Rebel youth risk life and limb in Myanmar’s cruel war

Rebel youth risk life and limb in Myanmar’s cruel war

Renowned photojournalist Thierry Falise recently returned from a month in Myanmar’s Kayah state, a front line in the nation’s raging civil war. This is the first article of a two-part series.

KAYAH, Myanmar – Maui is a chubby man with a thick goatee and a mischievous smile. Yet the 29-year-old fighter’s affability and ease belie the severity of his combat fatigues and lethal weaponry.

Maui is the commander of the rebel Karenni Nationalities Defense Force (KNDF), which maintains a temporary headquarters in an abandoned village close to Demoso, a town in Kayah state held by the Myanmar military.

“We have to go now, my guys have started to attack the enemy on the other side of the road,” he says in an interview while walking to a pickup truck camouflaged under a tree.

Like tens of millions of other Myanmar citizens, his life dramatically turned on February 1, 2021, the day the military staged a democracy-suspending coup. “I was running an NGO specializing in organic farming in northern Kayah state,” he recalls.

“We had plantations of vegetables, tomatoes, mangos and avocados. We also helped local farmers. Everything was going well and smoothly. At night I enjoyed sitting on my porch with a good glass of wine to watch the sunset over the hills.”

On his mobile phone, Maui swipes pictures of this seemingly long-gone life of peace and tranquility. One shows him with dreadlocks; another shows him standing in front of posters of Bob Marley and Che Guevara.

In many ways, he is symbolic of Myanmar’s youth who between 2011 and 2020 experienced freedom and hope that their parents never had during previous decades of repressive military dictatorship.

The coup and the military’s violence against peaceful demonstrators drove thousands of young people into the jungle and mountains, where many took shelter in areas controlled by long-standing ethnic armed groups.

In Kayah state, Maui and other young activists created a new anti-military army, initially out of frustration towards the National League of Democracy (NLD), the ruling party that won the November 2020 election but was toppled and repressed by the coup.

Maui, the 29-year-old commander of the Karenni Nationalities Defence Force (KNDF), stands in a rear base near the frontline. The KNDF, mostly constituted of local young civilians, claims to have a force of 7,500 men and women divided into 21 battalions. Photo: Thierry Falise

“During anti-junta demonstrations in Loikaw and other cities in Kayah state, we were gutted to see some NLD leaders telling us to soften our demands and stop requiring the abolition of the 2008 Constitution (written and applied by the military before the coup), so we decided to join the armed movement.”

Maui and his followers did not want to create another People’s Defense Force (PDF) unit, the armed wing of the National Unity Government (NUG), which they felt would be an off-shoot of the NLD. “I was invited by a northern ethnic group to get basic military training and then I learned on the spot,” he adds.

Young women and men, mostly students and farmers from Kayah state, quickly gathered around the new force that was founded in May 2021 under the name of KNDF. Funding to acquire weapons and ammunition came from the sale of private properties and individual donors sympathetic to the cause.

Officially, the KNDF is under the umbrella of the Karenni Army (KA), the armed wing of the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), one of the oldest ethnic armed groups created in 1957. “I am second in command under General Bee Htoo (KA’s commander-in-chief). The KA brought their experience and provided us with some weapons,” adds Maui.

The KNDF, which claims a force of 7,500 women and men, mostly ethnic Karennis, is divided into 21 battalions (in reality there are 20; Battalion 13, for superstitious reasons, does not exist). On the field, the KNDF is operating alongside KA and PDF units.

It can also rely on temporary although untrustworthy collaboration with local groups used for years as proxies by Myanmar security forces such as the Karenni Nationalities People’s Liberation Front (KNPLF) and the Karenni National Solidarity Organization (KNSO).

The KNDF’s young fighting force is a militant microcosm of the national revolution movement, which is being driven by young people from all ways of life and ethnicities. They have transformed Kayah state, one of Myanmar’s smallest and least populated administrative divisions, into one of the main hotbeds of the armed resistance.

People’s Defense Force (PDF) Demoso members practice at a jungle training camp. Photo: Thierry Falise

Maw Kue Myar, a 23-year-old Karenni who goes by Kuku, was a nurse at the Yangon hospital before the coup. She’s now on the frontlines treating injured combatants.

“The army shattered our dreams,” she says with a melancholic smile. “After witnessing security forces killing people during protests, I joined the resistance.”

On many occasions she has amputated soldiers on the spot on the battlefield, sometimes helping to carry the wounded and the dead. “In 2022, particularly, (KNDF) soldiers were injured and killed everywhere by airstrikes, snipers, mortars, bullets. It was relentless, horrible.”

