Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 20 April 2024



A Ragtag Resistance Sees the Tide Turning in a Forgotten War

Several soldiers in camouflage ride in the open back of a vehicle on a dirt road.
Resistance soldiers riding in the back of a pickup truck in southern Karenni State, in Myanmar, in January.

Rebel fighters have handed Myanmar’s army defeat after defeat, for the first time raising the possibility that the military junta could be at risk of collapse.

By Hannah Beech

Photographs by Adam Ferguson

Hannah Beech, who has been covering Myanmar for nearly 20 years, recently spent a week reporting at a front line of the civil war.

The night Ma Suu Kyi thought she would die of her wounds on the front lines of a forgotten war, a crescent moon hung overhead. A pendant of the Virgin Mary dangled around her neck. Maybe those augurs saved her. Or maybe, she said, it was not yet time for her to die.

“When I joined the revolution, I knew my chances of surviving were 50-50,” Ms. Suu Kyi, 21, said of her decision to enlist as a rebel soldier, fighting to overthrow the junta that returned Myanmar to military dictatorship three years ago. “I’m an ordinary girl, an ordinary young person. I believe in federal democracy and human rights.”

Ms. Suu Kyi said the words “federal democracy” in English. There are no easy words for the concept in Burmese.

Since the junta in Myanmar staged its coup in February 2021, ending a brief period of democratic reform and training its guns once again on peaceful protesters, much of the country has turned against the military. A new generation, which came of age during the civilian administration of the Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has taken to arms, joining rebels who have opposed military dictatorship for decades.

The world’s gaze has remained focused on other conflicts on other continents — to the consternation of many in Myanmar who wonder why the chaos and death here brings little global outcry. Now, after three years of desperate resistance, the battle lines are changing fast. The rebels have overrun scores of military bases and taken over dozens of towns. The tempo of victory has quickened in recent days, and anti-junta forces now claim to control more than half of Myanmar’s territory, from lowland jungles to the foothills of the Himalayas.

Much of the fighting’s rhythm seems syncopated to that of another century: trenches dug into unrelenting mud, the slide of flip-flops down monsoon-soaked hills, the clatter of homemade AK-style assault rifles in dusty towns. The junta’s multiple rocket launchers and fighter jets may bring a modern touch to the killing, as does the hovering of the resistance’s battle drones. But this conflict, with its hand-to-hand combat and profusion of land mines, feels like a throwback to the kind of civil war that was documented in black and white.

If they manage to push into the nation’s heartland — no sure thing — the insurgents could unseat a military that has, in one form or another, kept Myanmar in its grip for more than half a century. The result may be not so much a shifting of power as a shattering of a nation, its vast periphery breaking permanently away from central control.

A soldier in camouflage stands looking out of a heavily building onto a landscape of trees.
A church damaged by the Myanmar military in southern Karenni State.
Two soldiers stand inside a room, one sitting and holding a gun that he has pointed out the window.
Soldiers with the Karenni Nationalities Defense Force keeping a Myanmar military outpost in their sights on the front line in Loikaw, Karenni State, in January.

“We want liberation from the Myanmar Army,” Ms. Suu Kyi told me. “I am willing to sacrifice myself for that.”

The insurgents are apportioned into hundreds of armed groups scattered across the country. In some battle zones, half a dozen different militias have united to combat the junta’s forces, sometimes with no clear chain of command. Some are led by veteran soldiers from ethnic armies that have long waged war with the Myanmar military — and, on occasion, with each other. Others were formed by lawmakers who picked up weapons after the coup curtailed their political careers. A lawyer heads one rebel force, a former student of economics another. At least one poet commands a small army.

The resistance is largely bankrolled through crowdfunding by the Myanmar diaspora: More than four million lived abroad before the coup, according to the United Nations, and the outflow has intensified since then. Other funding, particularly for certain ethnic armed groups, derives from the trade in illicit drugs or taxes on the gray economy. Although countries like the United States have pledged money for democracy-building and placed financial sanctions on members of the military regime and its cronies, they have not publicly allocated money for the armed rebellion.

