Armed by Russia, Myanmar’s military is unleashing hell on its people
9th April 2022

By Chris Barrett

Mae Hong Son, Thailand: In the mountains of north-west Thailand, a couple of sheets of corrugated iron stand between a border police outpost and war-torn Myanmar.

Wandering around the barricade and down a dirt track, all is quiet as we cross briefly into this forest-covered corner of Thailand’s troubled neighbour.

Two weeks earlier, after a shell landed near the Thai police camp here, Burmese forces and the local Karenni Army militia were asked to pack up their bases and shift their fighting further inside Myanmar.

“When the Burmese army withdrew from their base, the Karenni Army went up and burnt it down,” says one of the Thai border police officers, speaking on the condition of anonymity and pointing to the remnants of the camp in a clearing atop a hill in the distance.

As foliage crunches under our feet, an old motorbike with Burmese plates lies abandoned next to a wooden hut. Until recently, the Karenni soldiers gathered here to access an internet connection from Thailand.

This is eastern Kayah or Karenni state, Myanmar’s least developed area and the setting for one of the fiercest campaigns being waged by the military since its February 2021 coup.

The Tatmadaw, as the military is known, has been in conflict for decades with ethnic armed groups that control vast swathes of the country.

However, 14 months after generals seized power from Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratically elected government, they have elevated their offensive to a new, frightening scale.

Border mark: Just across the border from north-west Thailand, Burmese civilians and resistance fighters have been left to fend for themselves. Credit:Chris Barrett

The United Nations and rights groups have documented the targeting of civilians with air strikes and heavy artillery, as well as with systematic burning of villages and blocking of aid. They report more than 1600 people have been killed by security forces across Myanmar in the past 14 months.

It was also in Kayah state – in the township of Hpruso – that 35 people, including children, were shot and burnt in their vehicles in a Christmas Eve massacre last year – an atrocity that made global headlines.

The brutal tactics may amount to war crimes, according to the UN, but the military makes no apologies for them. In a speech on Armed Forces Day on March 27, junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing vowed to “annihilate” opposition to his regime, people he regards as “terrorists”.

“It’s the worst situation I’ve seen in our 29 years in Burma,” says Dave Eubank, a former United States Special Forces soldier whose relief organisation Free Burma Rangers has long operated in Myanmar’s conflict zones. “And talking to anybody that I know, and looking at history, it’s the heaviest fighting all over Burma since World War II.”

Eubank is speaking to The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age from outside Loikaw, the capital of Kayah state, after a nearly two-month stint in February and March in which his team went up and down the small state, witnessing a military assault that has gathered pace this year.

In this image taken from drone video provided by Free Burma Rangers, smoke rises from burning buildings in Waraisuplia, Kayah State, Myanmar on February 18.Credit:AP

Traversing the rice fields that lie between villages, his group captured footage of the Burmese army’s bombardment with Russian-made fighter bombers, attack helicopters, drones and armoured vehicles and the torching of houses by ground infantry. Local media reports say as many as 200,000 people – more than half the state’s population – have fled their homes and are hiding in jungle caves, leaving its main towns all but empty.

“We don’t need money. We just need weapons to protect our people. Our people are being killed and no one has come to help us.”

Attempting to withstand the onslaught is a quasi-civilian outfit called the Karenni Nationalities Defence Force, which includes people who have left their jobs as doctors, lawyers, teachers and factory workers to join the resistance. But its ragtag battalions, including the youthful Karenni Generation Z Army, are facing a force propped up by a continuing flow of weapons from Moscow, the junta’s largest arms supplier, as well as from China, according to Tom Andrews, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar.

Eubank’s team witnessed the military attacking with Russian MiG-29 and Yak-130 jets and Hind helicopter gunships, but he says only 25 to 30 members of each 500-man resistance battalion has modern weapons and even those are “barely serviceable”.

“Others have muskets, homemade single shotguns and homemade single .22s, small calibre we would normally use for shooting rabbits,” says Eubank, who had three team members killed in recent weeks in Kayah as the rangers provided medical care for wounded resistance fighters.

