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The young generation risking it all to topple the Myanmar junta


The knife that carved through Gue Gue’s abdomen wasn’t exactly meant for pulling out her inflamed appendix. But it was the only one available in the sweltering jungle clinic, a bumpy ride over mountainous terrain from her guerrilla training camp.

There was no option for general anesthesia to put her under, so Gue Gue was conscious for the operation. The former tour guide, a stylish 26-year-old who listed her interests on Facebook as “Traveling, Adaptive Hiking, Dance, Writing, Gymnastics, Fashion Photography, Listening to Music, and Reading,” tried to keep her mind focused on all the work she had yet to do and not the surgery. “They were cutting the muscle like we are chopping pork,” said a friend who was there.

Gue Gue had no regrets, she said later, except about the jagged red mark left behind. “I really don’t want any scars!” she said, laughing. “After the revolution, I’ll go and remove my scar with a laser.”

Only a few weeks earlier, on an April evening, Gue Gue had slipped out of her family home in Mandalay, an ancient royal city careening into the 21st century, with shiny new malls, snappily dressed students and hipster cafes. Carrying a single change of clothes, she left behind the home where she had lived with her parents as the baby, the youngest daughter, well-loved and comfortable.

She was going to fight the junta, and not just with words.

Since Myanmar’s military seized power in a coup on Feb. 1, toppling the civilian government, Gue Gue had seen many of her peers killed by troops on the streets of her hometown as they chanted democracy slogans. Hopes that the international community would respond to the military’s mounting brutality with practical action had fizzled. For her, and thousands like her, the only option was force.

“I have family. I have dreams. I have things that I want to achieve. I want to travel. I want to write. I want to study,” Gue Gue said a few weeks before her operation in the jungle, in the first of a series of interviews over several months. Two other people, and video and photo footage shared with Reuters, confirmed the outline and many of the details of her story.

Because she still hasn’t healed from her ad hoc surgery, she hasn’t yet been involved in any fighting. But she says she is ready. “I sacrificed all this and joined this training with only one ambition: that we must win.”

Two faces of the resistance

The men and women rebelling against Myanmar’s junta vow to be the last generation to live under the boot of the country’s military. This, they say, is the “final battle” to root out the army, which has been the most powerful institution in the country since it became an independent nation in 1948. The military has withstood popular uprisings and civil war for decades, including the mass uprising in 1988 that led to the emergence of Aung San Suu Kyi as a human rights icon.

It is a fight that has in a few short months made guerrilla fighters of university lecturers, day laborers, tech workers, students and artists and forced countless young men and women into a life on the run.

Some, like Gue Gue, who had never considered herself particularly political until the bloodbath on the streets in the wake of the coup, are in clandestine rebel training camps. Hundreds of armed outfits have popped up across the country, according to an October report by the International Crisis Group, many calling themselves People’s Defense Forces (PDFs). A famous poet formed one. Beauty queens and actresses who were wanted by the authorities for supporting the protests re-emerged on social media in areas controlled by armed groups, posting pictures with rifles slung over their shoulders.

Others, like a skinny 32-year-old librarian named Tayzar San, have been hiding in cities, organizing clandestine demonstrations, funneling money to striking workers and strategizing. A young man who once spent his spare time buried in books — as often Burmese romance novels as nonfiction political tracts — he now lives out of a backpack, moving from apartment to apartment to evade the authorities who have put a $5,600 bounty on his head. By September, he said, he hadn’t seen his wife and daughter in seven months.

The utterly changed worlds of Gue Gue and Tayzar San paint a portrait of sacrifice and resolve in a young Burmese generation who, unlike their parents, grew up in a world of smartphones and greater political freedoms. Many are willing to pay any price, including their lives, to overthrow a junta that they say threatens to take them back to a darker past.

People protest against the military coup in Mandalay, Myanmar, in February.  | REUTERS
People protest against the military coup in Mandalay, Myanmar, in February. | REUTERS

Speaking in October, army chief and coup leader Min Aung Hlaing said the junta, which has vowed to hold elections within two years, was working on a five-point plan to reach a “true union based on democracy and federalism.” He said the leadership was working to “change the country peacefully.” In a message to Reuters responding to detailed questions, the junta’s “True News” information unit said, “We have no plan to answer meaningless questions.”

