When the Myanmar army seized energy on February 1 final yr, the nation’s oldest main ethnic armed group, the Karen Nationwide Union, was additionally one of many first to sentence the coup.
“We can not settle for the army taking energy and detaining the nation’s leaders. It is a huge impediment and problem in transitioning to democracy,” the KNU mentioned in a press release the day after the ability seize, accusing the army of violating its personal 2008 structure.
Quickly afterwards, troops from the KNU’s armed wing, the Karen Nationwide Liberation Military, have 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 army launched into a marketing campaign of brutal violence in opposition to unarmed protesters, killing a whole bunch of individuals.
A yr later, these photographs of the KNU defending protesters have grow to be symbolic of its function because the spine of Myanmar’s new age of resistance. The group has offered army coaching to newly shaped anti-coup armed teams, safety to political dissidents and secure passage for fugitives fleeing military-controlled areas.
“KNU persons 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 often called 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 are going to shield 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 yr, Htet travelled from Yangon to KNU territory to obtain coaching after watching troopers shoot down unarmed, peaceable protesters. “The army arrested everybody and shot everybody. I wanted to know the right way to combat again,” he mentioned.
KNU spokesman Taw Nee says the brand new technology of resistance fighters are “very lively and need revenge”. Whereas he praises their motivation, he additionally says it has generally been troublesome for the KNU to handle the huge 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 videos of battles on social media, by chance exposing delicate data, or medical doctors insisting on combating on the entrance traces after they could be extra helpful as subject medics.
“However they’ve improved so much,” Taw Nee mentioned, grinning like a proud father. “They’ve plenty of expertise inside a couple of 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 plenty 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 research, they detonated a second, killing them as properly.
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 assist armed resistance but additionally offers assist, safety and secure passage to peaceable political dissidents.
A police officer from Yangon, who abandoned when ordered to make use of violence in opposition to protesters, advised Al Jazeera that the KNU additionally welcomed him, regardless of his resolution to not be a part of the combating.
The 25-year-old, who joined the police drive when he was simply 19, mentioned he abandoned on March 6 of final yr 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 army attacked our camp and we needed to run away,” he mentioned, explaining that a couple of different dissidents have been captured in the course of 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 a great soldier, however I respect the armed wrestle as a key element of the revolution,” he advised 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 some 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 girl being carried in a hammock up mountains by means of the jungle to the closest clinic to provide start.
“Many don’t have any correct homes, simply bamboo shelters, as a result of the troopers all the time raid and burn their villages,” he mentioned.
Karen state at conflict
Combating exploded throughout Karen state in December of final yr, when the army 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 army has cited unsubstantiated allegations of fraud within the ballot in an try to justify its coup, however for the elected lawmakers their emphatic win is the supply of their legitimacy.
They arrange their very own administration known 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 army, in the meantime, has declared the NUG and its anti-coup armed teams, often called Individuals’s Defence Forces (PDFs), as “terrorist” organisations.
For the reason that raid on Lay Kay Kaw, combating has unfold to many different components of the state. Taw Nee says there are clashes practically each day, with tens of 1000’s of civilians displaced.
Taw Nee says morale throughout the Myanmar army is “very, very low” and claims combating could be over quickly if the army didn’t have air assist.
Taw Nee says a lot of the PDFs working in Karen State have been introduced below 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 as we speak’s revolution. Taw Nee says again then most individuals accepted the army’s promise of an election in 1990 and “calmed down rapidly”.
“In 2021, it was not like that, it was completely completely different,” he mentioned, noting that younger individuals have had “plenty of expertise over the past 10 years in an open society” and aren’t keen to return.
Historical past repeats itself
However Taw Nee additionally worries that historical past might repeat itself in different methods.
After the army refused to recognise the NLD’s landslide election victory in 1990, the KNU allied itself with the same parallel administration often called the Nationwide Coalition Authorities of the Union of Burma.
“Then when The Girl was launched from home arrest, they modified all the things,” he mentioned.
The Girl is Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s overthrown civilian chief, whose fame was tarnished internationally after she defended the army’s atrocities in opposition to the largely Muslim Rohingya minority.
Many ethnic armed teams additionally felt that when Aung San Suu Kyi got here to energy in 2016, she sided with the army in opposition to them in peace negotiations. She is presently in army custody in an unknown location, however there’s concern throughout the KNU that her launch might create divisions throughout the multi-ethnic resistance.
“If the Girl is launched, will you [the NUG] change your thoughts? They couldn’t reply immediately with this,” Taw Nee mentioned.
For now, he says the NUG and KNU are “all collectively” and he stays optimistic concerning the future. “The thoughts has modified so much in direction of ethnic individuals,” for the reason that coup, he mentioned.
Htet, the resistance fighter, says the brand new technology of revolutionaries has better respect for the KNU, which has educated them, supported them and fought by their facet.
He nonetheless sees the NUG because the official 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 are going to win sooner,” he mentioned, claiming most weapons come from the KNU or donations from the overall inhabitants.
Even with restricted assist, Htet stays assured the revolution will succeed.
“We’re increasingly more highly effective now. We will make higher weapons and bombs. Lots of PDFs and UGs are studying to liberate their cities.”