How the Karen became crucial to Myanmar’s anti-coup resistance | Conflict News

When the Myanmar navy seized energy on February 1 final yr, the nation’s oldest main ethnic armed group, the Karen Nationwide Union, was additionally one of many first to sentence the coup.

“We can not settle for the navy taking energy and detaining the nation’s leaders. This can be a huge impediment and problem in transitioning to democracy,” the KNU mentioned in an announcement the day after the facility seize, accusing the navy of violating its personal 2008 structure.

Quickly afterwards, troops from the KNU’s armed wing, the Karen Nationwide Liberation Military, have been seen offering safety to protesters in Karen state, which lies alongside Myanmar’s border with Thailand. Elsewhere within the nation, there was no such safety. The navy launched into a marketing campaign of brutal violence in opposition to unarmed protesters, killing a whole bunch of individuals.

A yr later, these pictures of the KNU defending protesters have grow to be symbolic of its function because the spine of Myanmar’s new age of resistance. The group has offered navy coaching to newly fashioned anti-coup armed teams, safety to political dissidents and secure passage for fugitives fleeing military-controlled areas.

“KNU persons are very sort and superb at guerrilla warfare,” mentioned Htet*, a 34-year-old resistance fighter who joined a community of armed teams in Yangon generally known as City Guerillas or UGs.

Htet and all different sources interviewed for this story spoke to Al Jazeera in individual from an undisclosed location.

Final yr, Htet travelled from Yangon to KNU territory to obtain coaching after watching troopers shoot down unarmed, peaceable protesters. “The navy arrested everybody and shot everybody. I wanted to know the right way to combat again,” he mentioned.

KNU spokesman Taw Nee says the brand new technology of resistance fighters are “very lively and need revenge”. Whereas he praises their motivation, he additionally says it has typically been tough for the KNU to handle the huge inflow of inexperienced fighters hailing from a hodgepodge of disorganised, nascent armed teams.

Taw Nee mentioned that had led to some issues, like resistance fighters posting movies of battles on social media, by accident exposing delicate info, or docs insisting on preventing on the entrance strains after they can be extra helpful as subject medics.

“However they’ve improved loads,” Taw Nee mentioned, grinning like a proud father. “They’ve lots of expertise inside a couple of months.”

protesters in ethnic costumes raising the three finger salute during a demonstration against the military coup in the area under the control of Karen National Union (KNU)
Protesters in Karen-held territory increase the three-finger salute of the anti-coup motion. The February 2021 coup has introduced Burmese and the nation’s many ethnic minorities nearer collectively [File: KNU Dooplaya District via AFP]

Htet took that have and put it to make use of when he returned to Yangon.

“There have been 10 troopers driving. We knew the route they often took so we planted two bombs. After that, we heard lots of screaming after which they begin bang bang bang,” he mentioned, describing a pipe bomb assault in Yangon’s Insein township.

In one other incident, they planted a number of bombs in Hlegu township, killing about eight troopers within the first blast. When two extra got here to research, they detonated a second, killing them as nicely.

When requested if he ever feels unhealthy about killing troopers, Htet shakes his head emphatically. “They’re very unhealthy individuals,” he insisted.

Defending peaceable resistance

The KNU doesn’t solely help armed resistance but additionally gives help, safety and secure passage to peaceable political dissidents.

A police officer from Yangon, who abandoned when ordered to make use of violence in opposition to protesters, informed Al Jazeera that the KNU additionally welcomed him, regardless of his choice to not be part of the preventing.

The 25-year-old, who joined the police drive when he was simply 19, mentioned he abandoned on March 6 of final yr as violent crackdowns started to escalate. “They ordered me to crack down on protesters and arrest individuals. My superior officer mentioned to make use of rubber bullets after which to make use of actual bullets,” he mentioned.

He praised the KNU for offering him with meals and a secure home, however mentioned there have been nonetheless some shut calls. “The navy attacked our camp and we needed to run away,” he mentioned, explaining that a couple of different dissidents have been captured through the raid.

Distinguished activist Thet Swe Win fled Yangon in March 2021, sheltering in KNU territory for about seven months. “I do know myself, I wouldn’t be a very good soldier, however I respect the armed battle as a key part of the revolution,” he informed Al Jazeera.

The tattoos that cowl Thet Swe Win’s arms inform the story of peace but additionally resistance: block letters spelling HAKUNA MATATA [Swahili for ‘no trouble’ and popularised in the film The Lion King] a peace signal, a person with a hammer smashing a Nazi swastika.

Regardless of being probably the most vocal advocates for minority rights in Myanmar, even Thet Swe Win was not totally ready for the truth of life for Karen individuals. “Our understanding earlier than was too shallow,” he mentioned.

