Spurred on by military atrocities, young people are turning to armed struggle against the regime – leaving supportive but fearful families behind
By The Guardian
When Peh Reh’s* mother, Mi Nya*, lost contact with him in September, she had little doubt as to where he had gone. Four months earlier, the 19-year-old had told her he wanted to join the armed resistance against the military, which had seized power from the democratically-elected government in Myanmar in February 2021. Yet she refused to let him leave their home in Myanmar’s south-eastern Karenni state (also known as Kayah).
“In my eyes, he is still so young,” she says. “If I could, I would like to keep my son next to me all the time.”
Intense fighting between armed revolutionary groups and the military had been escalating in Karenni state since May, three months after the coup.
Like thousands of other families, Peh Reh and his family left their homes and sought shelter in the forest. There, he and his father waited for lulls in the fighting to return to tend to their farm, while his mother went deeper into the forest with the three younger children.
The family tried to return home but were forced to flee a second time as the fighting escalated around their village. A few days later, Peh Reh disappeared.
“I told him to pray and be careful at all times. I pray for him every day” – Mi Nya
The next time his mother heard from him he was in a training camp for an armed revolutionary group. This time, Mi Nya decided not to stand in his way. “I told [my son] to pray and be careful at all times. I also pray for him every day” she says.
Peh Reh is one of a rising number of young men and women across Myanmar leaving their families to take up arms as the country is plunged into violence, poverty and mass displacement, with more than 1,400 civilians killed in military crackdowns on the pro-democracy movement since February 2021.
As the people of Myanmar endure internet blackouts, arbitrary arrests, a ruthless curtailing of freedom of speech, and escalating military attacks on civilian areas, many of the country’s youth have decided armed resistance is their only option.
On the other side of the country in Kalay, a small city in Sagaing region near Myanmar’s north-western border with India, 21-year-old Zaw Htet* took part in the street demonstrations that erupted after the coup, while his mother went on strike from her public-sector job as part of a broader civil disobedience movement.
Soon after, the military began using deadly force on protesters around the country, including in Kalay. By 28 March, protesters in the city had begun defending themselves with guns, barricading themselves behind sandbags and firing homemade weapons back at soldiers and police who attacked them with snipers, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. By the time the military destroyed the protest camp, at least 18 civilians were dead.
As Zaw Htet endured this terrifying experience, his mother, Aye Mya*, was punished for joining the civil disobedience movement. The military evicted her and her family from government housing in June, and she has since been selling street food to survive.
These experiences intensified both Zaw Htet’s and his mother’s hatred of the military, and when he told her he wanted to join the armed struggle, she supported him. She has only seen him once since he left in July.
His absence has left her anxious about how her son is enduring the harsh conditions of life in the forest. “Now that he is a revolutionary fighter, he might be sleeping on the ground,” she says. “I worry about whether he has warm clothes or not. Whenever it rains, I worry he may be soaked.”
She also follows the news with dread as clashes escalate in Kalay township, and young people are arrested and killed daily.
Yet, despite this, she says she is optimistic that the young generation can succeed where, three decades ago, her generation could not.
In 1988, she was active in the student-led pro-democracy protests, when the country also erupted in turmoil as the former regime arrested thousands and opened fire on crowds. Although Aye Mya initially joined those protests, she stopped when the firing started. Now, she says she is no longer afraid.
“This time, the revolution is very different than in 1988. Young people today have greater knowledge of politics. They are determined and braver than us,” she says.
Some mothers have joined the revolution themselves, including Shwe Yun Eain*, a 23-year-old farmer from Sagaing region’s Myaung township. In October she left her three-year-old daughter with her mother and went off to fight.
“My mother told me, ‘My daughter, do not worry for your daughter. I will take good care of her. Just focus on the revolution,’” she says. “I cannot sit still while the whole nation is fighting against military dictatorship.”
She has spent the past three months training with the country’s first all-female armed resistance group, the Myaung Women Warriors.
Not wanting to endanger her mother or daughter by making contact, she has only seen them once since she left home. The Myaung Women Warriors’motto is “the hand that swings a baby’s hammock can also be part of the armed revolution,” and Shwe Yun Eain says that despite the hardships she faces, she remains committed to her decision.
“As a mother, I have had many ups and downs since I joined the armed revolution,” she says. “I continue fighting to root out this evil system for my daughter’s future and the next generation.”
* Names have been changed to protect identities.
Nu Nu Lusan is a freelance journalist from Kachin state based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. She focuses on human rights and social justice issues in Myanmar and especially covers issues around ethnic minorities, rural areas and women.
Emily Fishbein is a freelance journalist writing on human rights and social justice in Myanmar
Original Post: The Guardian