting force with equal force.
“I need to know how to hold a weapon. It’s not fair if we fight them with a knife or something like that. We should be trained. They are well trained, they are soldiers, they can shoot pretty well. For us, we need training, otherwise we can’t do anything,” he said.
The trainee said he would head back to Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city and commercial capital, as soon as the KNU deems him ready.
“After we are trained here, we will go back, and we will do something. We have to fight for our freedom, otherwise a lot of people will just die, just die, they just protest, and they just die. It’s not worth it,” he said. “If we could fight them, it’s worth it.”
Nerdah Bo Mya would not say how many protesters his group was training but claimed that between the KNU and the other rebel armies doing the same they numbered in the thousands.
Richard Horsey, a Myanmar analyst and senior adviser to the International Crisis Group, said they were more probably in the hundreds, so likely to make any urban fighting “relatively small-scale.”
“It’s not easy to set up an urban guerilla force from scratch, especially with people who have not had previous military training,” he said. “While I do think there could be some violent incidents, and there already have been, that’s very different from being able to launch a sustained urban guerilla campaign.”
The stiffest armed resistance outside of areas held by the ethnic rebel armies has sprung up in Sagaing Region, in Myanmar’s northwest. Local news reports say residents there have formed their own “civil army” and managed to supplement their homemade air guns and old hunting rifles with some AK-47 and M-16 automatic assault rifles. The military has reported casualties on its side.
“How sustained that will be, I’m not sure. But it’s happening, and I think it could happen in other parts of the country as well,” Horsey said.
If the rebel groups prove reluctant to arm the protesters themselves, decades of civil war have created a substantial black market in military weapons those with the cash and connections could tap, he added.
Whether or not Myanmar goes the way of Syria, Horsey said the country was edging toward “catastrophic state failure” with widespread hunger and displacement on the horizon.
“All of this is a very real prospect, as is continued or increased violence,” he said, “and all of that should be very alarming to the region and to the world.”