At stake is the fate of a country of 55 million people that once looked to be on its way to becoming Asia’s newest semidemocratic state, a nation on the crossroads of India and China rich with natural resources, considered a frontier market for foreign investors and a keystone in U.S-led efforts to counter Chinese power in Southeast Asia.

It is one of the bloodiest chapters yet in a decades-long struggle to shrug off a series of military dictators who have waged some of the world’s longest-running civil wars, displaced millions of people and consigned multiple generations to poverty and dashed dreams.

Since Myanmar, then Burma, won independence from colonial Britain seven decades ago, it has known less than 25 years of civilian governance. Successive juntas ruled the country from 1962 until 2011, when Gen. Than Shwe appeared to step back and hand limited powers to a civilian government.

It was a managed process that reserved vast political influence under the constitution for the military. Suu Kyi, who had been imprisoned in her home for 15 years, was freed to participate in elections and, in 2015, won them.

In the years following, Suu Kyi drew criticism for standing by the military as they carried out what the United Nations termed a genocidal campaign against the Rohingya Muslim minority. Testifying in the Hague, where Myanmar faces charges at the International Criminal Court, she admitted that war crimes may have been committed but denied genocide, saying Rohingya had “exaggerated” the extent of abuses against them.

But her government made some steps toward weakening military power and attracting foreign investment. The Myanmar kyat became Asia’s best-performing currency, and the World Bank was predicting economic growth in the country despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

That all came to an end in the early hours of Feb. 1, when Min Aung Hlaing had Suu Kyi and her leadership arrested and declared a direct return to military rule, sparking mass street protests.

More than 1,200 people are now dead after brutal crackdowns by junta troops, according to the rights group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, or AAPP, which has been monitoring casualties. Hundreds have also been killed by the resistance, according to the junta and local media reports, with fledgling guerrilla outfits assassinating suspected informers and troops and bombing infrastructure of the regime. Towns and villages across the country, including the formerly peaceful central heartlands, have become battlegrounds between soldiers and resistance fighters.

A group of elected lawmakers was sworn into parliament, remotely, while on the run days after the coup, and a parallel civilian government was formed in April.

In an interview in October, junta finance minister Aung Naing Oo said the army was “upholding peace and security despite attempts to escalate violence. … Our security forces have a job to do. They cannot sacrifice the safety of the majority for the violence and destruction of those who wish to destroy Myanmar.” He said the government was working well and “the worst is behind us … we will surely succeed as a united country.”

Longtime activists like Bo Kyi, a co-founder of the AAPP, believe the regime is ripe to be toppled. He spent seven years in prison for his role in the 1988 protests. Back then, there were no mobile phones, no social media or free local media outlets. People were arrested for handing out pamphlets. The uprising was brutally crushed, like every attempt to overthrow the military in its history.

But the new generation at the forefront of the uprising today has grown up in a different world, Bo Kyi said. They have creative ideas and sophisticated political understanding. They are trying to forge unity between the country’s myriad ethnic groups. Smartphones and internet access have made it harder for the military to hide its actions. On social media, acts of brutality go viral in minutes, although internet shutdowns and retaliation by troops on citizen journalists have reduced the quantity of footage getting out.

Nonetheless, citizens have filmed troops looting homes and businesses, taking potshots at protesters and dragging their bodies through the streets. They filmed the tiny body of one of the youngest victims, 6-year-old Khin Myo Chit, blood seeping through her Mickey Mouse shorts as she died in her father’s arms. For the first time, there have been hundreds of defections from the armed forces. Dozens of diplomats stationed at embassies across the world have refused to represent the junta, and it has been unable to gain representation at the U.N.

“All this did not happen before,” Bo Kyi said. “This can be the last fight of the people who have suffered for so long against the military.”

Others fear a descent into further bloodletting and all-out civil war. The People’s Defense Forces, a loose coalition of anti-coup armed groups with only a nascent overarching leadership structure and limited resources, are waging asymmetric warfare against a 300,000-strong military armed by China and Russia.

The librarian

On the morning of the coup, Tayzar San, seeing the internet had been shut down, went out and bought a radio. He was prepared. He had been reading the signs of political strife, and they augured badly. Several days earlier, he had asked in a Facebook post if the country was cursed.

“No matter what, we must overcome it all,” he wrote.

