A member of the Karenni People's Defense Force holds a homemade gun adorned with the words 'Spring Revolution' in Burmese script as he takes part in training at a camp near Demoso in Kayah state on July 7, 2021. Photo: AFP

After the Myanmar military staged its latest coup in February 2021, the country’s so-called road to democratic rule was destroyed. And people rose up to fight back in a way never seen before in six decades of military rule.

In the past, civil war in that country was a power struggle between ethnic states and the central government. But the current civil war is totally different.

Myanmar is approaching all-out civil war with the Tatmadaw (as the military is known) on the one side and all states and divisions and majority Burmans from the central plains on the other. An intense civil war is approaching and ordinary people are the ones who will suffer the most.

The chance of the pro-democratic side winning depends on two factors: unity and whether they can form a united front, and financial and material support from the West, especially the US.

Military leader Min Aung Hlaing has said he has only taken power temporarily and denies he has staged a coup. He said he used his authority under the 2008 constitution, which was drawn by his predecessor General Than Shwe. 

After the coup people demonstrated peacefully in the streets, carrying signs and demanding a return to civilian rule. Peaceful rallies were held all over the country backed by people in every class in society, with religious and civil-society leaders, artists, academics, doctors, nurses, engineers, transgenders and movie stars.

State officials and workers joined the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), which spread all over the country. Millions marched peacefully every day, in towns, cities and villages. But the army responded with force and brutality. Many young demonstrators were shot in the head and some were beaten to death.

Poets, activists and members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) were arrested, and the next day their bodies were sent back to their families with bruises and broken bones. 

Min Aung Hlaing formed the State Administration Committee (SAC) and appointed himself prime minister. 

There were four notable things about the 2021 coup. The first was Min Aung Hlaing became known by his initials in Burmese script, “Ma Ar La” – which was popularly rendered as “Ma Aye Loe,” translated as “Motherfucker.” All across the nation, even in villages, marchers shouted “Ma Aye Loe.”

Min Aung Hlaing seemed to become the most despised person in the country’s history; no one has ever been vilified nationwide like this in the open air and on the streets.

The second notable development was the Civil Disobedience Movement, which hit the coup leaders very hard. Government offices were unable to function because of the CDM. Trains could not leave the station and bus terminals were silent without drivers.

The third observation was that many citizens had no ideas about guns in the past as they were not allowed to buy or own them. Only police and army troops could possess guns. But the ruthless killing and torturing of people who opposed the coup ignited public anger and people started to think that without weapons, they would be slaughtered or enslaved by the generals for another decade. So they started to find guns or make them by themselves. 

The fourth observation was that ethnic Burmans, who make up a majority of the population, rose up and formed forces to protect their villages and towns. In the past people on the central plains never took part in demonstrations, but this time they witnessed brutality in their towns and villages. In all states and regions, people formed their own local defense forces (LDFs). 

People’s Defense Force

Elected representatives of the NLD formed a shadow government called the National Unity Government. Under the NUG, a ministry of defense was set up. It kept tabs on activists who fled to areas held by ethnic armed groups (EAGs) who then formed a People’s Defense Force (PDF).

On September 7, 2021, the NUG’s acting President Duwa Lashi La declared a “D-Day” to fight back against the military junta. People expected an offensive against the Tatmadaw, but no PDF troops staged attacks, only LDFs who were not under NUG control started to fight in some areas.

There was a lot of confusion over why PDF members affiliated with the NUG did not fight for their president on that day. One reason was those young fighters trained by EAGs for periods of up to three months still did not have guns. 

When the NUG was organized, Burmese communities in other countries donated US$9 million in the hope that the NUG could fight back. The NUG sold raffle tickets and bonds, which drew another $10 million, but the PDF troops still have few weapons – not enough to fight a well-equipped army. The NUG has only had funding from diaspora Burmese communities around the world, not from Western nations including the US. 

Sourcing arms and ammunition is not easy. Neither the junta’s SAC nor the opposition NUG is recognized as a government by foreign countries, but the SAC controls ports, airports, towns and cities with its troops. In addition, it has friends like Russia and China, even though China is wary about the SAC.

Russia has supplied arms and ammunition to the SAC, while Iran has sold some advanced weapons too. On the other hand, the NUG has won only verbal support from the US and other Western countries, not financial support.

Delivery of weapons from neighboring countries like Thailand, India, China, and Bangladesh is impossible. They can get a few from the black market at a high price but it is not easy. Neighboring countries and the West do not want to support the armed struggle. They want to see the peaceful transition, while the people of Myanmar cannot wait that long. 

LDF and PDF troops in the plains have had to use muskets, or plant remote-control mines to sabotage Tatmadaw convoys, because they do not have automatic guns to fight face to face against the military. But they know the terrain and have coordinated communication that is key for them to disperse when the military approaches their hideouts. 

People have a strong desire to fight back and their fighting spirit is very high. Now young people know about guns and how they work. The digital era gave an opportunity to the young generation to use the Internet and search how to make guns, bullets, and lethal weapons.

The coup woke up the country’s youth, who know they have to fight for their rights and cannot rely on foreign help. They have to find ways to fight for their freedom and stand on their own feet.

Foreign help one-sided

Russia and Iran are selling arms and sophisticated equipment to the SAC while the Americans and other Westerners are preaching democracy and imposing sanctions against the SAC. But the Myanmar people are forced to flee from jet fighters; and helicopters’ bombing and wishing the democratic countries would come and rescue them – it is a sad thing to see.

Preaching for peace is easy for those who live under the rule of law in a peaceful and secure place, but doing so to those living under a ruthless military clique is like preaching peace in front of hungry wolves who plan to tear apart their prey.

People are grabbing even a small piece of straw when they are drowning, asking for foreign intervention, or a declaration of a military no-fly zone over Myanmar, and sending a UN peacekeeping force to the country. But a few people know that these hopes will not come to reality.

Russia and some rogue countries are supplying the SAC with arms and ammunitions, but the US, European Union and UN will not give arms to the democratic forces. Myanmar is a possible test case for the West to support a democratic struggle, because unlike Afghanistan, Vietnam, Iraq and Syria, the democratic revolution is ripe.

Myanmar experienced one-party rule under General Ne Win’s regime and suffered bitterly. The people experienced the same under General Than Shwe’s rule and hated it. Now they are suffering ruthless oppression under General Min Aung Hlaing’s clique. They despise it and are willing to sacrifice their lives for change. 

A people’s revolution will win eventually, but whether it takes a year or a decade depends on how the NUG, LDPs, PDF, and EAGs can coordinate and cooperate with one another, and on financial help from the West.

They will need to forget past disagreements and unite as one force to fight a cunning and ruthless common enemy. Among these groups, confidence-building is starting even though they work together with suspicion.

The people are not fighting for the NLD or the NUG or any political movement, they are fighting for their rights to live as free men and women.

Htun Aung Gyaw is a former president of the All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF) who later studied at Cornell University in the US, earning a master’s degree in Asian studies.