By Than N. Oo
The armed uprising against the Myanmar military junta that staged a coup on 1 February 2021 had a very humble beginning. In fact, many suspected it would not survive beyond its infancy. Yet on 5th May 2022, its first anniversary, the uprising has proven itself to be a force to be reckoned with. The force’s one-year score card is looking much better than the original expectation.
For the first few weeks following the coup, the military tried to use standard crowd control measures but from mid-February onwards, security forces started to use much more lethal measures unheard of in the rest of the world. Automatic assault weapons were fired indiscriminately into the crowd. Snipers were used to kill protest leaders, head shots being the goal. With such brutalities, casualties quickly piled up. On 28 February 2021, altogether 18 people were killed across the country. The daily casualty number increased to 38 on 14 March and 114 on 27 March 2021. The city streets turned into slaughter houses. On 8 April 2021, CNN broadcasted a special program where its anchor Clarissa Ward was able to smuggle out a video clip that showed Myanmar security forces firing indiscriminately into the crowd. The world saw and was left in aghast. Nighttime raids were a common occurrence with thousands being arrested.
With such ruthless tactics, many Myanmar youths unsurprisingly ran away to borderlands controlled by ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) with a hope to receive combat training and arms in fighting against the military. Some formed local township militias armed with old bolt action single shot hunting rifles. They called themselves local defense forces. Still the EAOs which received these runaway youths were weary. They had seen this scenario play out before during the 1988 uprising. At that time many students similarly ran away to borderlands in forming a student army, All Burma Student Democratic Front Army (ABSDF). But with harsh living conditions in the jungles, poor supplies and lack of funding combined with effective military campaigns against it, ABSDF petered out without ever becoming a military threat. Some of the EAOs that supported the students later paid a price when the Myanmar military waged retaliatory campaigns against them. Most famous examples were the fall of KNU’s headquarters Manerplaw Camp on 27 January 1995. Manerplaw happened to have ABSDF headquarters on its premises.
The leading figure in the uprising against the junta, National Unity Government (NUG) of Myanmar, was formed on 16 April 2021 and comprised of some elected NLD representatives from the November 2020 election who were in hiding with some members of EAOs. On that day, the defense minister Yee Mon hinted that NUG may consider forming an armed wing in trying to mobilize and coordinate the splintered defense forces or groups that had cropped up in the country. But at that time some supporters of NUG were weary of pursuing an armed struggle. Many suggested NUG to seek a political solution over a military one. It was pointed out that by affiliating with militant groups, NUG may be portrayed as a terrorist organization if unintended civilian casualties took place. But most importantly, many believed that the Myanmar military which is also known as “Tatmadaw” was too big to be defeated militarily. By 2021 the Tatmadaw had grown even bigger than it was in 1988, to about 350,000 service personnel. It is the largest armed force in SE Asia after Vietnam. Alternatively, some suggested NUG to form two separate wings, political and militant, with no official affiliation to one another.
In retrospect it seems that only the people on the ground, including NUG officials, were able to correctly gauge the visceral hatred of Myanmar people towards their military. Most importantly, they understood the mentality of the Myanmar military. Unlike coups in other countries, the Myanmar junta will never give up power regardless of the mounting civilian death tolls. It would not step down unless its own lives are threatened. It does not have a single ounce of conscientiousness operating on total disregard for human lives. The only language they understand is the one coming out of the gun barrel. Hence NUG calculated that no matter how small the chance of a military success is, an armed uprising had to be established as part of the overall strategy in toppling the junta.
