The civil war in Burma has been ongoing for decades, however, it was almost exclusively fought along the country’s borders in the ethnic minority regions. After the coup in February, mass street protests were brutally crushed. Since then, thousands of young people have deserted the cities and fled to ethnic rebel strongholds to undergo military training with the armed ethnic groups in preparation for a final confrontation with the Tatmadaw junta (the Burmese military).
Out of this exodus, a new army has been formed, The Peoples Defence Force (PDF), which is supposedly under the command of the National Unity Government (NUG), who are currently operating in exile in Thailand and other ethnic minority strongholds within Burma. Members of the PDF are tight-lipped about their strategic plans, but it is no secret that many have returned to the major cities to carry out surveillance, assassinations and make preparations for intense urban guerrilla warfare when the time comes.
The National Unity Government has attempted to ally with the armed ethnic groups to form a united front against the junta, though there are no certain signs yet that these attempts have been successful. Earlier this month the National Unity Government declared war on the junta, vowing to take the country back. Since then there have been daily sporadic assassinations, bombings and sabotaging of infrastructure, but there is yet to be any major fighting.
We spoke to Myo Min, an ethnic Rohingya, Din Deng contributor, activist and Yangon resident about the current situation in the former capital city on the eve of war.
Can you tell us what Yangon has been like since the February coup?
Yangon is the main economic city in Burma, before it was always extremely busy, with heavy traffic every day. But since the coup it’s been extremely quiet, you don’t see many people and there’s military everywhere, they’re patrolling 24 hours a day and they stop anyone they vaguely suspect. It feels like we’re living in a war zone. If we look outside there’s always heavily armed police and military everywhere. There are also raids every night by the military, they raid houses and apartment blocks arresting people, the general feeling is that we’re extremely insecure.
Everyone is also struggling economically because of both Covid and the military so the prices are hiking up and industry is leaving the country. People are struggling with basic needs because there are no jobs. Also, the civil disobedience campaign is ongoing, people aren’t paying their taxes or paying their electricity bills, stuff like that.
When people go out they don’t even take their mobile phones with them because at the checkpoints they’ll check your phone and if they find anything they don’t like they’ll arrest you on the spot.
Is it harder for you as a Rohingya person?
It is hard for us but we don’t identify as Rohingya when we are in Yangon. We hide our identity. On my ID card, it says Bengali, but luckily in my neighbourhood, they’re not so strict, so I don’t take my ID with me if I have to go out. Where I live it’s actually one of the safest places, mostly they stop you in the evening around here, so I just don’t go out in the evening and if I get stopped in the day they just check phones and stuff. However, if they see that I’m Rohingya it’s going to be a big problem. We only reveal our identity among people we can trust. Also, most people don’t take their real phones, they have like a second phone that they take with them in public, although the military can see that like, this is a cheap phone, they know what you’re doing, so that can be a problem too, in that situation you’ll probably have to pay a bribe.
How many young people have left the city to join the PDF or to go into exile, is it very noticeable?
Most of my friends have left Yangon to join the Kachin, Karen or Shan ethnic groups. It’s very noticeable. I think almost all of the youth that are still here are engaged in some activity against the Tatmadaw even if they didn’t join the armed groups. Still, they’re helping in one way or another. I work at a school teaching short courses, we’re all online and not surprisingly a lot more people are joining political courses.
On the streets, it’s mostly elderly people, not young ones. Also, young people from the rural areas who have moved to Yangon aren’t even going back to their homes in the countryside because even Yangon is safer than those kinds of places, as in more quiet villages if people are organising the military can just tear villages apart with impunity.
So in my opinion, almost all the young people in Yangon now are fighting the junta in some way or another. We feel like this is the time we need to stand for something. If we don’t do it this time, we have to suffer for generations. It’s like, this short-term sacrifice will be our long-term gain.
Has any guerrilla warfare begun in the cities?
Yeah, some people have returned from training with the ethnic armies to Yangon and other major cities, like Mandalay. But the problem is they don’t have enough equipment and the Tatmadaw are very well equipped. So they are doing something like throwing handmade grenades into military cars, and some shootings also in the street, also targeting Tatmadaw businesses and informants, police stations, checkpoints etc… But the main issue for the insurgents is that they’re underequipped.