Born in 1988 in a remote village in Myanmar’s Sagaing Division, smack in the center of the country, Tayzar San grew up watching his father covertly listening to radio programs by foreign broadcasters, one of the only sources of reliable news, as the ruling military tightly controlled the local media. His father, a schoolteacher, had taken part in anti-junta protests as a young monk, and their home was filled with books about the country’s politics and history.

Tayzar San developed an early love for reading. His dream was to become a librarian, he said. But he went to study medicine at a university in Mandalay, the nearest major city.

He graduated with a medical degree three years into the military’s reforms. After university, he married Aye Aye Mon, a classmate with a thick black bob and glasses, drawn to her by their shared love of reading. They had a baby girl, Lone Ma Lay. Opportunities were open to him that would have been impossible for his parents’ generation. With friends in Mandalay, he opened a free library. As executive director, he hosted political talks and organized training for civil society groups on democratic institutions, federalism and the country’s complicated peace process.

The morning of Feb. 1, Tayzar San and his friends spontaneously converged on the library. They commiserated. Some wept. “We said we could not let this just happen. We have to do what we can,” he said.

They pulled together a statement from 53 civil society groups, most of them Mandalay-based, condemning the coup. The next day, doctors walked out of government-run hospitals, refusing to work under the military. It was the start of the civil disobedience movement, a country-wide refusal of hundreds of thousands of people to work for the military, from railway workers to immigration officials.

A protester holds up a photograph of Aung San Suu Kyi in front of the U.N. office in Bangkok in February.  | REUTERS
A protester holds up a photograph of Aung San Suu Kyi in front of the U.N. office in Bangkok in February. | REUTERS

Three days after the coup, Tayzar San and his friends gathered outside the medical university holding signs reading “Protect democracy,” “People’s protest against military rule” and “Respect the people’s votes.” They dispersed quickly, but minutes later police grabbed four of the young men, Tayzar San’s close friends. They were later charged under three sections including a colonial-era law criminalizing causing “public alarm” and face several years in prison.

Their defiance helped set off a wave of protests across the country.

Tayzar San realized he had to split up from his family, in case the military went after him, and, a few days later, said goodbye to his wife and baby daughter. He began to organize daily protests. Often at the front of the crowd and shouting into the megaphone, he cut a distinctive figure with his skinny frame, huge thick-rimmed glasses and broad grin.

On Facebook, where he had quickly grown a massive following, he wrote gentle, encouraging messages, calling on people to take to the streets. “Don’t look for a leader, don’t wait … All the people in the community, please come out.” During interviews he projected an easy calm, as quick to laugh at the military as condemn it.

He came close to arrest more than once. Fleeing a crackdown on a street protest in early March, he took refuge in a hotel but was almost caught when soldiers from the 99th Light Infantry Division surrounded the building. With a small group, he went up to the roof and climbed onto neighboring buildings to escape, balancing on air-conditioning units and clinging to water pipes, even as soldiers opened fire from below, he said later. It was like something out of “the action movies,” he said. He made it to safety after residents hid them in an apartment. Efforts by Reuters to reach the unit’s commander via the military weren’t successful.

By mid-April, a poster was circulating in Mandalay and online advertising a $5,600 reward for Tayzar San’s capture and handover to authorities. He continued to lead demonstrations, but more rarely, appearing every few days and then slipping back into the maze of Mandalay apartments.

Between his constant moves and the internet shutdown, it was hard to reach him. But interviewed over a shaky connection from a safehouse in April, he spoke with the same unwavering optimism of his protest rhetoric, peppering his speech with hopeful aphorisms — “It is never darker than at midnight” — and downplaying the magnitude of his difficulties with giggles.

Asked about how security forces appeared to be targeting him personally, he said: “It is fine. I will do what I have to do. They have tried to put fear in us. … We will just continue what we want to do.”

A week and a half later, he said, security forces turned up outside his home in Mandalay. He was long gone, and his wife and daughter weren’t home. But soldiers and police broke down the locked door and demolished the place, including his book collection.

The jungle

Since its independence from Britain, Myanmar has not known a year of peace. A multitude of armed groups, ranging from powerful organizations controlling semiautonomous areas in ethnic regions to government-backed militias and traditional people’s armies, have been active for decades.