A Myanmar military helicopter fires rockets west of Loikaw in Kayah state on February 21, an image provided by Free Burma Rangers. Credit:Free Burma Rangers

“I have never seen a level of bravery like it, taking on a mechanised, armoured force with muskets. They’re just getting pounded. [The military] were bombing clinics, they were bombing churches and they’re still doing it.”

Back across the border in Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province, the ruthlessness of the Burmese armed forces since the coup has come as no surprise to General Aung Myat, deputy commander-in-chief of the Karenni Army.

He has been confronting the Tatmadaw for half a century, having joined the group, he says, at the age of 16 when he saw a Burmese soldier raping a woman in Demoso, his hometown.

Sitting outside the headquarters of the Karenni National Progressive Party in the Thai village of Nai Soi, a rooster crows and dogs sleep in the heat as the general tells of how, centuries ago, the Karenni even stood against the Burmese kingdom when it invaded Siam, as Thailand was known.

General Aung Myat, deputy commander of the Karenni Army.Credit:Chris Barrett

His rebel army has given training to the civilian fighters who have left their work or studies to join what is known broadly across Myanmar as the People’s Defence Force (PDF). But it can’t equip them with anything more than the improvised weapons firing metal balls or glass they take into battle.

“We have the spirit to fight because they have bombed our villages and they have oppressed us,” he says. “But the problem is these PDFs don’t have guns and don’t even have food to eat when they go to the frontline. They only have the spirit to fight, they don’t have the arms.

“We don’t need money. We just need weapons to protect our people. Our people are being killed and no one has come to help us.”

The Myanmar military commemorates Armed Forces Day in the capital Naypyitaw on March 27. Russia is the junta’s biggest arms supplier.Credit:AP

Nearby, in Nai Soi village, the Karenni National Women’s Organisation, a humanitarian group, is arranging for the delivery of rice to the estimated 2000 people who have gathered on the Myanmar side of the border after the shelling of towns like Loikaw and Demoso.

Mu Ree, the organisation’s first secretary, reports the military tried to drop a bomb on the camp in January but missed. Many there fear the settlement will be targeted again, she says.

“You can see it in their eyes. They’ve had to flee their homes, they’ve lost their family members or are separated from their family members, so they feel awful.

“They also don’t feel secure because they can hear the Burmese army drones,” she says.

Thailand, which shares a 2400-kilometre border with Myanmar, has offered refuge to people escaping hostilities since the early 1980s and there are more than 90,000 Burmese still living in camps on its side of the boundary.

However, transit between the two countries was suspended due to the pandemic and hasn’t been restored.

Six hours’ drive south of Mae Hong Son, the Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge, linking the trade city of Mae Sot in Thailand with the town of Myawaddy in Myanmar’s Kayin or Karen state, remains closed.

Villagers camp on the banks of the Moei river in Myanmar near the Thai border city of Mae Sot.Credit:Chris Barrett

At Mae Sot, Thai authorities have permitted villagers to cross the Moei river into Thailand when bombings have intensified, but they have been sent back.

Now, on the banks of the Moei, thousands are living in tiny straw huts with tarpaulin covers, hoping their proximity to Thai soldiers just over the water somehow improves their safety.

Less than three kilometres away, the town of Lay Kay Kaw, a stronghold of the local Karen National Union (KNU) and its armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army, has been under attack by the military since December.

Before being besieged by the Tatmadaw, the town served as a training site for civilian fighters and a staging point for politicians and protest leaders from the major cities to make their way to Thailand, with their passage negotiated by the KNU and Thai police.

Myanmar and Thailand were cut off even before last year’s coup, as a result of the pandemic.Credit:Chris Barrett

Among those who crossed the border in October – after an anxious drive through military checkpoints from Yangon – was a senior figure from Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD).

Now living in a safe house in the backstreets of Mae Sot with his office staff, he says he had little choice but to escape after months in hiding in Myanmar’s commercial hub and former capital.

