Armed resistance to the military regime in Kayah State, southeast Myanmar began in May last year in response to the lethal crackdowns on civilians by the junta. Along with resistance groups in Sagaing Region and Chin State, Karenni fighters pioneered the use of homemade weapons against the regime.
Despite being the smallest state in Myanmar, with a population of around 300,000, Kayah State is currently home to over a dozen resistance groups. Among them is the Karenni Nationalities Defense Force (KNDF), which has been fighting the junta for over a year.
On May 31, the KNDF celebrated its one-year anniversary. The group now has 21 battalions, some with female fighters, led by young people. It fights alongside several People’s Defense Forces (PDF), and the Karenni Army (KA), the armed wing of the Karenni National Progressive Party.
To understand the complexity of the resistance movement, and the prospects of building a peaceful federal democratic union, The Irrawaddy spoke to KNDF chair Khun Be Du, who is also a deputy minister of natural resources and environmental conservation for the shadow National Unity Government (NUG).
A dedicated fighter, the ethnic Karenni leader patiently answered The Irrawaddy’s questions despite an unstable phone connection and having to cut off the call every two minutes to avoid it being traced by the junta and so revealing his location.
What are the achievements of the KNDF since it was formed?
We measure our achievements based on the current strength and capability of the KNDF. We now have control over main roads and in towns and we are better equipped to execute and accomplish missions. We also measure our achievements based on the size of our arsenal and networking with PDFs and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) fighting alongside us in Kayah State. Our achievement is that we are only getting stronger to complete the revolution in shorter time.
How did you found the KNDF and is it difficult combining your role as leader with being a deputy NUG minister?
The KNDF is doing an important job and the NUG also plays an important role. So we have to do those two jobs together. Young and middle-aged people in our state decided to carry out revolution and organized training. We gathered arms on our own and also looked for donors. After our group had managed to obtain around 100 weapons, people in other townships also wanted to join the revolution and we gave up our original name and ambitions. We chose our current name KNDF so that not only indigenous ethnic Karenni people but also other ethnic people in Karenni State can join the task of protecting the people. Today, we have 21 battalions and over 8,000 fighters who have signed up to serve in the army for two years.
I engage mainly in preparing and overseeing military operations including the provision of food supplies and weapons. At the same time, the Karenni State Consultative Council (KSCC) has assigned us to join the NUG to establish better networking with resistance groups across the country. We are assigned not just to take a seat in the NUG but to work actively in it. Besides my work as a deputy minister, I also engage as a coordinator in other NUG programs such as assisting military defectors and the NUG’s local administration as well as other committees. We coordinate closely to ensure that the revolution succeeds across the country, and not just in our state.
How much territory does the KNDF now control? What are the challenges in feeding, arming and managing a big army?
It is important that every member has discipline and follows the rules and regulations. Yes, there have been a few cases of KNDF member kidnapping and extorting people. But we have been able to enforce rules and regulations in most of the cases. We also treat prisoners of war in line with international procedures. We have detained more than 100 [civilian] criminals and junta soldiers. It is important to make sure our side does not commit war crimes.
Our army is fed and armed by contributions from people near and far. Most of the weapons are bought by KNDF members themselves. As cash contributions from the donors are likely to decline over time, we have designed some plans. But those plans are not about extorting money or imposing taxes on people. Instead, we will use methods that are acceptable to all.
We have been able to produce some weapons, as well as ammunition, in the last six months. So we believe we will not run short of weapons. The revolution will succeed when we share our resources and technology with each other.
How many resistance fighters have died in comparison to junta casualties in Kayah State?
It is the people who have borne the brunt of the fighting. We have sympathy for them. People are enduring this to seek justice one day. More than 200 civilians have died [in Kayah State]. Junta troops have committed arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial killings. They have dumped bodies into septic tanks. They are quite cruel. In December last year, they slaughtered more than 40 civilians and set fire to their bodies. Over 500 houses were destroyed and damaged by junta artillery strikes and arson attacks. Many villages were torched. This is the loss of the country.
Nearly 50 KNDF members have sacrificed their lives so far. We gave them proper burial as the martyrs of our revolution. We assume some 30 junta soldiers died or were at least seriously injured for every KNDF member who has fallen. The combat capability of KNDF members is not in question. Our fighters work hard and have high morale, which determines the results of the clashes. Our arsenal grows day by day while the regime has to bring in reinforcements every day.
We had to withdraw from Demoso in January and February when junta troops conducted large-scale operations with artillery strikes and aerial attacks to retake control of towns. We returned to attack junta troops in Demoso around April. Our fighters were killed or injured by landmines there, and have learned lessons from that. Although regime troops are deployed in towns, they can’t run the administration at all. And although we had to withdraw from Demoso, sneak attacks on junta troops still continue daily there. We occupied a few outposts temporarily and seized arms. The KA, which is older and more senior than us, seized the Kyar Pa Sak outpost, but had to withdraw later.
We are holding fire and preparing ourselves for now, considering the losses people have suffered so far, and waiting for the rise of revolution in other parts of the country. The revolution will succeed early if the international community takes action before the country sustains huge losses. Especially, the revolution will succeed quicker if senior Myanmar military personnel take swift action [mutiny]. We are still hoping to avoid more bloody fighting that will harm the country.
The KNDF has a company of female fighters. What percentage of KNDF members are women and do you think the role of women revolutionaries is important?
We don’t have a military unit that solely consists of women. There are women leading companies in our 21 battalions. Women leaders are largely involved in the administration of battalions. We have strong female participation.
