Myanmar’s rebellion, divided, outgunned and outnumbered, fights on

Members of the People’s Defense Force march along a road during training in Myanmar on Sept. 17, 2021. (Photos for The Washington Post)

Nearly seven months after Myanmar’s parallel government declared a “people’s defensive war” against the military junta, pro-democracy rebels are hanging on — not winning, but not losing either — using explosives, black market weapons and widespread popular support to keep junta soldiers out of key territories.

This ragtag amateur force of doctors, dentists, tattoo artists, poets and farmers has joined with existing ethnic armed groups to thwart the military’s efforts to quash resistance to its coup. Though vastly outnumbered and outgunned, the rebels have held on and evolved, opening up the likelihood of protracted and deadly fighting across this Southeast Asian nation of 55 million bordering India and China.

The asymmetrical conflict — and likely stalemate — between the Myanmar military and the rebels bears some similarities to the fight between Russia and Ukraine, with a more determined but far smaller and less equipped force holding off a larger aggressor in a conflict where there may be no total victory for either side.

In a March report, the parallel government’s defense minister, Yee Mon, acknowledged his forces’ shortcomings, saying the lack of arms has been a “major weakness.” Unlike in Ukraine, no foreign country has provided material assistance to Myanmar’s parallel government and its would-be army. The National Unity Government, or NUG, as it’s called, is not recognized internationally as a legitimate governing body and relies on donations from civilians.

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Both sides in Myanmar are hardening their positions. Speaking Sunday on Armed Forces Day, the military’s commander in chief, Min Aung Hlaing, said his troops would “annihilate” anti-coup forces and will not negotiate with them, eliminating the possibility of a diplomatic solution. Rebel groups, meanwhile, are pulling off surprising victories, even without central control and a lack of command structures.

“The fact that you’ve had the proliferation of hundreds of these organizations is very telling,” said Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington who focuses on Southeast Asian politics and security issues. “They are doing this against all odds — they have very little hope of success and yet they are doing it and people are flocking to join them.”

For the civilians-turned-soldiers, the question is: If not now, then when? After six decades of rights abuses and oppression under the military — which the United States recently recognized as having committed genocide against the Rohingya Muslim minority — many see this as their last opportunity to break the junta’s chokehold, despite the bloody price it will cost.

“This is the time, the right time, to make our revolution prevail,” said Bo Nagar, who leads a rebel group that claims to have killed some 180 government soldiers in ambushes since October. In retribution, Myanmar’s military raided a village looking for Bo Nagar in January, killing about 20 people, including his cousin, whose head was cut off and left on a toilet.

“I have no idea why anyone would consider negotiation,” he added.

From poet to soldier

Maung Saungkha’s turning point came when soldiers shot fellow poet K Za Win in the head at a protest last March. He was shielding other protesters when the military opened fire into the crowd.

Myanmar was then a month into the military coup, and many were still taking to the streets to protest the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace laureate who had been the country’s civilian leader, and her top advisers. That moment, Maung Saungkha said, convinced him that Myanmar’s people would keep losing if they continued with the kind of peaceful resistance that Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy had long advocated.

“The ones who stand at the front will just die,” he said. “There is no chance to be successful. I started thinking we have to consider an armed revolution.” He was almost arrested after organizing a protest several days later, and fled to an area controlled by an ethnic minority rebel group.

At the time, the NUG — composed of allies of Suu Kyi and her party — had not yet been founded, nor had its military wing, the People’s Defense Force. Maung Saungkha, who was jailed in 2015 for writing a satirical poem about having a tattoo of then-President Thein Sein on his penis, started making plans to establish his own armed group, the Bamar People’s Liberation Army. For its logo, the group chose nine peacock feathers arranged in a circle; the peacock symbolizes Myanmar’s last kings.

Training was grueling, and fighters were not allowed to return home while living under the BPLA’s command. Their days began at 4 a.m., with drills and a simple breakfast of steamed rice and whatever meat or vegetable was available. Parade training followed, in sun or rain, and at night the volunteers learned about federalism, warfare and what the new Myanmar might look like.

“I had lived my entire life as an antiwar poet,” Maung Saungkha wrote last month in the Guardian. “But the former peacemaker who once could not stand even the sound of gunfire is now hungry for war.”

Shortages and rifts

The BPLA is just one of about 250 loosely organized groups fighting the military alongside Myanmar’s existing armed ethnic organizations — a legacy of rebellions by minorities over the decades against the military’s brutal rule. Most are vaguely under the umbrella of the People’s Defense Force, but were founded locally across Myanmar.

Estimates put the number of rebel fighters at about 25,000, with an additional 30,000 from the various minority ethnic groups already battling the military.

Still, these groups have no way of legally procuring arms since the NUG is not a recognized government, a status unlikely to change despite the junta’s international isolation. The NUG has scraped together $30 million to buy weapons on the black market; the only others available are those taken from defeated government soldiers.

Amid the shortages, the rebels have succumbed to infighting. One leader of a local People’s Defense Force group admitted to killing rivals and civilians; the NUG has launched an inquiry.

The Myanmar military, meanwhile, continues to buy arms from willing nations, despite Western sanctions. Human rights groups have urged the U.N. Security Council to impose an arms embargo, but any decisive action has been blocked by the vetoes of China and Russia. Both have continued to arm the junta, according to a February report by Tom Andrews, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on Myanmar.

The lack of weapons has frustrated fighters like 32-year-old Scott Aung, who joined a rebel group last March. He still doesn’t have his own gun. His efforts to save up enough for one by tattooing his comrades have often been foiled by spending his money on ammunition and supplies for those heading to the front lines.

“It looks like I am a paper tiger,” said Scott Aung. “A fighter should have a weapon, and it should be with him all the time.”

Forever war

Richard Horsey, a senior adviser on Myanmar at the International Crisis Group, said the rebels are denying the military access to territory and “the ability to consolidate its control.” But they are unable to go on the offensive or take government-controlled towns, he added, thus protracting what is effectively a stalemate in the conflict.

“These groups are extremely successful in denying the military what they want, but there is little prospect that they will be able to defeat the Tatmadaw or make significant strategic gains,” Horsey said, using another name for the Myanmar military.

The opposition forces are gearing up for the long haul. One newly trained fighter, who asked to be called only George for fear of repercussions for his family, used to be a dentist working at a government hospital. He had never played sports and he loved to read. But after a 62-day training course, completed in October, he is ready to go to the front and “remove all attachments” to his past.

After the revolution, he will return to his work as a dentist, he says, and looks forward to sitting in his clinic again. “There are many things to do after the revolution,” George said. “But for now, I’m sure the military must fall.”