“From 1988 to 2010 [during the previous junta’s rule] they wouldn’t persecute family members even if they didn’t like your politics,” he says, speaking on the condition his identity be withheld for safety reasons.

“But this time if one of your family members is involved in politics, all your family members will be arrested, get tortured, maybe killed. All the properties you own will be seized … your business, everything. That is why so many Burmese people are here.”

The senior NLD member, who showed The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age photos of himself with detained Australian economist and Suu Kyi adviser Sean Turnell, tells of how security forces tried to weed out those in hiding by conducting daily searches of houses under the guise of so-called “gas checks”.

“Authorities come into your home,” he says. “You have to open your door and whether your children are sleeping or not, you have to open every door. They even look in the bed. ‘Do you have friends or guests?’ If you want them to stop, you have to pay them.”

Former student protest leader Honey Oo, 35, and her husband Thiha Win Tin, 39, also fled to Mae Sot from Yangon in November with their two young sons and a friend after spending months switching houses in the city fearing arrest.

The lawyers spent five and four years in prison respectively following the 2007 Saffron Revolution uprising in Myanmar. They, too, speak of police sweeping through neighbourhoods with “gas checks”.

Former political prisoners Honey Oo and Thiha Win Tin in Mae Sot with their children Lin Mun and Zwe Mun and friend Liei Lei.Credit:Chris Barrett

“They told the owner of the house we were hiding in, ‘if we find anyone in your house, we are going to close it up’,” says Honey Oo. “So we weren’t safe there anymore.

“The military look for you everywhere. We have children now, so I was really worried about their safety.”

Living illegally in the Thai border city, the post-coup Burmese exiles still have to keep their head down or risk arrest by Thai police.

While that’s a less terrifying outcome than being rounded up by Burmese authorities, they worry they may be sent back and killed.

The exiles include a group of five young PDF fighters we invite to dinner on our last night in the border town.

They are aged between 18 and 25 – high school and university students, mostly in Yangon, before travelling to eastern Myanmar last year for a crash course in defending themselves.

Junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing is vowing to “annihilate” the military’s opponents in Myanmar.Credit:AP

Chugging down long necks of Chang beer, dragging on cigarettes and playing on their iPhones, their innocence masks the pain of leaving their families behind and the horrors of an insurgency they’ve seen since. The two 18-year-olds, a man and woman, have struck up a relationship since arriving on the Thai side and spend most of the evening holding hands and giggling at each other.

None of the group wanted to provide their names out of concerns for their families’ safety in Myanmar. They say they had been forced to escape to Thailand when the army bombed Lay Kay Kaw – just across the border from Mae Sot – for four days in a row in December.

“I saw some of my friends die on the spot,” says the 18-year-old male, who became a sniper in the resistance.

The eldest of the group, a lean, gently spoken man in his mid-20s who unlike the others is from northern Shan state, was about the last person you could envision taking up arms. He should still be at his uni campus in Mandalay, studying law, as he was before Myanmar descended into chaos.

“My friend next to me was shot in the eye and died,” he says, recalling an incident in Shan state last year during the junta’s deadly crackdown on anti-coup demonstrations across Myanmar. “That’s why I joined the PDF.”

Another of the young students at the table who joined the resistance wants to know who he can contact to press other countries to increase sanctions on the military regime.

While Australia hasn’t imposed any sanctions on the regime since the coup, the United States, Britain and Canada announced a new round of them last month, honing in on arms dealers in particular.

Yet in Kayah and Kayin states and other regions around Myanmar, the bombing and torching of villages goes on and the body count rises.

Joining us and the youngsters at dinner before we leave Mae Sot, the senior NLD figure speaks a bitter truth between spoonfuls of tom yum soup: the Burmese people have been left to deal with Myanmar’s murderous rulers on their own.

“We feel very frustrated with the international community, especially our neighbouring countries,” he says.

“Sanctions make it more difficult for the military. It makes them weaker. But it doesn’t stop them from killing their own people.”

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