How coordinated is this activity?
I think it’s very well coordinated. There are other groups as well as the PDF, but there is still coordination because the common enemy is the Tatmadaw. So we don’t look at those kinds of differences for now.
How unified do you think these insurgents are? How long will it last?
Well, many of my friends who have gone for military training are not under the PDF. They’re more like… Associated with small groups or are independent. They’re doing it on their own with the help of their friends or from collective donations and they’re not getting help from the NUG, but still, as I said before, they have a common enemy, so they cooperate with each other. They’re thinking that once we get rid of the Tatmadaw it will be much easier for us to negotiate and they believe that they can work it out after.
At the beginning of the protests, some neighbourhoods tried to become autonomous against the Tatmadaw, are any of those still effectively keeping them out?
No, not like before. That was a tactic at the beginning but now the military is absolutely everywhere all the time, so that’s impossible.
How functional are government services right now?
Well for the police, like every police station, they’re just covering them in sandbags and hiding behind them pointing guns towards the street, or manning checkpoints. Public hospitals are still running but people are avoiding all engagement with the government. They don’t like going to government hospitals, but there are a lot of underground clinics operating, these clinics are mostly helping the poor, while the rich go to private hospitals. There’s like an emergency secondary state infrastructure being operated underground.
The banking system has almost entirely collapsed like you can’t withdraw or send money and schools and universities are still closed. Pretty much all public institutions are not running. Also, people are not paying taxes, not even for electricity or water, because we don’t want to do anything that will benefit the junta. Then they send someone to come and cut our water or electricity, but thanks to people underground, maybe PDF, they’ll go to whoever’s cutting the power and set them straight.
This is all part of the civil disobedience movement that started after the coup in February and it’s still going strong, and we can keep going for quite a while I think, how long for I can’t predict but the people are still strong.
Do you expect that there will be guerrilla warfare in Yangon and the other major cities?
Yes absolutely. We are anticipating a much more intense battle with the Tatmadaw here and we are prepared for that. Everyone is expecting it, unfortunately, that means businesses are hiking up prices because people are preparing for the war, collecting food and necessities. Right now we have this low-level insurgency but it will undoubtedly grow to a higher frequency. We will destroy this junta using any method we can and not let them run smoothly at all.
How is this movement different to the one in 1988?
I think the main thing that sets this movement apart from 1988 is that in the past the junta would come to negotiate, to talk about reconciliation. Last time people accepted that, but not this time. This is something we’ve learnt from the past. The junta needs to be completely destroyed.
Also tactically we’ve learned not to flee to the rebels for training and abandon the cities. A lot of people have returned to the cities already and the movement is strong here. Really the movement has been spread all across the country, everywhere. Also, they’re not going to wait for a long time, like before, 6 months training and return.
Are you, as a Rohingya minority, sceptical of the NUG?
I’m very sceptical. I think they’re not going to do anything for the minorities. Even if they put some minorities in important, visible positions, it’s an empty gesture. Those who really stand for the minorities weren’t selected. The NUG is more like an NGO, a lot of the members are from NGOs. To solve these political problems, you need to give political guarantees, which they’re not. They’re just making this organisation that looks inclusive, but this solves no political problems.
Even in the past 7 months, the NUG hasn’t actually formed close ties with the ethnic minorities. It’s like they have no real intention to give away any kind of actual power, just something that looks like representation.
Are there any Rohingya people in the PDF as far as you’re aware?
Not that I know of, but yes we’re helping back home or here in Yangon, we’re helping financially, helping on a case by case community basis.
Are Bamar people in Yangon sceptical of the NUG too?
I would say that the vast majority blindly follow the NUG, that’s the Burmese political culture, they’re very chauvinistic. Even those who have been radicalised, politically, they don’t really understand, it takes a lot of time to change this in mass public opinion, Bamar chauvinism is very deeply intertwined with the political culture. Sometimes when I think about these things, I feel hopeless.
Now I’m not feeling great about the future, but I will do what I can do in my power to get rid of the junta. Frankly, there has not been much discussion about what’s going to happen after this war. This conflict could definitely continue, we have many armed organisations, each one has different aspirations, there is a real lack of discussion on that. Personally, what I’m really concerned about is that there is no plan to solve the situation for the Rohingya or the other minorities.