Ready to fight

Among Myanmar’s youths ready to take weapons

It’s just gone five in the morning. It’s still dark when the Burmese recruits come out of their bamboo huts hidden in the bush to muster for roll call and start training. Some are wearing camouflage, others T-shirts and shorts, the only two things they took when they fled from their homes to reach the territory controlled by Karen guerrillas in the jungle of eastern Myanmar.

Burmese insurgents during morning drill at the Karen guerilla training camp

“We didn’t bring anything with us, just the will to fight the Burmese military,” Theim Then Talin, 24, who comes from Yangon, tells us. “My family is still in town and they don’t know I’m here training. I can’t let them know, otherwise it would endanger them.” Then he joins his fellow rebels, summoned by the head of training.

Karen rebels teaching Burmese youths to disassemble and reassemble weapons

The day starts with a run around the perimeter of the base, then push-ups, sit-ups and again running up and down the hill, along narrow, almost impenetrable forest trails. Some of those who have arrived are very young. They describe the terror of these months, their dreams and hopes for the future. Among them is Jo Jo, 20, a student from Bago – a city 80 kilometres northeast of Yangon, the scene of a violent army repression – which he miraculously survived. “Look at this. The military shot me during the rallies, they hit me as I was trying to get away from them,” he explains, lifting his shirt and showing us the scars left by the bullets.

A Burmese youth at work building a bamboo hut in the jungle

“It was 27 March, we were preparing for a protest, when the Burmese military arrived and started firing blindly.” On that day, one of the many bloodstained days, other youths were hit. “They shot a lot of us. Some of us managed to escape, others were captured and still others were killed,” he recounts. “When we returned to try to remove their bodies from the ground, they shot us again. I was wounded and I could neither go home because I was wanted, nor to a hospital for treatment, because they’re closely monitored by the soldiers.”

Meh Mih Tou, 35, the head of the Burmese insurgent group together with others prepares to shoot an M16

That was when Jo Jo made his toughest decision, though it was almost inevitable. “I began to ask myself what the point was of protesting and risking my life like that, without even having a weapon to defend myself with… So, I made up my mind. The best thing was to drop everything else and come here with the Karen and train to fight.”

Burmese insurgents during morning drill at the Karen guerilla training camp

Here, along with the others, he is learning to shoot. In the afternoon, after preparing lunch with rice and dried fish and eating together on a bank of the small river that flows through the camp, he starts weapons drill. Captain Tua of the Karen National Defence Organisation (KNDO), head of training, instructs them. In teams of four, Burmese recruits begin disassembling the M16 and AK47 rifles. They do so repeatedly, until the instructor is satisfied with the result. A little later, the weapons are loaded, the recruits lie on the ground, prepare and fire on command.

A moment of rifle practice

“We’re teaching them how to use them properly,” Tua explains. “When the course is over, they’ll be ready to go into action.” It will take a few months, though. At least six, according to General Nerdah Mya, leader of the KNDO. This is partly because there are no weapons to arm the Burmese volunteers and to date no one seems to be financing them openly. Another reason is that the monsoon season is starting and the incessant rains could slow everything down. “We’ll wait as long as it takes and then we’ll go back to the cities and fight,” explains Win Htike Lwin, who is also from Bago. During a break he sings the rebel anthem together with his new friends. Other Burmese are trying to reach the area and join the insurgents. The route to get here is surrounded with difficulties and pitfalls.