Myanmar rebels consider unity the key to victory over weak military rulers Conflict news

Karen State, Myanmar – A young fighter looks from the top floor at the concrete shell of a church that villagers have been building for two years in this small enclave in southeastern Myanmar.

Construction work has been slow, said 21-year-old Zayar, a member of Myanmar’s Muslim community who moved from Yangon, the country’s largest city, to a rebel camp near the Thai border to fight against his country’s military rulers.

Air raids by military warplanes are a constant threat in this small village in Karen State – also known as Kayin – where jobs are scarce and money is tight.

But little by little, the ethnic Karen people here were able to build their church.

“Before, we thought the Karen people were bandits,” said Zayar, who joined the rebellion against the Myanmar army last year.

“Now people understand the real situation,” he told Al Jazeera.

Zayar’s opinion of the Karen – one of Myanmar’s largest minorities – has been shaped by derogatory images and stereotyping circulated under the country’s military generals, who are primarily descended from the Bamar ethnic majority and who have violently suppressed the aspirations of Myanmar’s diverse ethnic groups for decades. Time.

Zayar, a fighter with the Kosovo Liberation Army in Karen State, Myanmar, in December 2023 (Lorcan Lovett/Al Jazeera)
Zayar, a fighter with the Kosovo Liberation Army in Karen State, Myanmar, in December 2023 (Lorcan Lovett/Al Jazeera)

The Myanmar military’s attempts to pressure the country’s minorities into submission – extending back to the 1940s – fueled one of the world’s longest-running conflicts.

Now, as military leaders mark their third year since seizing power in Myanmar, an uprising merging decades-long ethnic struggles for self-determination with recent armed fighting to restore democracy has engulfed much of the country.

In October, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, based in the Mandarin-speaking Kokang region on the border with China, along with two other powerful ethnic armed groups, as well as Bamar fighters, launched their offensive against the army.

The cooperation – known as the Three Brothers Alliance – has achieved unprecedented victories against the Myanmar military, which ousted the civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi in February 2021.

Resistance to the country’s military rulers is now a widespread church, and confidence in the movement and its campaign has been greatly strengthened by the involvement of an increasing number of armed actors.

However, the alliance’s common cause to remove the military from power persists in the face of a complex history of rivalries and suspicions between many ethnic armed groups – divisions that the military has successfully exploited to its advantage in the past.

As the coalition offensive moves from the countryside to urban areas in western, northern and eastern Myanmar, the army is struggling to find a way back, and some fear that cooperation between the rebels will not hold together.

The unity of purpose

Ziar slings his rifle around his shoulder and walks through the corn and peanut crops to his camp. His role in the revolution embodies many of the dreams and contradictions that have come to define the struggle in Myanmar.

On the recommendation of a friend, Zayar joined the Kawthuli Army (KTLA), a fringe splinter group formed by General Ner Dah Bo Mya, who had withdrawn from the armed movement of the Karen National Union (KNU) after refusing to participate in the murder investigation. To a group of men allegedly carried out by his fighters in 2021.

This undated photo taken in May 2021 shows an anti-coup activist receiving basic military training with a weapon at a camp of the Karen National Union (KNU), an ethnic rebel group in Karen State after people fled Myanmar's major cities due to military repression and sought...  Taking refuge in rebel areas.  (Photo by Agence France-Presse)
An anti-coup activist receives basic military training with the Karen National Union in Karen State in 2021 (AFP)

Ner Dah Bo Mya did not deny that his fighters carried out the killings, claiming that the 25 unarmed men were military spies.

He also cultivated a controversial image for his KTLA unit, which attracted young men eager to take up arms to overthrow the military dictatorship.

Although both are fighting the military, the KLA has also clashed with the Karen National Union in southern Myanmar. On other occasions, KLA fighters and soldiers under the Karen National Union worked together in operations.

KTLA fighters stand at their base in Karen State, Myanmar, in December. (Lorcan Lovett/Al Jazeera)
KTLA fighters stand at their base in Karen State, Myanmar, in December. (Lorcan Lovett/Al Jazeera)

Myanmar political analyst Kim Jolliffe says that unity represents the most important factor in the success of the current armed revolution.

Jolliffe said unity is not only essential for military success, but also to lay the foundation for a post-military Myanmar.

He said unity would be key to moving the country away from a “highly coercive centralized state” that “creates constant conflict” to one where “all ethnic groups are equal in a real power-sharing mechanism.”

“The central problem that the revolution must solve is how to create a system that promotes diversity and creates a balance of power so that no group positions itself as all-encompassing chauvinistic controllers,” Jolliffe told Al Jazeera.

“We will likely continue to see local conflicts and tensions between resistance groups in some areas. But there is no indication that it will have a fundamental impact on the general direction of the revolution,” he added.

Although some ethnic forces have allied with the military establishment or have remained neutral, most of the country’s vast ethnic armed groups have poured their resources and forces into the current campaign against the generals.

Ziar said he risked everything for the revolution.

“Living under a dictatorship is worse than death,” he says. “I will fight until I die.”

