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Ethnic Armed Organizations Building Unity With Myanmar Anti-coup Activists

Police security forces stand by inside a police vehicle and on the sidewalk of Hledan Road in Kamayut township in Yangon, Myanmar Friday, April 16, 2021.
Police security forces stand by inside a police vehicle and on the sidewalk of Hledan Road in Kamayut township in Yangon, Myanmar Friday, April 16, 2021.

In a sleepy Karen village on the Myanmar-Thai border in Kayin state, a day after the March 27 Myanmar government air strikes, rebel soldiers stood guard as two dusty trucks stopped near a Karen National Defense Organization camp at the edge of the hamlet.

Eight young men jumped off the tailgate of the truck beds with knapsacks and assembled near a bamboo hut.

The group had come from Yangon to seek military training. They were obviously not soldiers.

Their presence was the result of a growing new alliance between the most recent victims of Myanmar army attacks, prodemocracy forces, and non-Burman ethnic groups, such as the Karens, that have been involved in decades of conflict with Myanmar’s military.

One of the young men explained why the group had come.

“When we protest on the streets, the Burmese army and police shoot at us and crack down on our demonstration but we're not afraid because we’ve been afraid of them for many years and this time we have to fight against their power,” the dark-haired man, wearing a surgical mask, said.

“We can’t stay in our own home because the Burmese soldiers followed and tried to arrest us so in the nighttime, so we have to move from place to place,” he added, using a reference to Myanmar’s former name, Burma.

As Myanmar’s civilian death toll rises in government-controlled areas, wide support for armed resistance and a federal army, comprised of Myanmar’s armed ethnic groups, is rising across the country.

On March 19, Colonel Naw Bu, spokesperson for another ethnic organization, the Kachin Independence Organization, said the KIO supports the establishment of a federal army.

"Now, many people want to join the federal army and the KIA [Kachin Independence Army] because the Burmese army are terrorizing the civilians in the government-controlled areas,” La Ring, a former Kachin Independence Army soldier, who now provides humanitarian training with the Free Burma Rangers, a Thai-based humanitarian organization, said.

At the Karen National Defense Organization headquarters in eastern Myanmar, Major General Nerdah Bo Mya and his troops welcomed the new batch of recruits.

Since then, hundreds more activists have reportedly sought protection and training in the country’s border regions.

“We are more than happy to protect them, to help them and to give them what they need, like, for example, basic training so that they can protect themselves,” Nerdah Bo Mya said.

“I am not very surprised what they are doing to the people right now because they have done it to the ethnic groups for so many decades. And so, for me it’s not a surprise to see them killing people brutally on the streets in the city,” he added in response to a question about the Myanmar military’s brutal crackdown.

Although the Karen National Union was among the armed ethnic organizations that signed the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement with the government in 2015, the Karens’ conflict with the government had persisted before February’s coup.

Now, it seems, the majority ethnic Burmans -- based in central Myanmar -- are fully aware of the military's history of brutality, if they weren’t already.

“It's been a long time coming but finally all the peoples of Myanmar truly realize the Tatmadaw is the nemesis of the nation's progress, and the real enemy of social and economic in the country,” Human Rights Watch Asia deputy director Phil Robertson said, using a term for the country’s military.

“This new national alliance is a testament to just how thoroughly the Tatmadaw has violated human rights and run roughshod over democratic principles with their bloody coup d’etat,” he said.

Analysts say that plans to unite ethnic groups with the majority ethnic Burman people will take time, but that the signs of cohesion are slowly forming, including formation of the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw by elected legislators kept from their seats.

“After broad consultations with and support from numerous ethnic political parties, ethnic armed resistance organizations, and mass protest movements, the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) formed a new National Unity Government in accordance with the will and demand of the people,” said Linn Thant, a CRPH team consultant, now living in Czech Republic.

The National Unity Government was announced April 16, and includes a range of ethnic representation, the former political prisoner, who was jailed for nearly two decades by junta forces before his 2008 release, said.

“You can see that government’s body, vice president is Kachin man who represents all Kachin groups including KIA. Prime minister is a Karen man. The Kachin, the Mon, the Karen, the Kayah, the Chin, the Ta’ang are in the cabinet of the NUG. And the cabinet body of NUG will be reshaped and extended in a few weeks,” Linn Thant added.

Military support on the ground, from the ethnic groups, remains a challenge because of vast areas of land in some regions, separating armed groups and protesters.

“The reality is there is a significant distance between the armed battles in the ethnic borderlands, and the faceoffs between CDM protesters and security forces in the cities,” Robertson said, referring to Myanmar’s opposition Civil Disobedience Movement.

“Mobilizing disparate groups and sustaining that push against a centralized, heavily armed military has always been the core challenge for those who want to change the situation on the ground in Myanmar,” he added.

The conditions that the ethnic civilian population has faced against the army have been longstanding for many villagers along the Myanmar-Thai border.

Naw Bee Paw, a 65-year-old Karen villager, said she has witnessed the turmoil since her early teens.

At 15, her father was arrested in the Ayeyarwady region on the Andaman Sea during a military crackdown. When he was released after four months, the family fled the region, settling in Kayin state.

Fifty years later, she said she fears that the current conflict will escalate, displacing her family once again.

“The Burmese army attacked the Karen area with air strikes so I’m very afraid," she said.

“I have heard that villagers can’t flee to the Thai side because Thai soldiers had blocked them, so I’m scared because we are the too elderly and live alone in this house,” she said.

Thousands of Karen villagers, including inhabitants from Ee Thu Hat displaced persons camp, fled across the border following last month’s Myanmar army air strike but most of them were sent back by Thai soldiers, according to witnesses on the ground.

The Myanmar military has intensified attacks on the ethnic minorities in Kayin state as well as the ongoing conflicts in neighboring Shan and Kachin states, as rebel forces have responded with counterattacks.

Critics say instilling fear in the ethnic minorities has been practiced since the military coup in 1962, although documentation of the methodology was limited due to the country’s isolation.

Now, tech savvy anti-coup protesters, along with the civilian population, can record many of the atrocities being committed by government security forces with mobile phones.