The military has long justified its power by casting itself as the sole unifying force able to hold the disparate nation together. In recent years, several areas of fighting had subsided. But they flared up again after the coup as some of the most powerful outfits, including the Karen National Union, one of the country’s oldest and biggest ethnic armed groups, expressed solidarity with the protesters and allowed thousands to seek shelter in their territories. Some offered military training.

Some of the new armed outfits emerged from neighborhood security teams formed during the protest crackdowns. They sought to arm themselves in response to attacks, a move justified by the ousted civilian leadership in a March 14 statement that broke with a long tradition of nonviolence made famous by Suu Kyi. The statement called the military a “terrorist organization” and said all citizens had the “right to retaliate in self-defense.” Under detention, Suu Kyi hasn’t commented on the repudiation of nonviolence, but she said she would never go against the will of the people.

The parallel civilian government said it aimed to unite the armed units into a single force, but had limited control over the ground operations. “It’s impractical for us to say to those villages, communities, Defend like that, defend like that,'” Dr. Sasa, a spokesman for the government, said in an interview. “We are not there physically.”

Sasa, who fled the capital in the days after the coup, has become a high-profile leader with a millions-strong following on social media. Daily, he posts photos of himself — meeting international officials, or in camouflage from his jungle hideout — along with statements and inspirational messages.

The parallel government is walking a tightrope between domestic and foreign audiences. Democratic nations sympathetic to the anti-coup movement such as Britain and the United States have called for a peaceful solution to the crisis. The parallel government’s call has complicated its diplomatic efforts, the International Crisis Group think tank said in its October report.

Myanmar's junta chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing | REUTERS
Myanmar’s junta chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing | REUTERS

The military has termed both the parallel government and the resistance fighters “terrorists” and threatened people who contact them with imprisonment.

In April, after the long overnight bus ride from Mandalay, Gue Gue and her friends were shepherded by their contacts to an old school in a village close to the jungle. They slept on top of school desks while they waited to be taken to what they were told was a nearby training ground. One of the friends, who is also from Mandalay and asked not to be named for fear of reprisal, said Gue Gue was the first woman to go for the training there.

“They told me that they don’t accept women, because they haven’t prepared anything,” Gue Gue said. “It will be so tiring,’ they said. I told them: I don’t care whether it is tiring. I must join.'”

From there, they traveled to the training camp, the location of which Reuters is not disclosing for security reasons. Dozens of people were already there, Gue Gue said, and more kept arriving, including several more women. One roomed with Gue Gue and they became close friends. Together, they built up the camp. Even the toilets had to be made from scratch. They drank the water from a local river. Food was bland — mostly boiled rice and instant noodles.

On the phone, she said she realized she had never done anything truly difficult in her life before. “I never dreamed that I would be sleeping in a roofless shelter or using a makeshift toilet,” she said.

In late May, she posted a picture on Facebook. “Even though I am having a rough time out there, I’m still happy and trying my best for my country,” she wrote. “But I do cry sometimes when I miss my friends and family … (PS — the following photo is me sitting on the toilet that I built by my own for the very first time in my life).”

The days were long and tiring. Wake-up was at 4 a.m., followed by 10 laps of the football field, more exercises, a breakfast of instant noodles or rice, and training in military strategy, how to handle guns and how to forage for food in the jungle. It was a test for urbanites used to opening the fridge and tucking into “fancy snacks” at will, her friend said. But the new recruits built up an easy camaraderie, sharing stories of how their lives had been “turned upside down” by the coup, watching sunsets by the river and playing guitar in the evenings.

After her surgery, Gue Gue was in pain and could barely walk, her friend said. She had been charged with managing four groups, a total of 40 people, she said, and given a new title, roughly equivalent to the rank of lieutenant, but she mostly oversaw office and logistical work. Some of her comrades were volunteering to go to the front lines. A friend named Aung said Gue Gue video-called him. She showed him some of the weapons in the camp but lamented that there were so few.

Then, in mid-August, she fell out of contact. Messages and calls went unanswered. The internet connection in the region came and went. But fighting between junta troops and PDF forces like hers had intensified. There were reports of dozens of deaths on both sides.

