When protesters took to the streets of Myanmar to oppose the junta that seized power in a coup last year, none of them will have thought that they might be taking up arms a few months later, or making their own weapons and putting their lives at risk.
In the first weeks after the coup, the protests were not only peaceful but also creative and artistic. The world was impressed with the creative way Myanmar’s young people demonstrated against the military regime. But once the junta launched its brutal and lethal crackdowns in March 2021, the protests transformed into a resistance movement and much blood was shed nationwide. Now Myanmar’s Spring Revolution has evolved to the next level: a radical revolution.
After watching hundreds of their fellow demonstrators killed in execution-style shootings and realizing that no international help would be coming, determined anti-regime protesters decided to take up arms to shield civilians from junta forces and to bring down the regime.
In late March, they began to form armed resistance groups, which would later become collectively known as the People’s Defense Forces (PDF). Some joined the battle-hardened ethnic armed organizations (EAO), which have being fighting the Myanmar military for decades in the borderlands.
But obtaining weapons isn’t easy for resistance fighters, especially those operating in Sagaing and Magwe regions, which are far away from the borderlands where military-grade weapons are either imported or made in EAO-run factories. The price of a weapon doubles or triples by the time it arrives in inland Myanmar, according to local resistance groups.
Struggling to get arms, PDFs started making their own weapons, an unprecedented move in the country’s recent history.
Ko Kyaw Htin, an IT engineer graduate who formed the Yinmabin People’s Defense Army (PDA) with friends in Sagaing Region’s Yinmabin Township, is among them.
Formed in late March last year, the Yinmabin PDA were armed initially only with homemade rifles with which to counter the brutal junta troops raiding their villages. The regime forces are armed with assault rifles, machine guns, artillery, helicopters and jets. So the outgunned PDFs started making improvised explosive devices (IED).
“When we began, homemade percussion lock firearms were the best we had,” said Ko Phoenix, a member of the Yoma Fighter resistance force in Sagaing’s Yinmabin Township.
Phoenix is a former teacher who left his job to take part in the peaceful Civil Disobedience Movement and to join anti-coup protests. However, the junta’s brutal killings led him to join the armed struggle.
Producing explosive devices
Using YouTube and sharing knowledge between themselves, the revolutionary groups went from making rudimentary rifles to producing bombs and mines to ambush junta convoys, said Ko Phoenix.
Using iron pipes, lead and gunpowder, the groups employ any raw materials available to produce weapons, ammunition and IEDs, he added.
Since last December, the junta has imposed restrictions on the transportation of iron and even the tools used to dig wells, said Ko Phoenix. Despite that, the revolutionary fighters have found other ways to obtain raw materials, and one of those is toppling military-owned Mytel telecom masts and reusing the metal in them.
“Mines are the most effective weapons because we have only homemade guns that make it difficult to compete with regime forces”, said Phoenix.
Resistance forces in others parts of the country also depend on IEDs in their guerrilla warfare against junta convoys and bases, and they have inflicted heavy losses on regime forces.
In one instance, resistance groups in Chin State repeatedly ambushed a regime convoy comprising over 70 vehicles, including two tanks, with mines and inflicted heavy casualties. The convoy was traveling from Matupi to Mindat in Chin, a trip that normally takes less than a day. But the ambushes ensured that the convoy took over ten days to complete the journey.
Over time, the PDFs began to produce more sophisticated weapons such as mortars, home-made rocket systems and a range of small arms, enabling them to combat junta forces, despite the regime’s use of airstrikes from jets.
Ko Kyaw Htin’s Yinmabin PDA invented a long-range artillery system that has a range of around nine miles. The group used the weapon in fighting in Sagaing’s Kani Township on May 12.
“Our artillery targeted a bunker and killed about 10 regime soldiers including a major. We suffered no casualties and were able to withdraw successfully when a jet fighter came,” said Ko Kyaw Htin.
At the end of 2021, defectors from the military, including weapon experts, organized the People Soldier’s Production Team to produce arms for PDFs lacking proper weapons.
