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Cold, frightened and armed: in the jungles of Myanmar, a resistance in difficulty


Burmese soldiers attacked the village of Yay Shin, deep in the furrows of the Himalayan foothills, just after dusk, descending with flamethrowers and heavy weapons.

Seizing aging AK-47s smuggled from India and Thailand, members of a self-proclaimed People’s Defense Force fought back so the rest of the villagers could rush into the hills, several residents said by phone.

Eight bodies of villagers were later found, along with those of eight soldiers killed in action. By the time the 77th and 99th Battalions left Yay Shin this month, there wasn’t much left of the village in northwest Myanmar, just the smoldering ruins of a hamlet that had dared to take up arms against the blow. February Military State.

Seven months after overthrowing Myanmar’s elected government, the country’s formidable army, known as Tatmadaw, is stepping up attacks against a largely improvised armed resistance and against the villages where its members live. It is a model of the massacre that the Tatmadaw has inflicted for decades on various ethnic minorities, such as the Rohingyas, including the forced expulsion from the country that the United States considers ethnic cleansing.

Today, the Burmese military is targeting a much larger segment of society, and its brutal campaign has galvanized stronger resistance, even as civilians are once again caught in the crossfire. Almost everyone who lived in Yay Shin is now camped in a forest valley plagued by poisonous snakes, malaria and dengue fever, children moaning with hunger and damp cold. Residents of dozens of other villages in the Kalay region, a stronghold of opposition to the army, have also fled into the jungle, according to members of the People’s Defense Forces.

“We have already given our lives for the country,” said Ko Zaw Win Shein, a rebel company commander, by phone from a jungle hiding place as the roar of army helicopters reverberated above. of our heads. A former employee of a telecommunications company, Mr. Zaw Win Shein took almost 10 minutes to regroup before his jagged sobs turned into a frightened whisper.

“We are more afraid of soldiers than of snakes,” he said.

Last week, days after the Yay Shin raid, the national unity government – a shadow government put in place by opposition politicians – redoubled its call for an armed insurgency, announcing that “D-Day” had arrived. Duwa Lashi La, its acting president, said in a video posted on social media that it was time for “a national uprising in every village, town and city, across the country at the same time.”

The video appeared to galvanize a largely united population against the military regime, which has shot dead more than 1,000 protesters and bystanders since the coup. Local militias launched new war cries, while civilians across Myanmar expressed their enthusiastic support on social media.

Major General Zaw Min Tun, the spokesman for the junta, called the call to arms an “empty statement”. But the Tatmadaw quickly escalated its raids on villages like Yay Shin, targeting dozens of them as it searched for members of the People’s Defense Forces, residents said.

On Thursday, the Tatmadaw descended on the village of Myin Thar, about 40 kilometers from Yay Shin, and rounded up men who had remained to guard the community, armed with homemade hunting rifles. At least 17 of them, mostly boys, were killed with a single bullet in the head, said Ko Htay Win, a resident of Myin Thar who fled into the forest.

“I am proud that he died defending the village,” said Ma Nyo Nyo Lwin, the mother of Ko Htet Naing Oo, 18, who was among those killed.

The government of national unity has said it has no choice but to launch an armed rebellion. Operating from underground, the shadow authority has not convinced a single country to recognize it as legitimate, and hopes are not high that much will change when the United Nations General Assembly meets this week.

The United States and Britain urged all parties in Myanmar to refrain from violence, as has a panel of international experts.

“Violence is the cause of the suffering of the people of Myanmar, it is not the solution,” said Chris Sidoti, a former Australian commissioner for human rights who is on the panel. “We sympathize with the government of national unity but we fear for what will happen following this decision,” he added, referring to the call to arms.

Pockets of armed rebellion proliferated across Myanmar for months, from the Buddhist rural center and border regions dominated by ethnic minorities to towns, where the return of military rule, after a decade of economic and political reforms, sparked the anger of a younger generation that had become accustomed to interacting with the outside world.

Thousands of civilians, including some young city dwellers more accustomed to video games than to real warfare, have received secret military training. Along with the ethnic rebels who fought the Tatmadaw for decades, they helped fill the ranks of the People’s Defense Forces.

The shadow government said the People’s Defense Forces killed more than 1,320 soldiers in July and August. The statement was impossible to confirm, in part because the Tatmadaw did not publish its own death toll for fear that the morale of its already low ranks would collapse further.

After the proclamation of “D-Day” last week, the resistance sabotaged more than 65 telecommunications towers belonging to Mytel, a company linked to the military, said Ko Kyawt Phay, spokesman for the People’s Defense Forces in the central city of Pakokku.

On Thursday, a military convoy in Yangon, the country’s largest city, was attacked with grenades, a strike that many say was also carried out by the People’s Defense Forces. In recent weeks, covert killings of local government officials and suspected informants have also disturbed people loyal to the military.

Much of the fiercest resistance occurs in remote areas where artillery fire from Tatmadaw has pushed entire villages into the forest. Grainy images taken on cheap cell phones show dazed Yay Shin families crouching on the forest floor with a few possessions scattered around them, like a cooking pot and a rain-soaked bed sheet.

“Now I only hear the sound of bombs and gunshots,” said U Zaw Tint, a carpenter from Yay Shin. “These sounds are stuck in my head.”

Ma Radi Ohm, a university professor, is part of a civil disobedience movement that has deprived the military government of hundreds of thousands of educated workers for seven months, in the hope that administrative paralysis will shatter the junta. So far, the army has only toughened its repression.

This month, Ms. Radi Ohm, protected by members of the People’s Defense Force, slipped into the forest to provide basic medical care to residents of Yay Shin and other villages in Kalay. At least 15 women in Yay Shin are pregnant and one miscarried due to stress, she said. Without shelter, many people sleep under trees, leaving them prey to mosquitoes.

Children have fallen ill with what Ms Radi Ohm believes to be dengue, although she could not perform tests. Equally concerning, she said, at least 1,000 of the estimated 7,000 people in various jungle encampments in Kalay show symptoms of Covid-19, such as loss of taste and low oxygen levels. . Myanmar has been devastated by the Delta variant, and the military refuses to take care of those supporting the resistance.

The distance between the forest camps is at least 10 miles. Mrs. Radi Ohm walks on foot, through swollen streams and on paths made slippery by rain. When Tatmadaw helicopters or drones fly over the canopy, villagers dive under rocks or tall trees, witnesses said. Military airstrikes left dozens of people dead.

“I just hope I can help some people die of illness and miscarriage,” Ms. Radi Ohm said. “It’s heartbreaking.”