In a sleepy Karen village on the Myanmar-Thai border in Kayin state, a day after the March 27 Myanmar government air strikes, rebel soldiers stood guard as two dusty trucks stopped near a Karen National Defense Organization camp at the edge of the hamlet.
Eight young men jumped off the tailgate of the truck beds with knapsacks and assembled near a bamboo hut.
The group had come from Yangon to seek military training. They were obviously not soldiers.
Their presence was the result of a growing new alliance between the most recent victims of Myanmar army attacks, prodemocracy forces, and non-Burman ethnic groups, such as the Karens, that have been involved in decades of conflict with Myanmar’s military.
One of the young men explained why the group had come.
“When we protest on the streets, the Burmese army and police shoot at us and crack down on our demonstration but we're not afraid because we’ve been afraid of them for many years and this time we have to fight against their power,” the dark-haired man, wearing a surgical mask, said.
“We can’t stay in our own home because the Burmese soldiers followed and tried to arrest us so in the nighttime, so we have to move from place to place,” he added, using a reference to Myanmar’s former name, Burma.
As Myanmar’s civilian death toll rises in government-controlled areas, wide support for armed resistance and a federal army, comprised of Myanmar’s armed ethnic groups, is rising across the country.
On March 19, Colonel Naw Bu, spokesperson for another ethnic organization, the Kachin Independence Organization, said the KIO supports the establishment of a federal army.
"Now, many people want to join the federal army and the KIA [Kachin Independence Army] because the Burmese army are terrorizing the civilians in the government-controlled areas,” La Ring, a former Kachin Independence Army soldier, who now provides humanitarian training with the Free Burma Rangers, a Thai-based humanitarian organization, said.
At the Karen National Defense Organization headquarters in eastern Myanmar, Major General Nerdah Bo Mya and his troops welcomed the new batch of recruits.
Since then, hundreds more activists have reportedly sought protection and training in the country’s border regions.
“We are more than happy to protect them, to help them and to give them what they need, like, for example, basic training so that they can protect themselves,” Nerdah Bo Mya said.
“I am not very surprised what they are doing to the people right now because they have done it to the ethnic groups for so many decades. And so, for me it’s not a surprise to see them killing people brutally on the streets in the city,” he added in response to a question about the Myanmar military’s brutal crackdown.
Although the Karen National Union was among the armed ethnic organizations that signed the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement with the government in 2015, the Karens’ conflict with the government had persisted before February’s coup.
Now, it seems, the majority ethnic Burmans — based in central Myanmar — are fully aware of the military's history of brutality, if they weren’t already.
“It's been a long time coming but finally all the peoples of Myanmar truly realize the Tatmadaw is the nemesis of the nation's progress, and the real enemy of social and economic in the country,” Human Rights Watch Asia deputy director Phil Robertson said, using a term for the country’s military.
“This new national alliance is a testament to just how thoroughly the Tatmadaw has violated human rights and run roughshod over democratic principles with their bloody coup d’etat,” he said.
Analysts say that plans to unite ethnic groups with the majority ethnic Burman people will take time, but that the signs of cohesion are slowly forming, including formation of the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw by elected legislators kept from their seats.
“After broad consultations with and support from numerous ethnic political parties, ethnic armed resistance organizations, and mass protest movements, the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) formed a new National Unity Government in accordance with the will and demand of the people,” said Linn Thant, a CRPH team consultant, now living in Czech Republic.
The National Unity Government was announced April 16, and includes a range of ethnic representation, the former political prisoner, who was jailed for nearly two decades by junta forces before his 2008 release, said.
“You can see that government’s body, vice president is Kachin man who represents all Kachin groups including KIA. Prime minister is a Karen man. The Kachin, the Mon, the Karen, the Kayah, the Chin, the Ta’ang are in the cabinet of the NUG. And the cabinet body of NUG will be reshaped and extended in a few weeks,” Linn Thant added.
Military support on the ground, from the ethnic groups, remains a challenge because of vast areas of land in some regions, separating armed groups and protesters.
“The reality is there is a significant distance between the armed battles in the ethnic borderlands, and the faceoffs between CDM protesters and security forces in the cities,” Robertson said, referring to Myanmar’s opposition Civil Disobedience Movement.
“Mobilizing disparate groups and sustaining that push against a centralized, heavily armed military has always been the core challenge for those who want to change the situation on the ground in Myanmar,” he added.
The conditions that the ethnic civilian population has faced against the army have been longstanding for many villagers along the Myanmar-Thai border.
Naw Bee Paw, a 65-year-old Karen villager, said she has witnessed the turmoil since her early teens.
At 15, her father was arrested in the Ayeyarwady region on the Andaman Sea during a military crackdown. When he was released after four months, the family fled the region, settling in Kayin state.
Fifty years later, she said she fears that the current conflict will escalate, displacing her family once again.
“The Burmese army attacked the Karen area with air strikes so I’m very afraid," she said.
“I have heard that villagers can’t flee to the Thai side because Thai soldiers had blocked them, so I’m scared because we are the too elderly and live alone in this house,” she said.
Thousands of Karen villagers, including inhabitants from Ee Thu Hat displaced persons camp, fled across the border following last month’s Myanmar army air strike but most of them were sent back by Thai soldiers, according to witnesses on the ground.
The Myanmar military has intensified attacks on the ethnic minorities in Kayin state as well as the ongoing conflicts in neighboring Shan and Kachin states, as rebel forces have responded with counterattacks.