More recently, another young woman, Bamar ethnic Ming Nge, has joined the resistance medical staff. “I was a first-year student at Yangon University of Medicine 1. In March 2021, a friend from my class was killed by the police during a protest. I only wanted to fight back,” said the 19-year-old.  

She reached a Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) camp along the Thai border where she received basic military training and then registered in a humanitarian program conducted by the Free Burma Rangers (FBR), a relief group founded in 1997 and one of the rare organizations to work inside the war zone with displaced populations.

During a recent FBR mission in Kayah state, she learned from a volunteering American dentist how to extract and fill in teeth, a blessing for many local people who otherwise would probably never receive proper dental treatment. This new life helped her to reflect on her previous “privileged conditions.”

“I realized that we Bamar had made our life comfortable for ourselves. I had no idea how ethnic people have been suffering under the Burmese army and I had no ethnic friends.”

On the battlefield, the war has taken a discernible shift from last year. In 2022, the boldness and rage motivating young KNDF, KA and PDF combatants to follow an all-war strategy turned out to be very costly. According to an official count by the KNDF, 174 combatants (KNDF, KA and PDF) lost their lives in 2021 and 2022.

“This toll is probably well short of the reality,” comments a FBR observer who was present during months of heavy fighting in 2022. “There are cases of young combatants who were rushing towards enemy lines despite being ordered by their commander to get back, they were shouting ‘we want to kill Burmese, we want to kill Burmese’… and they died,” the observer said.

Joe Phyu, a 41-year-old carpenter and the commander of the PDF Demoso B1102 Unit, acknowledges that he “lost 39 soldiers out of a contingent of 300.”

Field hospitals run by resistance groups are filled with young people recovering from severe injuries. At the Phoenix Rehabilitation Center, a facility built on a hilltop near a Kayan village (one of the Karenni sub-groups), Poe Reh, a 31-year-old KNDF Battalion 10 fighter is sitting on a bed. Five months ago, he lost both legs to a landmine.

“Soon I will get a prosthesis and I hope to start a new life as a farmer,” he says with a smile and his girlfriend at his side.

A soldier from the Karenni Nationalities Defence Force (KNDF) who lost both legs during a military operation against the Myanmar army sits in a field hospital alongside his partner. Photo: Thierry Falise

In view of last year’s mistakes and losses, resistance strategists seem to have shifted their operations to more classic guerrilla warfare. Everyone acknowledges the supremacy of the Myanmar Army’s weaponry, particularly its rising use of deadly airstrikes.

“The Burmese Army is in control of the main cities and roads, but we are stronger in the forest and the hills,” says 26-year-old Khu Reedu, Maui’s second in command, a Karenni former law student who in 2019 made a name for himself when he was jailed for six months for protesting against the then-NLD-led government’s plan to erect a statue of independence leader General Aung San in Loikaw, Kayah state’s capital.

Dragon, the 31-year-old KNDF strategy officer, says “contrary to a widespread opinion, Burmese soldiers can be quite brave, even though sometimes in a naïve way when they charge against us to their death without much thinking. Many of them feel strong and can stay awake for long periods of time because they use yah baa (methamphetamine), which costs only 500 kyats (US$ 0.24) per tablet.”

Maui’s arrival on the frontline underlines this shift to guerrilla warfare. A short distance away, from a field nearby another deserted village, the sound of pounding mortars and the repetitive crackling of machine guns and rifles can be heard.

At their closest, only 50 meters separate KNDF-PDF combatants and Myanmar military soldiers. A KNDF soldier hit by shrapnel in the back is brought inside a house where medics provide first aid on the cement floor.

Medics treat a soldier from the Karenni Nationalities Defence Force (KNDF) who was injured in the back during a military operation against the Myanmar army. Photo: Thierry Falise

After hours of exchanging fire interrupted by long moments of silence, orders are given to the resistance to withdraw.

“Last year, we would have kept on shooting and tried to advance towards the enemy. Today, having realized that we can avoid senseless deaths and injuries, we are more cautious in our approach,” Maui says.

Still, even though casualties have dwindled, the situation remains highly hazardous. A week before, nearby this frontline, four KNDF soldiers were torn apart by a Myanmar military-fired mortar that fell in a trench.

Despite the lethal danger, the KNDF and PDF continue to attract new recruits. Jacinta, a 19-year-old female Karenni, is sitting on the dusty ground of training camp with 90 other newcomers, listening to an instructor’s speech. She joined the KNDF after volunteering in an internally displaced people (IDP) camp.

