When the Myanmar navy seized energy on February 1 final 12 months, the nation’s oldest main ethnic armed group, the Karen Nationwide Union, was additionally one of many first to sentence the coup.
“We can’t settle for the navy taking energy and detaining the nation’s leaders. This can be a large impediment and problem in transitioning to democracy,” the KNU said in a press release the day after the ability seize, accusing the navy of violating its personal 2008 structure.
Quickly afterwards, troops from the KNU’s armed wing, the Karen Nationwide Liberation Military, had been seen offering safety to protesters in Karen state, which lies alongside Myanmar’s border with Thailand. Elsewhere within the nation, there was no such safety. The navy launched into a marketing campaign of brutal violence in opposition to unarmed protesters, killing a whole bunch of individuals.
A 12 months later, these photos of the KNU defending protesters have develop into symbolic of its position because the spine of Myanmar’s new age of resistance. The group has supplied military training to newly formed anti-coup armed groups, safety to political dissidents and secure passage for fugitives fleeing military-controlled areas.
“KNU individuals are very variety and excellent at guerrilla warfare,” mentioned Htet*, a 34-year-old resistance fighter who joined a community of armed teams in Yangon referred to as City Guerillas or UGs.
Armed KNLA troops present safety for a CDM protest march in Kawkareik, Karen State (KNLA Brigade 6), SE Myanmar, on Feb 19. The KNU/KNLA has beforehand publicly acknowledged they’ll defend protesters. As reported by Khit Thit & others. #WhatsHappeningInMyanmar #karen pic.twitter.com/5sQNvspqkl
— Matt W (@mattyrwalsh) February 19, 2021
Htet and all different sources interviewed for this story spoke to Al Jazeera in particular person from an undisclosed location.
Final 12 months, Htet travelled from Yangon to KNU territory to obtain coaching after watching troopers shoot down unarmed, peaceable protesters. “The navy arrested everybody and shot everybody. I wanted to know find out how to battle again,” he mentioned.
KNU spokesman Taw Nee says the brand new era of resistance fighters are “very lively and wish revenge”. Whereas he praises their motivation, he additionally says it has typically been troublesome for the KNU to handle the large inflow of inexperienced fighters hailing from a hodgepodge of disorganised, nascent armed teams.
Taw Nee mentioned that had led to some issues, like resistance fighters posting movies of battles on social media, unintentionally exposing delicate data, or docs insisting on preventing on the entrance traces once they can be extra helpful as subject medics.
“However they’ve improved so much,” Taw Nee mentioned, grinning like a proud father. “They’ve a whole lot of expertise inside just a few months.”
Htet took that have and put it to make use of when he returned to Yangon.
“There have been 10 troopers driving. We knew the route they normally took so we planted two bombs. After that, we heard a whole lot of screaming after which they begin bang bang bang,” he mentioned, describing a pipe bomb assault in Yangon’s Insein township.
In one other incident, they planted a number of bombs in Hlegu township, killing about eight troopers within the first blast. When two extra got here to analyze, they detonated a second, killing them as effectively.
When requested if he ever feels unhealthy about killing troopers, Htet shakes his head emphatically. “They’re very unhealthy individuals,” he insisted.
Defending peaceable resistance
The KNU doesn’t solely help armed resistance but additionally supplies help, safety and secure passage to peaceable political dissidents.
A police officer from Yangon, who abandoned when ordered to use violence against protesters, instructed Al Jazeera that the KNU additionally welcomed him, regardless of his resolution to not be a part of the preventing.
The 25-year-old, who joined the police power when he was simply 19, mentioned he abandoned on March 6 of final 12 months as violent crackdowns started to escalate. “They ordered me to crack down on protesters and arrest individuals. My superior officer mentioned to make use of rubber bullets after which to make use of actual bullets,” he mentioned.
He praised the KNU for offering him with meals and a secure home, however mentioned there have been nonetheless some shut calls. “The navy attacked our camp and we needed to run away,” he mentioned, explaining that just a few different dissidents had been captured through the raid.
Outstanding activist Thet Swe Win fled Yangon in March 2021, sheltering in KNU territory for about seven months. “I do know myself, I wouldn’t be an excellent soldier, however I respect the armed battle as a key element of the revolution,” he instructed Al Jazeera.
The tattoos that cowl Thet Swe Win’s arms inform the story of peace but additionally resistance: block letters spelling HAKUNA MATATA [Swahili for ‘no trouble’ and popularised in the film The Lion King] a peace signal, a person with a hammer smashing a Nazi swastika.
