Guest Column

Emergence of People’s Militias in Myanmar: What Does It Mean?

By Tin Htar Swe 5 July 2021

The recent pictures of the charred bodies of an elderly couple in their 80s in a village in central Myanmar have shocked the world. They were found by their family when they returned to their village of Kin Ma in Magway Region. Villagers had been chased out of their homes when fighting broke out nearby between the Myanmar military (or Tatmadaw) and local resistance fighters who are supporters of the parallel civilian National Unity Government (NUG).

The family of the elderly couple told local media they decided to leave their parents in the village because they were too frail to take with them. After three days hiding in the jungle, the villagers returned and were dismayed to find their entire village razed to the ground.

Eyewitnesses said the security forces ransacked the houses before setting them on fire. The blaze was so large it was recorded by NASA’s satellite fire-tracking system at 15:22 GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) on Tuesday June 15, according to Reuters. A total of 200 houses out of 240 in the village were burned down.

This shocking incident happened a few days after more than a dozen unidentified bodies were found in a village in Demoso Township in Kayah State in eastern Myanmar.

The corpses were found in Ngwe Taung when the villagers returned. They had fled in fear of their lives when intense fighting broke out between the army and the combined forces of the ethnic Karenni Nationalities Defense Force (KNDF) and a newly organized militia, the People’s Defence Force (PDF).

The KNDF is a combined force of civilian fighters from the Karenni territories and other ethnic armed organizations.

Most of the corpses found were barely recognizable and some had been partially eaten by dogs, according to those who helped cremate the bodies. Some of the victims had their hands tied behind their backs and some had headshot wounds.

Kayah State has experienced violent clashes between the military and local militias, resulting in heavy casualties on both sides, especially for the Myanmar military. According to the KNDF,  the Tatmadaw lost nearly 200 troops. The military retaliated by using helicopters and heavy artillery to strike the resistance forces in the Karenni area.

Myanmar is witnessing attacks on innocent civilians by the military on an unprecedented scale. They are not restricted to areas where the army and the militias clash, but are also occurring in towns and cities.

Attacks on individuals are escalating across the country. In recent weeks, local administrators appointed by the military have been killed by unidentified assailants. They were accused of passing on information to the authorities about local residents suspected of opposing military rule. According to local media, in the month of June alone, more than two dozen local administrators were either gunned down or stabbed by assailants.

The coup makers claim the violent attacks were spearheaded by members of the PDF, a citizens’ militia formed by young protesters collectively known as Gen Z.

On June 22, a lieutenant colonel and another military officer were killed when security forces raided the hideout of PDF members in Mandalay. This was the first time a senior officer had been killed in an armed clash between the two forces. The security forces responded with heavy weapons in a bid to capture the PDF members holed up in the building. State media claimed four militia members died and eight were captured. This figure was hotly disputed by the PDF, which claimed it lost two of their fighters with six being captured.

Following the arrests of the PDF members in Mandalay, the military confiscated a large cache of arms and ammunition on a truck bound for Mandalay in Thabeikkyin Township. The weapons seizure indicates that the PDF, who have received military training in areas controlled by ethnic non-state armies, are better armed than previously thought. This could be a sign that more deadly armed resistance from the militias is to be expected.

The NUG has endorsed the PDF, but does not command or control it. Such loosely formed, shadowy armed groups are emerging in several areas of the country and appear to be actively involved in clandestine attacks on local administrators suspected of being military informants, and related facilities across the country.

The most spectacular attack took place on June 18 when a parked military truck with soldiers on board was bombed in east central Yangon. The truck was parked in front of an office of the junta’s proxy political party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party. State media have yet to report on the incident.

Myanmar Now reported that PDF fighters claimed these daring assaults on military facilities were only possible because of the support and help they got from army soldiers. Major Hein Thaw Oo, a Myanmar military officer who broke ranks and joined the anti-junta Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), insisted there were many people like him who would like to join the CDM if given the chance.

Some may argue that using the tactics of assassinations and bombings to achieve political ends will put militias at risk of engaging in terrorism, but to most citizens, resorting to violence is the only option left as the international community has failed to intervene to stop the atrocities committed by the regime. This notion is shared by the NUG.

However, the International Crisis Group in a June 28 report, “Taking Aim at the Tatmadaw: The New Armed Resistance to Myanmar’s Coup”, urged the NUG to strengthen its military code of conduct.

“The NUG, even if it does not have command and control of these groups, should continue strengthening its military code of conduct, ensure that this code is widely disseminated, carry on publicly signaling the priority it gives to the document and use its influence to press all resistance elements to adhere to the provisions,” the group said in the report.

The report also pointed out that the diverse nature of the militias and communication problems present significant challenges to putting in place a unified chain of command.

Confronting the new citizen militias in many different locations, especially in towns and cities, will be a major challenge for the Tatmadaw, even as it faces a renewed escalation of fighting with non-state armies along the border.

With the overwhelming support the militias are receiving from within the country and abroad, it is highly likely that they will become much stronger, better armed and more structured. Evidence shows that the resistance force members are ready to give their lives to bring down the military dictatorship.

Tin Htar Swe OBE is the former editor of BBC South Asia Region and the BBC Burmese Service.

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