A man holds a picture of 19-year-old Kyal Sin, also known as Angel, during her burial in Mandalay, Myanmar

Souring on peace marches, Myanmar protesters seek weapons

Will the US support the pro-democracy resistance in Myanmar as it takes up arms?

The World

Myanmar’s protesters tried to do it the nice way — through peace marches, singing protest songs, rallying to denounce the military, which seized power four months ago and locked up elected officials.

But public outcry against the coup has been answered with bullets. Troops have sprayed crowds of protesters with assault rifles, killing more than 800 civilians, including children. They’ve even launched mortars — a weapon used at Stalingrad and Iwo Jima — into packed neighborhoods.

Related: Aung San Suu Kyi's lawyer sees little chance for a fair trial

This brutality has people — once inclined to protest — now asking that if they're treated as enemy combatants regardless, why not take up arms?

By the thousands, they are sneaking into Myanmar’s borderlands, seeking seasoned guerrillas who can train them to fight.

Much of Myanmar’s population lives in the lowlands — dusty plains or rain-soaked deltas — where cities are dominated by the Burmese — the country’s majority ethnicity. This is where the military reigns supreme.

Head toward the hills, however, and the land is contested. Indigenous fighters struggle to defend their various homelands from the conquering military that is hell-bent on ethnic cleansing and extracting gems, along with other natural bounty. There are dozens of these ethnic armies in the borderlands. Some are now welcoming urbanites who are fed up with protesting.

Related: ‘Our unity is our hope,’ exiled Myanmar envoy says

An influx of “young people who want to take revenge on the military” is now coming from the lowlands up into mountains near Thailand, said Padoh Saw Taw Nee. He’s a senior official with the Karen National Union or KNU, one of the world’s longest-running resistance armies. It is sworn to defend an ethnic group called the Karen.

The KNU is providing basic training in combat and tactics, but “I can’t give more detailed information,” Padoh Saw Taw Nee said.

Other sources indicate trainees spend weeks in secret camps, running drills with wooden facsimiles of M16s. At some camps, they get to fire a few bullets with a real rifle.

But they are not meant to stick around the jungle. The idea is for trainees to take these newfound skills back to their urban neighborhoods and resist from there.

So, could they return to the cities with rifles in hand?

Related: Myanmar’s army is turning guns on medics

“No, nothing like that,” Padoh Saw Taw Nee said.

A used M16 sells for roughly $1,000 on the black market in the Thai-Myanmar borderlands; many people in the country don’t make much more than that in a year. Myanmar’s resistance armies simply do not have enough cash or weapons to arm this new wave of dissenters.

Yet, the urbanites will be expected to fight nonetheless, proving their conviction by any means necessary.

“They still need to pull their weight, even if they don’t have many resources at the moment.”

Hkanhpa Tu Sadan, foreign secretary of the Kachin National Organization

“They still need to pull their weight, even if they don’t have many resources at the moment,” said Hkanhpa Tu Sadan, foreign secretary of the Kachin National Organization, a political group advocating for the Kachin minority group.

The Kachin people hail from mountains along the China-Myanmar border. They are protected by the Kachin Independence Army, or KIA, one of Asia’s larger resistance armies with 10,000-plus fighters.

Hkanhpa Tu Sadan, closely allied with the KIA, said its guerrilla officers are also training young Burmese dissidents. Some are motivated by dramatic video of KIA forces seizing military outposts on social media.

“We’re hoping they’ll go back and fight in their own corner,” Hkanhpa Tu Sadan said.

That is this expectation: The urbanites will drain the military’s energy in towns and cities — helping battle-hardened, Indigenous fighters make gains in the countryside.

Related: Inside Myanmar, calls for UN intervention grow louder

There are indications that, despite having little to no firepower, upstart resistance cells can deal out damage. Some have built DIY guns in garages — made from scrap metal and gunpowder — or gathered up old hunting rifles.

In a few isolated towns, ragtag bands calling themselves People’s Defense Forces have killed and briefly expelled police and troops. This requires incredible courage; they are taking on a central military, flush with weapons from China and Russia, as well as Israel and India, not to mention fighter jets that can immolate enemies from above.

