The Sunday Telegraph

Myanmar students flee to jungle to train for war

- By Nicola Smith ASIA CORRESPOND­ENT and Nandi Theint in Yangon

Under the jungle canopy of western Myanmar, students have swapped books for guerilla training. Miles from the cities from which they fled the brutal junta, there are no manuals for building weapons.

“My friend was holding a grenade and trying to pull it,” explained Htet Aung Kyaw, from Monywa in central Myanmar, referring to his first forays into makeshift arms manufactur­ing.

“But it exploded in his left hand, which had to be amputated,” he said.

One of Myanmar’s many exiled activists, the military came looking for him and threatened to kill his mother and grandfathe­r, so he fled to the jungle, on a journey that took four days.

Mr Kyaw founded the Ayataw People’s Defence Force (PDF), but decided to ask for training from guerillas in Karen State, bordering Thailand, after his injuries.

“They teach how to use guns, make mines, grenades and guerilla warfare. I will go back to my city and then start doing what I should do,” he said. Myanmar’s youth are forming pockets of violent resistance in what is set to become a protracted civil conflict against the military regime that seized power four months ago and locked up leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

They are armed with crude hunting rifles and homemade explosives.

Some are joining urban PDFs while reports suggest thousands are flocking to restive borderland­s to seek training with ethnic militias who have waged independen­ce wars for decades.

They are vastly outmatched by Myanmar’s powerful military, but say they have little choice after peaceful protests against the February coup were brutally crushed.

“I joined the training because this coup is the rare chance to eradicate the dictatorsh­ip from our country,” said Khu Ree Du, 25, who joined the Karenni Nationalit­ies Defence Force (KNDF) in the eastern Kayah State.

“If not, our generation­s will have to suffer the consequenc­es. I won’t let it happen. I will fight until we win against the regime.”

The KNDF was created on May 31 but has already recruited 320 men and 50 women, he said. Khu Ree Du was given training by militias in an area controlled by the Karenni National Progressiv­e Party.

The first three weeks focused on understand­ing Myanmar’s political landscape. “Then they trained us to obey orders. Then how to use and shoot guns and how to make homemade grenades and mines,” he said.

Clashes with the Myanmar army had since sprung up across Kayah State. Locals gave the KNDF food, and the long-standing ethnic Karenni Army had offered some weapons, he said.

“But mainly we are using hunting rifles. The main problem we are facing now is to get weapons. The people in KNDF are local youth, farmers and activists but I believe that we will win in months, not in years.”

Close to 900 civilians have been killed and almost 6,000 arrested since the military takeover, the Assistance Associatio­n for Political Prisoners group says. More than 70 children are among the dead – several shot in their homes by soldiers firing indiscrimi­nately into residentia­l areas. “The people of Myanmar are being forced to defend themselves. It is directly proportion­al to the behaviour of the military junta,” said Dr Sasa, the internatio­nal envoy of the shadow civilian National Unity Government (NUG) .

“Nobody is going to sit and wait in their home to be slaughtere­d like sheep.” The NUG has called for a “federal army” to replace the military dictatorsh­ip with an inclusive and discipline­d defence force that would draw in ethnic minorities and operate in line with internatio­nal norms and laws, under civilian control.

David Eubank, who leads the Free Burma Rangers group, which for decades has provided humanitari­an aid to ethnic border groups, said the idea of a single federal army was still a distant concept. While ethnic armed groups had a “unity of purpose” to fight the junta, there was “no single command structure,” he said.

Speaking by satellite phone from the jungles of northern Karen State, Mr Eubank estimated 3,000 young people had entered ethnic areas for training.

“They realise if they don’t stand up now, they are going to have nothing, they are going to be slaves,” he said.

But he stressed that only a small minority were receiving military instructio­n.

Most were being taught medical and humanitari­an aid skills, including tips on how to build networks and survive attacks.

Myanmar faces disaster, with an estimated 100,000 people displaced by military assaults and airstrikes in border regions now at risk of starvation and disease.

Even efforts to help them are fraught with danger. FBR volunteer, All Lo Sein, 23, lost his life last week while trying to rescue civilians under fire from soldiers in the Karenni town of Demoso. “He was smart and very brave ... the guy you want on your side,” said Mr Eubank. Avinash Paliwal, associate professor of Internatio­nal Relations at SOAS University of London, said divisions between ethnic armed forces and lack of military experience among young activists made the concept of a federal army unlikely.

“[It] is not going to happen in practice … But the idea as it has been advocated and conceived since the Feb 1 coup is to build something inclusive however difficult it might be,” he said.

For now, the country faces “protracted, decentrali­sed violence”, he said.

“We are looking at a period where we are going back in time – where we are looking perhaps at a different character of warfare, a different character of resistance, but a very strong resistance nonetheles­s.”

Dr Sasa said the NUG would welcome future British training for this army.

“It’s so important for us to have that support. Without that, how many more centuries will Myanmar live in this darkness?”

‘The people are forced to defend themselves. Nobody is going to wait in their home to be slaughtere­d’

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