For Zayar, he is fighting for equality.

Because he is a Muslim in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, some have nicknamed him “Kalar” — a term used as an insult to Muslims or anyone of South Asian descent in Myanmar. He says his official national ID card in Myanmar also refers to him as “Muslim,” not only because of his religion but also as an ethnic identity.

“When the government put me like this, I felt discriminated against,” he told Al Jazeera.

“I was born and raised in Myanmar. Of course I am Myanmar.”

Two KTLA soldiers wearing clothes donated by supporters perform a comedy dance to entertain their camp comrades (Lorcan Lovett/Al Jazeera)
Two KTLA fighters wearing clothes donated by supporters perform a comedy dance to entertain their comrades at their base camp (Lorcan Lovett/Al Jazeera)

Zaiyar joined the revolution relatively late – in April 2023 – more than two years after military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing seized power from Aung San Suu Kyi.

On the military side, people are unwilling to fight for coup leader Min Aung Hlaing, who has overseen a relentless series of atrocities against civilians across the country since seizing power.

Media outlets such as Frontier Myanmar and Radio Free Asia have reported that the army is snatching young men from the streets at night and threatening to burn villages as a way to secure recruits and increase their numbers.

As post-coup violence by the military prompted peaceful demonstrators to seek combat training under the supervision of ethnic insurgents, previously inexperienced opponents of the regime have evolved into battle-hardened fighters.

Movements of military forces have become rare. It relies mostly on air strikes and heavy weapons from fortified positions. The mass surrender of regime forces reinforced the idea of ​​a collapse in morale among the bases.

Dissatisfaction within the military with Min Aung Hlaing’s leadership has also sparked persistent rumors that his comrades-in-arms might oust the coup leader himself.

In the opposition camp, fighters like Zayar recognize the importance of maintaining unity with other groups in the fight to liberate Myanmar from military rule.

But there is an irony in Ziar and others joining dissident armed groups, such as the Kosovo Liberation Army, which in the long run could lead to division in the war against the military regime.

Division and diversity

Lar Vu, the 30-year-old leader of Ziar, points to a column of smoke rising from a hill. He added that the army burned his settlement site and abandoned it two days ago.

“If they had not done that, they may not have had the opportunity to step back,” Foy, wearing a traditional sleeveless Karen jacket, told Al Jazeera.

His injury from a fatal shell blast that struck his ankle a year ago was a milestone in his service to the Karen cause, which began when he was a child in a refugee camp where he emulated those he once called “senior soldiers.”

KTLA Lar Phoe visits Karen State in December 2023 (Lorcan Lovett/Al Jazeera)
KTLA commander Lar Pho in Karen State in December 2023 (Lorcan Lovett/Al Jazeera)

Foy continues to lead Karen fighters on the front line. Only the previous week he had returned from a two-day ambush on a military convoy.

It tells how military reinforcements dressed as farmers and hid their weapons in sacks used for corncobs. Thinking they were civilians, Phoe’s unit of KTLA fighters let them through, only to be surprised by a hail of gunfire.

He added: “We lost some fighters and were wounded.” “The junta soldiers know that we care about the local people, so they take advantage of that.”

Under Foy’s command there are about 70 men and four women of mixed race. Many from cities. Carrying a mix of rifles and semi-automatic rifles, they form a line and salute every time a vehicle enters the camp.

“I never imagined a situation where the Bamar and other ethnic people would be under me,” he said, reflecting on the Karen divide and hoping that the Karen Liberation Union and the Karen National Union would be “united as one.”

“The nature of the revolution is unity,” he said. “It is the way to work as one team. If the leaders unite, the rest of the forces will unite.”

It was the call for unity against the military that prompted Phu Phu, 28, a Bamar fighter, to return to her native Myanmar for the first time since she was 15.

Foy told how she moved to Thailand to work in a paper mill as a teenager, and how a KTLA recruitment video on TikTok lured her home and pushed her into armed rebellion.

Fu Fu joined KTLA against her mother's wishes (Lorcan Lovett/Al Jazeera)
Fu Fu, who carries the Karen flag, joined KTLA against her mother’s wishes (Lorcan Lovett/Al Jazeera)

Sitting in a hammock, wearing a Guns N’ Roses T-shirt, she tells how the Karen family shared their food and shelter with her, an ethnic Bamar, “so we could continue our revolution.”

“They take care of us in everything,” she said.

Foy also spoke about the arguments she had with her mother, who tried to pour cold water on the idea of ​​her daughter joining an armed group to fight the army.

Phui’s mother asked her if she would be willing to kill her relatives serving in the Myanmar army if they met in battle.

“I said yes, if I’m faster than them,” Foy said.

“My mother was really angry, but it helped her realize how important this revolution is,” she said.

About a year ago, Fu told her mother she was going to cut her hair.

“Then I ran away,” she said.

Since joining KTLA she has stopped speaking to her family.

“I can’t bear to feel the loss of my mother so much. I can’t bear to be heartbroken by her crying,” Foy said, crying as she spoke to Al Jazeera.

She added: “When the revolution ends, I will return to my home.”

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