Ms. Suu Kyi’s militia is called the Karenni Nationalities Defense Force, or K.N.D.F. Claiming more than 8,000 soldiers, it is an umbrella organization for bands of armed youth in Karenni, Myanmar’s smallest state and the site of some of the most intense fighting. Its frontline strategist, Deputy Cmdr. Maui Phoe Thaike, is an environmentalist who studied at the University of Montana at Missoula.

A woman in camouflage stands in the corner of a room holding a gun.
Ma Suu Kyi, a soldier with the K.N.D.F., was back on the front line in Loikaw just three months after shrapnel pierced her lung.

The K.N.D.F. and its allied militias could soon control all of Karenni, making it the first state in Myanmar to break free from junta control, military analysts say. In a series of nationwide offensives starting last fall, insurgents have repelled the junta from large swaths of Myanmar’s north, west and east. This month, guerrillas captured a major trading town on the border with Thailand. Naypyidaw, the capital of Myanmar built by the junta as a defensive fortress, is fewer than 150 miles from Karenni.

Facing resistance on many fronts, the junta said in February that it was implementing conscription for all young men and women in the country. Morale has plunged, deserters from the military said, even as the bombardment of civilians has intensified.

Throughout the military’s half a century in power, various rebel forces have tried to unseat the generals. All have failed. This time, the opposition says, is different, in part because much of the country’s Bamar ethnic majority has found unity with minorities living in the border regions.

The young people who grew up during a period of openness, when Myanmar welcomed foreign innovations such as Facebook and K.F.C., chafe at how the junta has once again closed off the country. They know how much they have lost with the generals’ inward turn, and they have used social media to expose the junta’s atrocities: the imprisonment and torture of thousands of civilians, airstrikes on schools and hospitals, the killing of children with single shots to the head.

Two soldiers in an open area lean over a drone that stands between them.
Members of a K.N.D.F. drone team in February. Drones have made a vital difference for the rebels, who are fighting a better-armed military establishment.
In a building made of woven reeds, a man in shorts sits in front of a laptop, holding a video game controller.
A drone operator practicing on a simulation program at a rebel base in February.

Still, it’s far from certain whether the insurgents — not to mention the 214,000 government workers who are still striking as part of a civil disobedience campaign — can maintain their resolve for a fourth year or more.

Myanmar’s civil war is taking place far from the international spotlight that has clung to the conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza. The inequity has mystified some of the 55 million people of Myanmar, who in the months after the coup lobbied the United Nations to intervene to protect a vulnerable population. No help came. Not a single country has recognized Myanmar’s pro-democracy shadow government, despite the accolades won by civilian leaders when they began sharing power with the military nearly a decade ago.

But even as their plight has failed to capture global attention, doctors, lawyers, police officers, teachers, air force pilots and others have fled to rebel-held areas to lend expertise to the armed resistance. There are thousands of such professionals now living in the jungles of Myanmar. There are thousands more on the front lines.

After the junta’s forces gunned down unarmed protesters in the wake of the coup, Ma Linn Ni Zho, a medical student, fled to Karenni State and helped set up a secret hospital to treat rebel soldiers, as well as civilians maimed by land mines and airstrikes. The hospital is now the only major one operating in Karenni, as the military’s aerial bombardment, per capita, outpaces the Russian campaign in Ukraine.

A woman in a pink T-shirt and hair nearly to her waist stands in front of a concrete wall.
Ma Linn Ni Zho was a medical student before the coup in 2021. She fled to Karenni State and helped set up a secret hospital to treat rebel soldiers, as well as civilians maimed by land mines and airstrikes.

“Looking for the help of the U.N., looking for the help of the international governments, is like walking in the dark,” Ms. Linn Ni Zho said. “We have to do by ourself to escape from this kind of hell.”