“At first, we thought that weapons could be easily bought, but that didn’t happen. So military engineer experts started to design weapons,” said former army captain Nyi Thuta, who defected from his unit right after the coup and who is the spokesperson for the People Soldiers’ Production Team.
The team launched the SR-1 Sub Machine Gun [SR stands for Spring Revolution] on their Facebook page on May 13. The SR-1 gun uses 9 x 19 mm bullets and is as effective as the renowned Uzi sub-machine gun. Currently, the SR-1 guns are intended for resistance fighters in Sagaing Region.
“SR-1 is a military-grade weapon and if we can produce 300,000 to 500,000 SR-1 sub-machine guns, it will be a big game changer and the revolution will finish quickly,” Nyi Thuta said.
Resistance forces have also adapted drones made for cameras to carry bombs that can target junta bases. A video went viral on social media showing the Federal Wings resistance group, which operates in an undisclosed area, testing high-explosive bombs attached to large drones.
The project took a couple of months to develop, according to Federal Wings. However, drones are expensive and so production remains limited. Each drone costs from three million kyats [around US$1,600] to 30 million kyats [US$16,000], while the bombs they carry cost around 100,000 kyats.
Currently, PDFs rely on donations from within their communities and money made from selling their own property to fund the manufacture of weapons. All the groups say a lack of finance is their biggest problem.
“We have the technology. If we had a bigger budget, we could produce enough weapons,” said resistance fighter Ko Phoenix, whose Yoma Fighter group is also making mortars.
But due to their limited funds, Ko Phoenix said they can only arm around 20 per cent of their fighters. Yinmabin PDA has only equipped around half of its fighters.
“It is hard when we don’t have the financial backing. I want the National Unity Government (NUG) and donors to know that groups active on the ground require support. But now we are mostly excluded from that,” said Ko Kyaw Htin.
The NUG’s defence ministry said it has between 80,000 and 100,000 PDF troops under its command and spends 80 per cent of its budget on supporting them but “can’t fully cover them all”.
U Naing Htoo Aung, permanent secretary at the NUG’s defense ministry, told The Irrawaddy recently that the NUG fully intends to support resistance fighters but logistics issues and other obstacles were delaying its efforts. He added that the ministry has a separate unit for weapons production and provided financial, material and technical assistance for PDFs. But, for security reasons, he didn’t disclose details of arms production.
Earlier this month, NUG defense minister U Yee Mon urged the West to arm the PDFs in the same way that they are supporting Ukraine in its fight against Russia. That request came eight months after the NUG officially declared a defensive war to topple the regime last September.
“The people of Ukraine and Myanmar’s pro-democracy militias are all fighting for freedom and giving their lives, but those taking on Myanmar’s well-equipped army need more than international solidarity,” U Yee Mon told Reuters. “With that support, we will be able to end the revolution sooner, minimizing the loss of people and property,” he added.
But rather than wait for the West to respond, resistance groups are finding their own ways to finance themselves and produce weapons.
Sacrifices to get weapons
Weapons production often carries great risks for revolutionary fighters. Former army captain Nyi Thuta told The Irrawaddy that manufacturing weapons was risky due to the lack of military-grade materials and technology, as well as a lack of experience in making arms.
24-year-old Ko Aung San Htay, a leader of an arms production team for his local PDF in Sagaing’s Pale Township, was injured while testing a locally-produced heavy weapon. The video of the test went viral online and he died one month later from the injuries he sustained.
In Yinmabin Township alone, around 40 resistance fighters have died and over 100 have been injured testing homemade weapons, according to the Yoma Fighter group. Of those killed, around ten were blown up.
However, faced with near-daily offensives by junta forces, PDFs continue to produce weapons to make up for the supply shortages, despite the risks involved.
“When I asked why they [PDFs] are eager to manufacture weapons in this risky way, they replied that if they didn’t hundreds or thousands of our people will be killed,” said Nyi Thuta.
Ko Kyaw Htin said the resistance fighters are determined to pay any price to continue to wage their armed struggle.
“We won’t let the regime enslave us. We will overcome any difficulties and continue to fight until the end,” he said.
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