‘Our only option’: Myanmar civilians take up arms for democracy

In the weeks following the February 1 military coup, Andrew joined millions across Myanmar in peacefully demonstrating for a return to civilian rule.

Less than two months later, the 27-year-old was training to kill soldiers with a wooden hunting rifle in the jungles of his native Kayah State on Myanmar’s southeastern border with Thailand.

“Before the coup, I couldn’t even kill an animal,” said Andrew, who in common with other resistance fighters interviewed by Al Jazeera preferred his name not be disclosed for security reasons. “When I saw the military kill civilians, I felt really sad and troubled… I came to the mindset that I’m fighting for the people against evil military dictators.”

Andrew is among growing numbers of civilians across the country, many of them young, who have taken up arms to bring down a military that has killed more than 860 people, mostly in anti-coup protests, arrested more than 6,000, and used tactics including torture and enforced disappearances since it seized power from the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.Some of the fighters have enlisted in ethnic armed organisations in the country’s borderlands, where ethnic minorities have fought for decades against Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, for self-determination and rights. Others, like Andrew, have joined one of several dozen civilian defence forces that have sprung up in cities and towns since late March.

 

But while ethnic armed groups have had years to develop resources and capacity, civilian defence forces are mostly armed with single-shot hunting rifles and other homemade weapons, and many fighters have had only a few weeks of combat training.

Facing a military that has amassed more than $2bn in arms and has 70 years of experience cracking down on civilian populations, the new revolutionaries told Al Jazeera they were willing to test the odds because they felt armed resistance was the only option left to bring down the regime.

“We have conducted nationwide protests and launched a civil disobedience movement against the military in hopes of restoring civilian democracy, but those methods alone didn’t work,” said Neino, a former university lecturer who is now leading the political arm of a civilian resistance group in Chin State and neighbouring Sagaing region. “We have done everything we can, and taking up arms is the only way left to win this,” she added.

Salai Vakok, a 23-year-old community development worker-turned-resistance fighter, also in Chin State, started collecting hunting rifles in his native Mindat township shortly after the Tatmadaw began gunning down protesters in mid-February.

“We used to hope that people from outside the country would fight for us, but that never happened,” he said.

“I never in my life thought I would hold a weapon… but I quickly changed my mind after learning about the killing of unarmed, innocent civilians across the country and especially in lowland areas. I couldn’t stay silent. To avenge the fallen heroes and show my solidarity, I decided to take up arms.”

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