Regardless of being one of the vocal advocates for minority rights in Myanmar, even Thet Swe Win was not absolutely ready for the truth of life for Karen individuals. “Our understanding earlier than was too shallow,” he mentioned.
Thet Swe Win says whereas there’s a mutual animosity between the Bamar majority and the Karen, the ethnic minority are those who’re oppressed. “The one Burmese they see are the troopers. Those who kill and loot and rape and burn their homes,” he mentioned.
Thet Swe Win says in lots of rural areas, there aren’t any faculties or hospitals. He noticed one pregnant lady being carried in a hammock up mountains via the jungle to the closest clinic to present delivery.
“Many don’t have any correct homes, simply bamboo shelters, as a result of the troopers at all times raid and burn their villages,” he mentioned.
Karen state at battle
Preventing exploded throughout Karen state in December of final 12 months, when the navy raided Lay Kay Kaw city. Troopers arrested dozens of dissidents in hiding, together with two elected lawmakers from the Nationwide League for Democracy, which secured a landslide victory within the nation’s final elections in November 2020.
The navy has cited unsubstantiated allegations of fraud within the ballot in an try and justify its coup, however for the elected lawmakers their emphatic win is the supply of their legitimacy.
They arrange their very own administration referred to as the Nationwide Unity Authorities quickly after being pressured from workplace and a consultant of the civilian authorities continues to carry Myanmar’s seat on the United Nations. The navy, in the meantime, has declared the NUG and its anti-coup armed teams, referred to as Individuals’s Defence Forces (PDFs), as “terrorist” organisations.
Because the raid on Lay Kay Kaw, preventing has unfold to many different elements of the state. Taw Nee says there are clashes practically every single day, with tens of hundreds of civilians displaced.
Taw Nee says morale throughout the Myanmar navy is “very, very low” and claims preventing can be over quickly if the navy didn’t have air help.
Taw Nee says many of the PDFs working in Karen State have been introduced beneath the umbrella of the KNLA with a combined command construction. There’s a “joint coalition committee at each brigade degree” and if a unit consists of PDF troopers, the commander comes from the KNLA whereas the deputy is from the PDF.
“They put on KNLA uniforms, however they don’t communicate Karen,” he mentioned, laughing.
Whereas there was an anti-military rebellion in 1988, with some selecting the trail of armed resistance, it was not practically as profitable as right now’s revolution. Taw Nee says again then most individuals accepted the navy’s promise of an election in 1990 and “calmed down rapidly”.
“In 2021, it was not like that, it was completely totally different,” he mentioned, noting that younger individuals have had “a whole lot of expertise during the last 10 years in an open society” and aren’t keen to return.
Historical past repeats itself
However Taw Nee additionally worries that historical past may repeat itself in different methods.
After the navy refused to recognise the NLD’s landslide election victory in 1990, the KNU allied itself with an identical parallel administration referred to as the Nationwide Coalition Authorities of the Union of Burma.
“Then when The Girl was launched from home arrest, they modified every part,” he mentioned.
The Lady is Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s overthrown civilian chief, whose popularity was tarnished internationally after she defended the navy’s atrocities in opposition to the largely Muslim Rohingya minority.
Many ethnic armed teams additionally felt that after Aung San Suu Kyi got here to energy in 2016, she sided with the navy in opposition to them in peace negotiations. She is at the moment in navy custody in an unknown location, however there’s concern throughout the KNU that her launch may create divisions throughout the multi-ethnic resistance.
“If the Girl is launched, will you [the NUG] change your thoughts? They couldn’t reply straight away with this,” Taw Nee mentioned.
For now, he says the NUG and KNU are “all collectively” and he stays optimistic in regards to the future. “The thoughts has modified so much in the direction of ethnic individuals,” for the reason that coup, he mentioned.
Htet, the resistance fighter, says the brand new era of revolutionaries has larger respect for the KNU, which has skilled them, supported them and fought by their facet.
He nonetheless sees the NUG because the respectable authorities of Myanmar and has joined them in a civilian capability since being pressured to flee Yangon. However he says the parallel authorities must do extra.
“If [the NUG] gave us extra weapons, extra weapons, we’ll win sooner,” he mentioned, claiming most weapons come from the KNU or donations from the final inhabitants.
Even with restricted help, Htet stays assured the revolution will succeed.
“We’re an increasing number of highly effective now. We are able to make higher weapons and bombs. Plenty of PDFs and UGs are studying to liberate their cities.”