NUG first announced the term People Defense Force (PDF) and affiliated itself with resistance groups on 5 May 2021. Right away on 8 May 2021, the junta declared PDF a terrorist organization. At that time the popular buzz word was to create a “Federal Army”. NUG officials resisted this temptation. It wanted to send out a message that these armed groups were formed out of necessity in people defending themselves against military’s atrocities. Hence the term Defenses Forces. The brutalities of the military junta made NUG’s job easier. The world had seen enough of Myanmar security forces ruthlessly killing unarmed civilian protesters by the hundreds every day on the city streets while whole villages got burned down in the rural areas. The world could forgive if not comprehend why NUG had to take arms. It also was an eye opener for the mainland Bamar Buddhist majority population. For the past 50 years, such military atrocities were taking place in the mountainous border areas where majority of the ethnic tribal people resided. These atrocities were effectively shielded from the eyes of the city dwelling mainland Bamars. The most recent example would have been the 2017 so called clearance operations (which was later determined as a Genocide by the Biden administration) waged against Rohingya population in northern Rakhine state. But now for the first time in modern history of Burma, such killing, violence and destruction are being imposed on the Bamars by the military.
It took another 4 months until 7 September 2021, when NUG officially announced war (People’s Defensive War) against the junta with a much hyped “D-Day” launch. Still the early encounters were not encouraging. Despite a fierce resistance, military was generally able to crush the PDFs albeit at its own high casualty. For example, on 4 July in the town of Depayin, Sagaing division, the local PDFs engaged the military with homemade weapons but sustained large defeat as 25 PDFs were easily killed. PDFs fared better in the mountainous terrain with good forestation such as in the towns of Kalay and Mindat in Chin state and Demoso in Kayaeh state. It took weeks for the military to overcome resistance in these places and only with the help of air strikes. Yet many youths were undeterred and simply continued to join PDFs. The military is now universally loathed. The PDFs persevered and slowly improved their outcomes. They learned from mistakes and improved their tactics. They started to manufacture small arms. Weapon making 3D printer technology was imported. Many learned how to make explosives and weapons on You-Tube. Expatriate Burmese sent back funds in support of the movement. The tide started to turn around by the winter of 2021. NUG created a command structure and became better organized in training the troops to follow Geneva agreement during military engagements. For the first time it was also able to provide some material support to the PDFs. The military was getting ambushed and mined frequently with mounting casualties including battalion commander level officers. They have become stretched thin with no fresh recruits. The clashes are now widespread and taking place all over the country on a daily basis. They dare not wage a campaign without air support. Also in population centers, using urban guerrilla cells and tactics, soft targets such as military check points and administrative offices were frequently attacked, sowing fear among the military ranks for the first time. In the states of Chin, Karen, Kachin, Kayah and Sagaing, PDFs became successful enough that they were able to hold on and control small territories in the rural areas.
In April 2022, the junta suddenly sent out invitations to EAOs to hold peace talks while omitting NUG and PDF from the negotiation table. It appeared that the junta was starting to realize its precarious state and having doubts about its own ability in winning the war against the PDF. To be clear, PDFs still face many obstacles. No nation is supplying them arms like in the case of Ukraine. Despite sounding very similar to Ukrainian TDFs (Territorial Defense Force), the Myanmar PDFs have not been embraced by the west though they both are fighting against tyranny. May be because of geopolitical reasons such as unwillingness to draw the ire of China, no western countries have stepped up to assist the Myanmar PDFs. They have only small arms, not even light weapons. NUG has no steady revenue stream except collections through its creative fundraisers and donations of Myanmar diaspora around the globe. Most PDFs tactics remained ambushes or hit and runs. No military base or city has been successfully taken by the PDFs. Yet no one had suspected one year ago that the military would have become this weak from the actions of the PDFs. The EAOs have started to realize that PDFs are different from ABSDF and likewise have started to become more collaborative in the missions against the Myanmar military. Afterall the world may be underestimating the best weapon Myanmar PDF possess, a willingness to fight, as proven very effective in Ukraine recently. Finally for the first time in the past five decades, a glimmer of hope has emerged that “Tatmadaw” may be defeated this time.
Than N. Oo is a Myanmar democracy activist who co-founded the advocacy group “Free Myanmar”.