Among the rebels at war
Text, video and photographs by Fabio Polese
Myanmar, among the rebels at war
Some twenty-armed men patrol the trails in the thick of the forest’s dense vegetation. The heat is stifling and the sun rays barely filter through. At times the air is unbreathable. Captain Loko suddenly signals to get down. Everyone gets ready, they prepare to engage in firefighting with the enemy. However, this time it is a false alarm.
This is eastern Myanmar where the other face of the Burmese uprising against the military junta is unravelling. In this territory, controlled by the Karen rebels, who for over 70 years have been fighting for a federal government, the 1February coup opened up the possibility of new scenarios, fuelling the fire of war.
While the violent repression led by General Min Aung Hlaing’s army has claimed over 800 victims across Myanmar, the Karen guerrilla have seen it as a concrete possibility to crown their dream of being free. So, they immediately took action. From the start of the uprisings they provided refuge to all political dissidents as well as those of the National League for Democracy (NlD) led by Aung Suu Kyi. They have also ramped up attacks against the Tatmadaw positions – the armed forces of former Burma – present on their territory, conquering several strongholds. Finally, they are training the young people who fled the bloodbaths in the country’s major cities.
“Since the uprising began many students have come out to our territory” explains Nerdah Mya, 56 years old, head of the Karen National Defence Organization (Kndo) and the son of General Bo Mya, the legendary hero of the Karen resistance who died in 2006. Mya is convinced that within six months the situation will turn radically to their advantage. “We try to provide protection and training so they can defend themselves. We want to enable them to confront this situation. “
After crossing a stream over a hand-crafted bridge made of two small slippery tree trunks we find ourselves at the foot of the training camp where Burmese recruits and Karen – some having come over even from the US to take up arms – are having chicken and rice for lunch. They have just finished their morning training session which includes a variety of fitness exercise, such as running and push-ups. In the afternoon they will be shooting. Here, young men mainly from Yangon and Bago, two cities where the revolts against the regime were put down with ruthless violence and bloodshed, are learning to mount and disassemble M16 and Ak46 rifles, as well as to shoot. Their goal is to then return home and spread the battle against the generals.
“There is no more hope for peaceful protests. As soon as you take to the streets the military shoots and kills you, that is why we joined the Karen, they know how to do it, they have been fighting the regime for decades,” says Meh Mih Tou, 35 years old and head of the group of Burmese insurgents. He wears a badge on his combat uniform which reads People’s Resistance Army. “I want to tell those who are still in the cities not to give up. They must be strong and have faith. We are training and will soon go and save them,” he states with conviction. The conviction of someone who has nothing left to lose and is prepared to die for freedom.
The guerrilla column led by Looko continues to scour the area. Their eyes search incessantly, and every sound is suspicious. Burmese soldiers could jump out at any moment and attack them. “I have been fighting for over ten years. The military junta is the curse of our country. Before they wanted to wipe out the Karen and other ethnic groups, now they are they are taking it out against their own population. We cannot stand for this…” explains the captain during a break, as he chews “tablula”, betel nut. “Have you seen the videos on the Internet? What they are doing in the streets of Myanmar? How they are slaughtering people?” he asks. “Here in Kawthoolei (the “Land free from evil” as the Karen call their country) they have always done so. They want to wipe us out and destroy our villages. But we are not afraid. We have been fighting for our homeland all our lives”.