Sacrifice

After raiding Tayzar San’s home in Mandalay, troops began, in June, targeting the remote village where he was born, a cluster of about 100 houses in Wetlet township on the plains of the Mu River. It was a quiet and peaceful place where Tayzar San’s relatives had rice farms and banana plantations.

In one raid, more than 100 soldiers pulled up in trucks, arriving first at the farms on the outskirts and detaining five people to use as human shields, local media reported. The troops made them walk in front as they marched into the village, bound for Tayzar San’s parents’ house, the local media reported. One man who tried to run away was shot but survived.

“They came to my village about six times in one week,” Tayzar San said. “They came looking for me.” He said the soldiers took motorbikes from the village and money and clothes from his family’s house but didn’t find his parents, who had also gone into hiding. Talking to him later, he said, his parents told him, “Don’t worry about us, you just continue to do what you’re doing.”

At first, he said, he was wracked with guilt over the raids. But he tried not to let the crackdown dent his defiance. “The villagers are not scared. They run away when the raid happens, but then they come back once they are gone. … We should not be scared of this. This is the true face of the junta. We need to know that and continue our resolution.”

But the isolation was taking a toll. He stopped going out or seeing people beyond a small and trusted circle. It was becoming impossible to attend protests. At one demonstration in June, he tried to disguise himself so as not to attract attention, taking off his trademark glasses and shaving his head. It didn’t work; he was mobbed.

Confined indoors, he spent most of his time on Zoom meetings, speaking to other activists, helping organize protests. When he had time, he said, he listened to songs on his phone, mostly Myanmar traditional folk music heavy on xylophones and gongs.

He longed for his family. “They are so many miles away from me now,” he said quietly in September.

Both of his parents and his wife had survived bouts of COVID-19 in the months since the coup. His wife fell severely ill — she needed an oxygen cylinder and friends struggled to find one. She found one and survived, but Tayzar San said he had to fight the urge to leave his hiding place to be with her.

His daughter, who turned 2 in his absence, was at that stage of babyhood where she was learning new things every day. He was missing it all.

Aye Aye Mon said she and their daughter watched Tayzar San’s video interviews. “My kid says: Daddy is only living inside the TV. Why hasn’t he come out yet? He should come out,'” she said. Aye Aye Mon added: “I don’t blame him at all. … I will try to keep myself safe and we will meet again in a better situation.”

Each day has brought more news of arrests. Often, the authorities detained relatives of protest leaders, including children. Tayzar San said he had imagined all the worst possible outcomes.

“The main thing is that we will never calm down or back off in this revolution for any reason,” he said. “I might have to sacrifice my life, my freedom and my family.”

Police stand by during an anti-coup protest in Mandalay, Myanmar, in March.  | REUTERS
Police stand by during an anti-coup protest in Mandalay, Myanmar, in March. | REUTERS

‘Our camp is moving’

After weeks of silence, in early September Gue Gue sent a short message to Reuters. “Currently I am so busy as our camp is moving.” The fighters had heard news that the military was searching for their base and left in a hurry at the end of August.

“The situation has become worse,” she said over the phone a few days later, as the line cut in and out and monsoon rain hammered in the background.

It was painful to leave all they had built behind, she said. The fighters didn’t have enough guns to defend the camp from attack.

“We were kind of scared and can’t wait to fight them back,” Gue Gue’s friend said. “We prepared everything; we said goodbye to our closest friends, just in case I’m killed or something.” Gue Gue’s wound from the surgery has been slow to heal. The doctors told her it was slightly infected. If the situation improved, she said, she would go to a proper hospital to have it looked at. In the meantime, she was taking painkillers.

Two of the people from her training group had been killed in a clash with junta troops, Gue Gue said, while another had his leg amputated. Though she had a gun, she was still waiting to fight because of her injury. Her friend said Gue Gue isn’t likely to go to the front lines until she has recovered.

Like Tayzar San, she worries about sympathy for the anti-coup movement fading or the public being forced into submission as the long fight grinds on. But, like him, she is resolute. When she feels low, she said, she runs in the fields in the rain or listens to music, anthems of peace, freedom and homecoming.

In October, she watched from the camp as people posted pictures on social media of Thadingyut, the festival of lights at which Burmese light candles and lanterns under the full moon and celebrate at pagodas.

“I don’t want the people to forget about the young people who are sacrificing their lives on the ground,” Gue Gue said by phone. “We’re still here.”

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