An anti-coup activist in military fatigues kneels on the ground and prepares his rifle to shoot during basic weapons training
An anti-coup activist undergoes primary navy coaching at a Karen Nationwide Union (KNU) camp [File: AFP]

Thet Swe Win says whereas there’s a mutual animosity between the Bamar majority and the Karen, the ethnic minority are those who’re oppressed. “The one Burmese they see are the troopers. Those who kill and loot and rape and burn their homes,” he mentioned.

Thet Swe Win says in lots of rural areas, there aren’t any faculties or hospitals. He noticed one pregnant lady being carried in a hammock up mountains by way of the jungle to the closest clinic to present beginning.

“Many don’t have any correct homes, simply bamboo shelters, as a result of the troopers at all times raid and burn their villages,” he mentioned.

Karen state at battle

Preventing exploded throughout Karen state in December of final yr, when the navy raided Lay Kay Kaw city. Troopers arrested dozens of dissidents in hiding, together with two elected lawmakers from the Nationwide League for Democracy, which secured a landslide victory within the nation’s final elections in November 2020.

The navy has cited unsubstantiated allegations of fraud within the ballot in an try to justify its coup, however for the elected lawmakers their emphatic win is the supply of their legitimacy.

They arrange their very own administration referred to as the Nationwide Unity Authorities quickly after being pressured from workplace and a consultant of the civilian authorities continues to carry Myanmar’s seat on the United Nations. The navy, in the meantime, has declared the NUG and its anti-coup armed teams, generally known as Folks’s Defence Forces (PDFs), as “terrorist” organisations.

For the reason that raid on Lay Kay Kaw, preventing has unfold to many different elements of the state. Taw Nee says there are clashes practically every single day, with tens of hundreds of civilians displaced.

Taw Nee says morale throughout the Myanmar navy is “very, very low” and claims preventing can be over quickly if the navy didn’t have air help.

Taw Nee says a lot of the PDFs working in Karen State have been introduced underneath the umbrella of the KNLA with a combined command construction. There’s a “joint coalition committee at each brigade degree” and if a unit consists of PDF troopers, the commander comes from the KNLA whereas the deputy is from the PDF.

“They put on KNLA uniforms, however they don’t converse Karen,” he mentioned, laughing.

Whereas there was an anti-military rebellion in 1988, with some selecting the trail of armed resistance, it was not practically as profitable as at the moment’s revolution. Taw Nee says again then most individuals accepted the navy’s promise of an election in 1990 and “calmed down rapidly”.

“In 2021, it was not like that, it was completely completely different,” he mentioned, noting that younger individuals have had “lots of expertise over the past 10 years in an open society” and aren’t prepared to return.

Historical past repeats itself

However Taw Nee additionally worries that historical past might repeat itself in different methods.

After the navy refused to recognise the NLD’s landslide election victory in 1990, the KNU allied itself with an analogous parallel administration generally known as the Nationwide Coalition Authorities of the Union of Burma.

“Then when The Woman was launched from home arrest, they modified the whole lot,” he mentioned.

The Woman is Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s overthrown civilian chief, whose repute was tarnished internationally after she defended the navy’s atrocities in opposition to the principally Muslim Rohingya minority.

Many ethnic armed teams additionally felt that when Aung San Suu Kyi got here to energy in 2016, she sided with the navy in opposition to them in peace negotiations. She is at present in navy custody in an unknown location, however there’s concern throughout the KNU that her launch might create divisions throughout the multi-ethnic resistance.

“If the Woman is launched, will you [the NUG] change your thoughts? They couldn’t reply straight away with this,” Taw Nee mentioned.

Burmese students wearing traditional longyi (sarong-type wraps) get training from Karen rebels in 1988
The Karen Nationwide Union (KNU) additionally gave shelter and coaching to activists and college students preventing the navy following a coup in 1988, however the alliance fell aside after Aung San Suu Kyi was launched from home arrest. Karen fighters assume the scenario is completely different this time, nonetheless [File: Pornvilai Carr/AFP]

For now, he says the NUG and KNU are “all collectively” and he stays optimistic in regards to the future. “The thoughts has modified loads in the direction of ethnic individuals,” for the reason that coup, he mentioned.

Htet, the resistance fighter, says the brand new technology of revolutionaries has better respect for the KNU, which has skilled them, supported them and fought by their aspect.

He nonetheless sees the NUG because the reputable authorities of Myanmar and has joined them in a civilian capability since being pressured to flee Yangon. However he says the parallel authorities must do extra.

“If [the NUG] gave us extra weapons, extra weapons, we’ll win sooner,” he mentioned, claiming most weapons come from the KNU or donations from the overall inhabitants.

Even with restricted help, Htet stays assured the revolution will succeed.

“We’re an increasing number of highly effective now. We will make higher weapons and bombs. Plenty of PDFs and UGs are studying to liberate their cities.”

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