Critics say instilling fear in the ethnic minorities has been practiced since the military coup in 1962, although documentation of the methodology was limited due to the country’s isolation.
Now, tech savvy anti-coup protesters, along with the civilian population, can record many of the atrocities being committed by government security forces with mobile phones.
Myanmar’s Deposed Leader Aung San Suu Kyi Makes New Court Appearance
Myanmar’s deposed de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi made another court appearance Monday as the country’s regional neighbors increase pressure on the military junta to bring an end to the deadly chaos.
Lawyers for the 75-year-old Suu Kyi also appeared via video conference in a courtroom in the capital Naypyitaw for a procedural hearing.
Suu Kyi has been detained since the February 1 coup and is facing six criminal charges, the most serious of them a charge of breaking the country’s colonial-era secrets law that could put her in prison for 14 years if convicted.
Her lawyers say on Monday she again demanded a face-to-face meeting with her legal team, which has not occurred during her detention.
Two other leaders from the overthrown civilian government, President U Win Myint and Dr. Myo Aung, Naypitaw Council Chairman, also appeared before the court via video conference. The next hearing for all three will be held on May 10.
The military cited widespread fraud in last November’s general election — which Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won in a landslide — as its reason for overthrowing Suu Kyi’s government.
The coup has sparked daily mass demonstrations across Myanmar demanding the return of Suu Kyi and her elected government to power.
The junta has responded with an increasingly violent and deadly crackdown against the protesters. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a nongovernmental monitoring organization, estimates that more than 700 people have been killed since the coup.
Leaders of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) regional bloc, of which Myanmar is a member, held an emergency summit Saturday in Jakarta with Senior General Min Aung Hliang, the junta’s leader. The group issued a rare statement demanding the junta end the violence, begin a dialogue with all relevant parties and allow entry of a special ASEAN envoy.
But it stopped short of a demand for the immediate release of all political prisoners.
Editorial: Myanmar People’s Disdain for ASEAN Borne Out by Pathetic ‘Consensus’
Myanmar Shadow Government Welcomes ASEAN Call to End Violence
Myanmar’s shadow government of ousted lawmakers has welcomed a call by Southeast Asian leaders for an end to “military violence” after their crisis talks in Jakarta with junta leader Min Aung Hlaing.
The general attended a high-level summit Saturday with leaders from the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to discuss Myanmar’s mounting crisis.
Since the military ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi in a Feb. 1 coup, Myanmar has been in an uproar with near-daily protests and a nationwide civil disobedience movement.
Security forces have deployed live ammunition to quell the uprising, killing more than 740 people in brutal crackdowns, according to local monitoring group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).
The ASEAN meeting produced a consensus that there would be “an immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar,” the bloc said Saturday.
It added that ASEAN will also have a special envoy to “facilitate mediation” between all parties, and this representative will be able to travel to Myanmar.
But while they “heard calls for the release of all political prisoners,” a commitment to free them was not included in the consensus statement.
A spokesperson from the shadow government — known as the National Unity Government (NUG) — on Saturday said ASEAN’s statement was “encouraging news.”
“We look forward to firm action by ASEAN to follow up its decisions and restore our democracy and freedom for our people and for the region,” said Dr Sasa, the NUG’s minister of international cooperation, who is currently in hiding with the rest of his fellow lawmakers.
The lawmakers — most of whom were part of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party — are wanted for high treason by the junta.
Overnight, European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the bloc will continue to call for the release of political prisoners.
‘Business as usual’
As Myanmar nears three months under the military regime, escalating violence by its security forces — especially in urban centers — has pushed protesters and prominent activists into hiding.
The junta has also throttled communications across the country, imposing a nightly internet shutdown for 70 consecutive days and restricting mobile data to a mere trickle.
By Saturday, the number of detainees climbed to 3,389, according to AAPP.
Independent news outlet The Irrawaddy confirmed Sunday that a former editor, Thu Thu Tha, was arrested in Thanlyin, a port city across the river from commercial hub Yangon.
“In spite of Min Aung Hlaing’s appearance in the ASEAN summit, it’s business as usual,” Irrawaddy’s founder Aung Zaw told AFP, adding that most of his staff are currently in hiding.
On Saturday, as the junta chief attended the meeting with ASEAN leaders and foreign ministers in Jakarta, soldiers and police fired on protesters near Myanmar’s capital, Naypyidaw.
One 50-year-old protester was held by the police and shot dead by a soldier; an eyewitness told AFP.
Despite the threat of violence, protesters across Myanmar continued to take to the streets Sunday — from the northern jade mining city of Hpakant to eastern Karenni state.
In central Myingyan — where brutal crackdowns have forced residents to hide in nearby villages — protesters smeared red paint on some of the city’s buildings to protest the bloodshed.
“Give power back to the people,” read graffiti on the city’s sidewalks.
‘Will the killing stop?’
State-run newspaper New Light of Myanmar on Sunday reported on Min Aung Hlaing’s visit to Jakarta and said he discussed the country’s “political changes.”
But it made no mention of ASEAN’s consensus for a halt to violence.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, Tom Andrews, said it remains to be seen how effective the bloc’s engagement will be.
“The result of the ASEAN Summit will be found in Myanmar, not [in] a document,” Andrews tweeted Sunday.
“Will the killing stop? Will the terrorizing of neighborhoods end? Will the thousands abducted be released?”
The junta has justified its power seizure as a means to protect democracy, alleging electoral fraud in November elections which Suu Kyi’s party had won in a landslide.
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