I don’t want to highlight the number of women members. What is more important is that women are playing a part in the revolution. We haven’t sent women fighters to the frontline. But we need them now for fighting, and have provided advanced level training and refresher training for them. Now women have opportunities to utilize their shrewdness on the frontline.
Soon there will be guerilla operations by women KNDF members. There will be women commanders. We will recognize, without discrimination, their rights and their ability to perform. There will be women snipers, too. Thanks to the capacity of women members, the administration of our battalions is systematic and organized. Women medics have proven their remarkable performance by saving many resistance fighters. They should be honored. They have saved the lives of more than 100 fighters who were seriously injured or lost their limbs. They also carried them back to the rear safely and protected them in safe places.
How is the relationship between the KSCC, revolutionary groups, the KNDF and the NUG?
The KNDF serves as the defense force of Kayah State and the Karenni State Police [KSP – a parallel police force formed by striking police officers] takes responsibility for the rule of law in Kayah. The KNDF is fully responsible to fight the regime troops and the KSP is responsible for enforcing existing laws, and the laws issued by the NUG, the KSCC, our customary laws, and enforcing the rulings of the judiciary and providing security to establish the rule of law.
Both the KNDF and the KSP network with PDFs and other groups in implementing our goals on the ground, although we are not under a single chain of command. The KSCC is working to coordinate those goals and the administration of Kayah State.
As everyone knows, the KSCC consists of elected lawmakers, representatives of EAOs, ethnic political parties and civil society organizations. The KSCC is providing public services as the regime’s administration has ceased. The KSCC implements its aims according to the charter [adopted by the National Unity Consultative Council]. The charter allows states and units to form their own governments, and all units and states network together in fighting the regime.
The NUG is our interim government [of the country] and the KSCC is our interim government of Kayah State. We expect we will be able to present a clearer picture of union-level units and state-level units next month. We are taking pragmatic approaches to building a federal Union, which is the aspiration of the people.
Karenni State was never ruled by any central Myanmar authority until independence from Britain. The KA has fought successive military regimes for autonomy for Kayah State. It is now cooperating with NUG to build a future federal union. What role will the KNDF play in any future union?
Firstly, before Myanmar’s independence, Karenni State worked together with inland Myanmar to fight the British. Karenni leaders in 1947 decided to join the union.
Secondly, we were oppressed all along after we became part of the union. Natural resources in our state were never used for us, but used for other parts of country or exploited by the generals, while we were denied our rights.
Thirdly, we must be aware that the National League for Democracy (NLD) had power only after it won the election. Fourthly, it must be acknowledged that all of us, including those in other states who have actively participated in this revolution, hope that power will be equally shared, that there will no more civil war, and that there will be no more discrimination and repression after we win this revolution.
So we can’t dwell on the past or let the NLD play us as it pleases. We have to find a common answer, which is federal democracy. We have to prepare for this now. So all the groups in our state must work in unity in fighting the regime, and when this revolution succeeds we must undergo security reforms together in the state.
After the revolution is completed, the KSCC will continue to serve as the interim government and initiate reforms which will enable us, after a democratic election, to make good use of natural resources and bring about sustainable development of Kayah States as well as the country. We want to prove that it is wrong to accuse us of wanting to secede from the union.
We will approach federalism pragmatically. Based on historical status, current situation, and aspirations of the people, our state will join as a part of the union. And we will make sure we can enjoy all the rights people in our state should enjoy. We will not make unrealistic demands, but the union must grant us equal rights. This is our approach.
The NLD government suppressed Karenni youth and organizations before the coup. What made the Karenni people resist the military regime despite that suppression?
Young Karenni people were arrested for protests against [the NLD government’s erection of] General Aung San statues in Kayah State. And some were detained and jailed when we protested over civilian deaths. There were also arrests and imprisonment under U Thein Sein’s government.
Young Karenni people have always demanded equal rights and reasonable opportunities for development of our state and that our identity is recognized. But successive governments have rejected our demands and suppressed us.
We have always done what is important first. We have not just demanded equal rights, but we have fought for many years to end military dictatorship. When the 2008 [military-drafted] constitution was ratified, many young Karenni people staged protests despite the risk of imprisonment.
As the most important thing is to fight the regime, we have ignored arrests and imprisonment over the [General Aung San] statues. And we are even working together with people from the NLD, for example officials of the Kayah State government, who detained and imprisoned our Karenni people. We are working together with them to end military dictatorship, holding meetings with them daily.
We are politically aware that military dictatorship must be deposed. Only when military dictatorship has ended, will there be freedom and transparency which will enable us to make demands and have a greater say. This is our major motivation for fighting the regime at the frontline.
After the coup, we demanded that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi be released, parliament be convened, the 2008 constitution be scrapped and a federal union established. We have demanded that all political prisoners including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi be released and elected parties take power while our federal rights are being established.
Has there been any discussion about establishing an independent Karenni State? What is the KNDF’s position?
We will not work to have an independent state while we are working to establish federalism. We are concerned when charters for independent states and self-administration are talked about. As the country is gaining political momentum, some are portraying us as would-be separatists. We assume all those acts are dangerous.
The position of both the KNDF and the KSCC is that we don’t have a policy to ask for a charter that allows self-government and an independent state, but that we stand for equal rights in the union. Our approach is for all parties ‘to come together’.
For this approach to be successful, both the regime, the NLD and other parties that won [the 2020 general election] must see this and cooperate again with correct steps. They must welcome each other.
The military regime is extremely frightened that our democratic forces will unite. At the same time, some people from the NLD are concerned that ethnic people will have equal rights, and they hold the view that the central government that won the election should decide everything. And their responses are influenced by those concerns, which is very saddening. Their actions undermine the current cooperation between us and amount to a violation of the charter agreed by the majority.
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