The new life of the insurgents in Myanmar

“These will be our quarters,” explains a Burmese youth as he carves bamboo to build the new house in the jungle. “We can’t go back now. We’re training with the Karen and learning to use weapons. We’ll live here and wait for the right moment to go back to the cities and fight the military when we’re ready.”

Like others, he too comes from Bago, one of the towns seething under repression by the Burmese generals. His name is Win Htike Lwin, he is 38 years old and he worked in construction before arriving in the areas controlled by the guerrillas.

“Look, we haven’t forgotten her. She’s our leader and even though she’s under arrest now and can’t do anything, we all have faith in her,” he tells us proudly, showing us the tattoo on his chest portraying the face of Aung San Suu Kyi and making the three-finger sign inspired by the Hunger Games movies that became the symbol of the protests after the coup on 1st February.

“I’ve seen horrible things in these months,” he tells us. “April 9th at Bago was yet another day of blood. The soldiers even fired anti-tank rockets at us. There were at least 17 corpses around me.”

A little farther away, sitting in the hut being built, is Sai Kaung Htet, 21. He shows us a photo he keeps on his mobile phone. “This was a friend of mine, we attended all the demonstrations together. They killed him on March 27th at Bago. They even refused to return the body to his family.” The young man arrived at the training camp after walking for days in the bush with his brother Sai That Wai Phioe, 19, and their father Thein Sanoo, 47.

“From the start of the protests, I always tried to protect my children and all our people,” he tells us. “It wasn’t easy. The military fired on sight, using all the weaponry the had. We only had knives to defend ourselves, we were practically unarmed.” He tells us that he never had any sympathy for the ruling junta, but when the brutal violence started something inside him changed. “When I started seeing with my own eyes what they were capable of, my anger just grew, so I decided it was time to get ready to fight them.”

Another who decided to take up arms against the military is Salai Bo Ngwe, 24, who comes from Chin state in northwest Myanmar. “Living under the dictatorship is impossible, so after the coup I decided to give up everything and become a freedom fighter,” he explains. He’s studying the Karen language on some frayed sheets of paper. “I started following the activities of the opposition on the social networks and on Facebook I discovered the existence of this place. So I came here. Now I’m training and when they tell me to, I’ll go wherever I’m needed and fight the military.”

Some recruits decided to reach the areas controlled by the guerrillas even though they were in no danger. Nay Nay, 28, originally from Bago, lived peacefully in the capital of Thailand. “I lived quietly in Bangkok, I was working in a factory,” he says. “But now everything has changed. The dictatorship is killing our people. How could I stay and just be an onlooker? I won’t return to Thailand, my life has changed. I’m here to learn how to fight and the Karens know all about that. They’ve been fighting for over seventy years and I trust them. If we stay united we can change the fate of the country.”

“People in Myanmar have started to believe in us, that’s why they come here from all over the country. We train them, teaching them to shoot as well as how to cope with the situation mentally,” says Saw Poe Pee, 36, and a volunteer for more than 10 years for the Karen National Defence Organization (KNDO). There’s always the danger that this could be an open door for their enemies to sneak in. “We know we have to watch out for the spies that the Burmese have most likely sent, pretending to be dissidents and wanting to join up. We’ve had this problem before, but we know how to deal with traitors,” he says, as if warning off anyone with bad intentions.

His smiles sardonically. “In a few months,” he says with conviction, “when these guys return to the cities and start fighting, things will change.”