‘We Had Big Dreams’

In an emergency ward camouflaged with netting and leaves, served only by a forest track, Ms. Linn Ni Zho tended to the casualties of war. The tools of a jungle hospital surrounded her: saws for amputations, yards of gauze for bullet wounds and a generator to power lights for surgery.

Severing limbs pulverized by land mines or plunging her arms into chest cavities torn apart by mortars was not what Ms. Linn Ni Zho thought she would be doing when she chose to study medicine. Now 25, she grew up as Myanmar’s military rulers voluntarily began sharing power with civilians.

Before that change, possessing an unregistered cellphone or foreign currency could land a person in prison for years. Listening to B.B.C. radio broadcasts meant risking arrest.

By the time Ms. Linn Ni Zho was in college, she was making pocket money selling La Mer and Lancôme beauty products online, sourced from a relative living in California. She downloaded American sitcoms on her phone — “Emily in Paris” is a current favorite — and considered setting up a private practice.

“All of us had big dreams, but I think they were normal dreams,” she said of her generation.

A shirtless man sits, his eyes closed, bandages on his arms and a tube clipped to his nose, as men stand around him, treating his injuries.
A militia fighter from a neighboring state in Myanmar was brought to the secret hospital in Karenni after being wounded in a mortar strike.
Two women sit and a woman stands between them in a dim room. On the otherwise empty wall behind them is a framed picture of Jesus Christ and the words "God Bless Our Home."
Medics working with the forces opposing the Myanmar military in a house in Loikaw, Karenni State, in January.

The coup three years ago began with an internet blackout and the arrests of Myanmar’s civilian cabinet, including Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi. For a citizenry collectively hunched over phones, checking Facebook, the halt to communications came as a shock. (Today in most of Karenni, there is no phone or internet service.)

Within 20 days of the coup, the junta’s snipers had shot dead the first peaceful protester, a 20-year-old woman standing in a crowd. Since then, more than 4,800 protesters and political prisoners have been killed, and 26,500 people have been arrested, according to a tally by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), which uses the former name for Myanmar.

“We lost all of our lives, all of our futures, with our human rights, civil rights violated every day,” Ms. Linn Ni Zho told me. “When dictatorship came, I just could not accept it as a youth.”

Ms. Linn Ni Zho escaped to Karenni, also known as Kayah, which is home to ethnic minorities who have long been persecuted. For the first time, a significant multiethnic resistance was forming.

With others from Myanmar’s Bamar-dominated cities, Ms. Linn Ni Zho set up a hospital.

A man in a camouflage shirt and striped pajama bottoms sits on a bed, one ankle heavily bandaged.
A young fighter for the Karen National Liberation Army, another armed group, recovering from his wounds.

But in 2022, fighter jets targeted the facility. The medics built a new hospital deep in a forest to protect against airstrikes. The staff live in huts, bunkers dug into the earth for the bombardment they believe is inevitable.

“They can destroy the buildings, but they cannot destroy our willpower,” Ms. Linn Ni Zho said.

Last November, resistance fighters rushed a soldier to the hospital: It was Ms. Suu Kyi, the young rebel with the Virgin Mary pendant, who had been wounded during the K.N.D.F.’s attempt to take Loikaw, the state capital.

Earlier in the day, she was sheltering in a shot-up building in a shot-up city, one that had emptied of 50,000 residents in a few days. Junta troops staked out a position across the street, so close that the astringent smell of the betel they chewed mixed with the fumes of war. An artillery shell detonated near Ms. Suu Kyi.

“I could not feel my body,” she said. “I thought this is what it feels like to die.”

An X-ray confirmed to Ms. Linn Ni Zho, who was on duty that day, that shrapnel had hurtled through Ms. Suu Kyi’s back and pierced her lung. All they could do was wait to see if there was serious internal bleeding.

Three months later, Ms. Suu Kyi was back on the front line in Loikaw, an assault rifle slung over her shoulder. Shrapnel remained lodged in her body. The enemy was close.

