Rise of armed civilian groups in Myanmar fuels fears of full-scale civil war
ByJournalists from The Guardian*
Dozens of grassroots people’s defence forces have emerged to take on brutal military
Myanmar is on the verge of a new civil war, a spokesperson
for the country’s parallel government has warned, as communities increasingly
take up arms to protect themselves from a relentless campaign of military
Conflict has raged for decades in Myanmar’s borderlands,
where myriad ethnic armed groups are fighting with the military for greater
autonomy. Since February’s coup, however, dozens of new, grassroots people’s
defence forces have emerged to oppose the junta, with battles occurring in
areas of the country that were previously peaceful.
“The people of Myanmar have been left with no other choice.
They just have no other option left,” said Dr
Sasa, spokesperson for Myanmar’s national unity government (NUG), which was
set up by pro-democracy politicians.
The constant threat of military raids, arrests, torture and
killings had pushed communities to take up arms, he said.
“It is just the
beginning. The situation will become out of control. Even if it is one man in a
village, they will not just bow in front of these murderers. It is the whole
country on the road to civil war,” Sasa said.
Over the past week, tens of thousands of people have been
displaced in eastern Kayah state by intense fighting between the military, the
newly formed Karenni People’s Defence Force and the Karenni Army, an
established ethnic armed group. On Monday evening, the military used
helicopters to bomb and fire at civilian fighters, the Karenni People’s Defence
Force told local media. “We attacked with light weapons but they responded with
artillery shells,” a the KPDF member told the independent outlet Myanmar
At least 58 defence forces have formed across the country,
of which 12 are active, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data
Project (Acled), a non-profit that tracks conflict. These groups are formed
at a local level and are not necessarily officially linked to the NUG. Groups
have revealed little about the nature of their training, but their resources
and intensity vary.
In the town of Mindat in Chin state, one of the poorest
areas of the country, volunteers armed with little more than traditional
hunting guns rose up against the military in May. Elsewhere, young city
dwellers have fled to the jungle to learn how to make homemade explosives.
Celebrities are among those who have announced that they are joining training –
from a former beauty queen who represented Myanmar in the Miss Grand
International contest, Htar Htet Htet, to Han Htoo Lwin, known as Kyar Pauk,
the lead singer of punk rock band Big Bag.
In Myanmar’s biggest city, Yangon, members of the security
forces have been targeted in a wave of attacks over the past week, including
shootings and explosions. A wedding party was also targeted, reportedly because
the groom was suspected of being a military informant. Four people were killed
– including the bride – after a bomb was disguised as a gift, according to
local media. No one has claimed responsibility for the blasts.
Schools across the country, some of which have been occupied
by the military, have been bombed or set alight by unknown perpetrators, in
what may be an attempt to reinforce the shutdown of the education system by
anti-coup protesters. The junta has ordered parents to register their children
to return to school, but the vast majority have not done so. More than half of
the teachers working in state schools are on strike, according to local media.
Such attacks, including the targeting of individuals
suspected of colluding with the military, were a worrying trend, said Richard
Horsey, senior Myanmar adviser to Crisis Group. “It will be
difficult to contain once this kind of violence becomes the norm. It’s hard to
shut these dynamics down again later.”
The NUG, which has spoken of plans to build a new federal
army, has urged anti-coup groups to follow ethical guidelines and not target
schools or hospitals. It released a video on Saturday showing the first batch
of defence force troops who have finished training.
Some ethnic armed groups have offered support to anti-coup
forces, though others are ambivalent. Groups could seek to exploit the coup for
their own territorial gains, further complicating the crisis.
Anti-coup defence forces face an infamously brutal military
that has an estimated 400,000 armed personnel, making it the second largest in
south-east Asia after Vietnam’s. It is supplied primarily by China and Russia,
drawing on generous state funding as well as its lucrative business networks –
which campaigners are trying to weaken by placing pressure on international
Sasa is calling for the international community to recognise
the NUG as the official leaders of Myanmar. Doing so, he said, would help the
body to demand that oil and gas companies, such as Total and Chevron, hand over
payments to democratic officials rather than army generals.
“It is an insult to us that the gas that is from the land of
Myanmar is being used by these military generals, and being paid for by Total
company or [other] western companies, to buy weapons from Russia and China to
kill the people of Myanmar,” he said.
Nine neighbouring south-east Asian countries have reportedly
proposed that a draft UN resolution be weakened by removing a call for an arms
Sasa called for like-minded countries to push for the
measure, and to introduce tougher, targeted sanctions. The more the
international community delayed, he added, “the more bloody it will become, the
closer we get to civil war and genocide”.
More battles are already reported to have taken place in
Myanmar in the first half of 2021 than in the entirety of last year, according
to Acled. It has also tracked sharp increases in reports of attacks on
civilians, and reports of explosions and other forms of remote violence, which
include the deployment of artillery, shelling, grenades or IEDs.
Previously, conflict was concentrated in Rakhine state and
northern Shan state, but it has now spread more widely across the country. This
is likely to place pressure on local commanders, said Horsey, but it is hard to
know what impact it will have on the military as a whole.
“They are quite large, they have a lot of military resources
and they are not concerned at all about civilian casualties. In fact, their
whole approach to internal conflict over the decades has been to deliberately
target civilians as part of a quite brutal counter-insurgency strategy,” Horsey
Salai Za Uk Ling, deputy executive director of the Chin Human Rights Organization,
said people from Mindat reported the military had used civilians as human
shields during recent clashes. Thousands of people from the town remain
stranded just as the rainy season was beginning, he said.
“They say they are getting very, very desperate. There has
been some delivery of food aid and basic medical aid from volunteers, but there
has been no large-scale delivery,” he added, warning of an impending
humanitarian crisis. Covid-19 is also spreading along the Indian border.
At least 833 people have been killed by the military since
it seized power in February, according to estimates by the advocacy group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners Burma.
Thousands have been detained, often in unknown locations where they are at risk
An activist who has met young people who are training to
fight the military, and who asked to remain anonymous, said volunteers believed
violence was the only language the military understood. “They want to scare the
soldiers coming into their communities making arrests, beating and torturing,”
she said. “Some people are hoteliers, some have their own restaurants, bars –
and they have now left all their businesses.”
One young medical student had fled alone to train, the
activist said. “She was so passionate because her friends got killed. Her place
was terrorised under martial law. She saw people burning alive in front of her.
That experience pushed her to
pick up the gun.” Tue 1 Jun 2021
* Reporter in Yangon
and Rebecca Ratcliffe in Bangkok
media under pressure from all sides