No one imagines they could seize one of Myanmar’s major cities — such as Yangon, its former capital — anytime soon. But there has been a rash of mysterious violence in Yangon: police stations bombed, torched administrative offices (which can contain incriminating files on dissidents) and even local officials assassinated.

No group took credit for this killing and sabotage.

That lowlanders and highlanders are combining forces is revolutionary. Myanmar has suffered under military rule for much of its existence — since the country shook off British colonization in 1948 — and the army-influenced school curriculum often portrays armed minorities as terrorists. Now, many protesters see upcountry guerrillas as heroes.

In turning to the mountains for salvation, Burmese protesters are going against a racial hierarchy propagated by the military. They are enraged by troops gunning down civilians in cities, but in mountainous areas, such atrocities have been routine for decades, Hkanhpa Tu Sadan said.

“Now they can really sympathize with us,” he said.

This solidarity is still shaky. Myanmar’s ethnic armed forces will be watching its lowlander trainees to see if they are worthy allies.

“We are telling them that simply taking revenge is not the only solution,” Padoh Saw Taw Nee of the KNU said. “You need to [clarify] your political aims.”

That clarification is underway. Moving forward, the urban resistance will be led by the People’s Defense Force or PDF. It is the newest (and for now, worst-equipped) armed wing in Myanmar, and it answers to the elected officials who were swept out by the February 1 coup.

Though most elected parliamentarians are in hiding or on the run, they have assembled a government-in-exile. They’re asking outside countries to accept it as Myanmar’s rightful leaders — even if they must operate in the shadows for now.

This National Unity Government has released videos of newly trained PDF combatants taking an oath at hidden jungle camps.

“I view it as a positive step. Now they can do more than say, ‘Help us, help us,’ and pull their weight. But they also need to find a way to support the ethnic groups financially.”

Hkanhpa Tu Sadan

“I view it as a positive step,” Hkanhpa Tu Sadan said. “Now they can do more than say, ‘Help us, help us,’ and pull their weight. But they also need to find a way to support the ethnic groups financially.”

Some minority forces, he said, are “a bit frustrated” that this parliament-in-exile seems more focused on ideology — or drafting a new constitution — than “liberating” towns and villages.

“We all need to work together on the ground,” he said, “instead of talking on Zoom.”

The urban resistance wave and its exiled politicians may lack combat experience. But they may possess political capital that guerrilla fighters lack.

Their shadow parliament is, to a large degree, the reconstructed remnants of a political machine built by Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s most popular figure. Though now detained and disconnected from the resistance, her camp is connected to the West, namely the US.

For decades, America held Aung San Suu Kyi aloft as an icon of peaceful resistance. It even imposed sanctions, in part, to pressure the domineering military to let her rule. But her star power evaporated after she supported a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign against a Muslim ethnic minority by the sea — the Rohingya. Still, there is little doubting the West would prefer that her political faction call the shots.

Since the late 1980s, the US has exalted Myanmar’s peaceful protesters, especially those waving signs featuring Aung San Suu Kyi’s face. But will America keep cheering for them even as they shoot back at their tormentors? They should, according to Hkanhpa Tu Sadan. As should every country that wants lasting peace in Myanmar, an outcome that is contingent, he said, on ousting the current military.

Several resistance armies, such as the KIA and KNU, are also asking outside governments to impose a no-fly zone — essentially acting as the rebellion’s air force as they take offensives against the military. But that does not appear likely at this point.

In the meantime, Hkanhpa Tu Sadan said, the urbanites can at least use their financial acumen to court the outside world, raise money and funnel it to the rebellion — in part, to buy weapons for their own city-dwelling resistance cells. That could bog down the military in almost every corner of the country.

“Yes, we will provide lots of training to this young generation,” he said. “But if we can’t provide them with arms … what’s the point of military training?”

Will you keep The World spinning?

Donations from listeners like you are absolutely crucial in funding the great music and human-centered global news you hear on The World. Recurring gifts provide predictable, sustainable support — letting our team focus on telling the stories you don’t hear anywhere else. If you make a gift of $100 or pledge $10/month we’ll send you a curated playlist highlighting some of the team's favorite music from the show Donate today to keep The World spinning.