On the way to visit her, New York Times journalists passed a Buddhist pagoda balanced, golden and delicate, on a rocky outcrop. The street had once hummed with pilgrims and schoolchildren. There had been a sushi bar.

Two soldiers with guns slung over their shoulders walk across a dirt road. A golden-roofed pagoda is visible on a rocky outcrop behind them.
Soldiers with the K.N.D.F. beneath the Taung Kwe Pagoda near the front line with the Myanmar military in Loikaw.
A soldier walks down a staircase holding a gun.
A rebel soldier patrols an abandoned house in Loikaw.

Now, the street was deserted, save the resistance fighters taking us to the abandoned house the K.N.D.F. had taken for an outpost. Spent bullets glistened on the ground. Barricades had been forsaken, metal twisted into ominous sculptures of war.

Ms. Suu Kyi was on the fourth day of a weeklong rotation. It had been a good day, she said: no artillery strikes nearby. She smiled.

But then small-arms fire cascaded from the Myanmar military’s hillside position, striking just outside the house and flashing bright in the midday sun. Ms. Suu Kyi smiled again as her fellow soldiers took aim out a window.

A cat left behind by the house’s owners meowed in alarm. Ms. Suu Kyi reached down to stroke it. Before Covid, before the coup, before the war, she was to study geography in college. She was to become a teacher. The cat brushed against Ms. Suu Kyi, threading her legs in a nervous pattern, then slinked behind sandbags.

“Maybe after we win the revolution, I can continue my life again,” she said. “Maybe not me, but people of my generation.”

‘He Will Be a Soldier’

In a pine clearing in Karenni State, 84 young men and 10 young women of the K.N.D.F.’s Eighth Battalion stood at attention. After 11 days of basic training, the soldiers were kitted out in new uniforms. New assault rifles leaned against trees. The soldiers saluted and pledged support for “federal democracy,” in English.

Before them stood 10 portraits of young men of the Eighth Battalion who had died in combat, out of about 400 soldiers. In a day or two, this next batch was heading to the front lines.

A loudspeaker played a message from the K.N.D.F. leader, Khun Bedu. Once a civil society activist, Khun Bedu had been jailed by Myanmar’s military dictatorship. In prison, he and other founders of the militia were tortured, they said. Their heads were wrapped in plastic bags, each breath robbing them of oxygen until the bag no longer moved into their mouths.

The K.N.D.F. is both an example of how passionate guerrillas can repel a large and overstretched army and of such a militia’s limits. The commander of the Eighth Battalion used to drive a tour bus. One K.N.D.F. strategist was a national snooker champion. Another worked the docks in Singapore.

In a forest clearing, soldiers in camouflage walk close together, swinging their arms and lifting their steps high.
New soldiers for the Eighth Battalion of the Karenni Nationalities Defense Force parading during their graduation ceremony in February.
A soldier in camouflage stares straight ahead as two others on either side of him pin insignia on his uniform.
The new Eighth Battalion fighters were graduating, and bound for the front lines, after 11 days of training.

Deputy Commander Maui Phoe Thaike was busy with organic farming projects when the coup occurred. Today, he sends soldiers into battle.

“I made a lot of mistakes at first, and a lot of our soldiers died,” he said. “But we learn every time, and we are getting stronger and stronger.”

Tattooed on his back is a partial record of the battlefield’s toll: tally marks in bundles of five, each representing a life lost. The lines stretch over his left shoulder, but he stopped adding them last May, before the militia’s biggest offensives. In the assault on Loikaw late last year, at least 150 soldiers died, one K.N.D.F. leader said. Another counted the number at double that.

“I might run out of space on my back,” Deputy Commander Maui Phoe Thaike said. “I don’t want to think about that.”

On March 25, four more members of the Eighth Battalion were killed in Loikaw.

Today, more than 80 percent of the population of Karenni State is internally displaced. As the Myanmar army retreated, its troops scattered land mines like rice seed, creating lasting hazards for civilians and combatants alike. In a Christmas Eve attack two years ago, junta forces killed about 35 civilians, including aid workers, leaving their charred bodies in vehicles on a road in Karenni.