“I saw so much suffering over there,” she says with a shy smile, adding: “I am a little bit afraid of weapons, but it will do.”

While armed resistance groups can still count on reinforcing their ranks, they still lack weapons and ammunition. This shortage is felt most acutely during Myanmar military airstrikes.

While resistance leaders say they dream of a kind of an “Afghan war turning point” – when in 1988 the delivery of surface-to-air Stinger missiles by the US government to the Afghan resistance shifted the course of the war against Russia – they know for now such deliveries are unrealistic.

Soldiers from the Karenni Nationalities Defence Force (KNDF) walking in a forest on their way to a military operation against the Myanmar army in Southern Shan state. Photo: Thierry Falise

No Western government is going to risk fueling an armed conflict on China’s doorstep and in a country that is still low on their priority list.

The resistance’s weapons and ammunition are in part seized from government soldiers or provided by other ethnic armed groups such as the Karen, the Kachin or the Palaung. As with any unconventional war, they are also procured from border black markets, albeit at a very high cost.

“Since the beginning of the war,” says a KNDF officer, “intermediaries have multiplied and increased their commission. On the Thai border, a M16 or a AK47 can cost up to 130,000 THB (US$3,800).”

Still, resistance groups make up for these shortfalls through improvisation and creativity. The KNDF has set up a few clandestine weapon factories in its operating zones. Deep inside an unhospitable and arid jungle area, a few makeshift bamboo huts accommodate 60mm mortar production.

A dozen young people, engineers, chemists and other technicians are busy working on a full production cycle, which runs from the fabrication of explosives to the formatting of the final shell on massive machine tools powered by generators.

They use scraps from motorbike engines, fragments of electric poles and other scrap metal with a preference for aluminum. The results are relatively well-crafted mortars that will be used in launchers and homemade drones against Myanmar military positions.

A member of the Karenni Nationalities Defence Force (KNDF) makes a 60mm mortar on a machine tool in a clandestine weapons factory set up deep in a jungle. This factory also produces landmines. Photo: Thierry Falise

In other secret workshops, resistance supporters assemble makeshift M16 and other types of rifles, mixing original pieces often dating from the Vietnam war with copies and other parts produced by 3D printers. “Sometimes we also use Airsoft parts to incorporate in our rifles, particularly handguards,” adds a KNDF officer.

Both the KNDF and KA have established some kind of administration in the vast areas that they control and where a large number of the 200,000 to 300,000 IDPs have settled while waiting and hoping for normalcy to return to their besieged villages.

“We try to maintain education and health structures in these areas. It’s not perfect, but it’s much better than nothing,” says Maui.

KNDF and PDF units operating in Kayah state are largely self-reliant because they cannot count on their chief official ally, the anti-coup National Unity Government. Every young activist in Kayah state interviewed for this report asked the same question: “Where is the NUG?”

“We see and hear the NUG a lot online, but not in the field,” said Kuku, the nurse, in summing up the opinions of many of her companions on the perceived disconnect between the NUG’s official objectives and the reality on the ground.

Joe Phyu, the PDF Demoso commander adds: “Only 1% of the help I get from outside sources comes from the NUG. If we had to rely on the NUG, we could not fight at all.”

Khu Reedu, the KNDF’s second in command, goes further: “I think that the NUG, which is reputed to get a lot of resources from foreign entities, hands out its assistance as a priority to PDF groups operating in (ethnic majority) Bamar areas such as Sagaing and Magwe regions. I believe that NUG leaders think that groups like us operating in ethnic areas can rely on the traditional ethnic guerrilla movements.”

People’s Defense Force (PDF) members are ridding in a truck on their way to a military operation against the Myanmar army. Photo: Thierry Falise

If so, it’s a sad and dramatic expression of perceived Bamar chauvinism in which, even though formally allied with ethnic groups against a common enemy, they still consider minority groups as second-rate partners. As for the Burmese military, says a PDF officer, “in the middle and long term, they bet on a gradual loss of impetus within the resistance groups.”

Indeed, the coming years will be decisive in answering a crucial question: how long can a generation of young people maintain its determination and commitment amid massive suffering, a lack of resources and a rising sense of abandonment?

In conversations and interviews, some revolutionaries – as they call themselves – acknowledge that they probably only have a couple of years before they opt for other paths if their democratic aspirations aren’t achieved, either returning to their previous lives in military-occupied areas or starting new ones abroad as exiles.

Theirry Falise is a long-time photojournalist based in Bangkok, Thailand. The text and photos in this report are his copyright and may not be reproduced in any form without his express permission.