Young children stand outdoors in two lines, holding empty metal bowls.
Children lining up to receive food aid in Karenni State, where more than 80 percent of the population has been displaced.

“We tried to protest peacefully, but the only language the Burma army understands is bullets,” said Deputy Commander Maui Phoe Thaike, himself a member of the Bamar ethnic majority. “Armed resistance is the only way for our revolution to succeed.”

Karenni forces said in late March that they held 90 percent of the state. The Myanmar military calls civilians “terrorists” and terrorizes them with airstrikes and long-range artillery.

For all the new recruits into Myanmar’s rebel forces — the college students and Buddhist monks and civil servants — other soldiers have been fighting for far longer.

When the military staged its first coup in 1962, isolating a once cosmopolitan country, its excuse was that the new nation was fragmenting. Ethnic rebels were bearing down on the capital, demanding autonomy or at least a federal democracy.

In the decades since, the military has continued to oppress ethnic minorities through organized sexual violence, the torching of villages and a policy of making ethnic minority children walk ahead of soldiers in minefields — tactics that United Nations investigators have called crimes again humanity. The civilian administration that shared power with the military until the 2021 coup stood by, too, as the army targeted one ethnic group, the Muslim Rohingya, with what the United States considers genocide.

Ko Pal Law has been a soldier since he was 9, fighting for another Karenni rebel force. Last year, the Myanmar military stormed through his village, burning and looting. An airstrike tore the roof off the church.

One afternoon, Mr. Pal Law, 29, surveyed the charred remains of his home, stepping carefully for fear of mines. He sipped a jug of homemade alcohol, rice grains swollen in the fermented murk. The soldiers with him downed beers. Deserters from the junta’s forces say synthetic drug use is rampant. For both sides in this grinding war, respite is sought in an altered state.

Several framed photos of soldiers rest on a bamboo ledge in an outdoor setting. A row of guns is visible behind them.
Photos of fallen soldiers were on display during the K.N.D.F. graduation ceremony.
A shirtless man stands back to the camera, arms outstretched. On his back are tattoos of tally marks in groups of five.
The militia’s deputy commander Maui Phoe Thaike. Tattooed on his back are tally marks in bundles of five, each representing a life lost. He stopped adding them last May, before the militia’s biggest offensives.

After leaving his destroyed village, on roads cratered by mine blasts, Mr. Pal Law ordered the truck to stop for an impromptu target practice. He guzzled his moonshine. He lay on the red earth, aiming his rifle. Not a single shot found its mark.

“I like to fight,” he said, his words slurring. “I am good at fighting.”

After so long in power, the Myanmar military has infiltrated every crevice of the society and economy. In the borderlands, many ethnic armed groups hold similar sway. They collect taxes, and then when the Myanmar army comes back, it collects its own. The people remain impoverished.

In the resistance stronghold of Demoso, where the roads into town are lined with refugee encampments, Deputy Commander Maui Phoe Thaike presided over a baby-naming ceremony for the son of a K.N.D.F. soldier. Around him, men spoke of federal democracy and clutched assault rifles. One, a recent amputee, leaned on crutches. The militia’s top brass gathered around the newborn. The deputy commander cooed. The baby cooed back.

The father, once a civil servant, cradled his child. If there were peace, would his son be able to one day enjoy the calm of civilian life, away from the blood and dust of war?

“No, he will be a soldier,” Deputy Commander Maui Phoe Thaike answered. “He will be a man and fight.”

A man sits outdoors, a small baby on his lap.
Ko Pyae Hein Kyaw was a civil servant before he joined the K.N.D.F. In January, he showed his month-old son at a rebel camp.

Hannah Beech is a Times reporter based in Bangkok who has been covering Asia for more than 25 years. She focuses on in-depth and investigative stories. More about Hannah Beech

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