Villages empty, civilian armed groups rise in eastern Myanmar

Military attacks including on churches have forced villagers into the jungle and stiffened the resolve of those fighting against the coup.

This handout photo from local media group Kantarawaddy Times taken on May 10, 2021 and released on June 4 shows military training conducted by the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) ethnic rebel group in Kayah State [Kantarawaddy Times via AFP]

No one is left in Mi Meh’s village.

After the military began launching indiscriminate air attacks and shelling on her township of Demoso in Myanmar’s southeastern Kayah State, also known as Karenni, everyone fled to the jungle.

With only the clothes on her back and a small tarpaulin for ground cover, Mi Meh and the others from her village set up camp. When Al Jazeera spoke to her on May 27, she was running out of food and water, her clothes were drenched by heavy rains and she had not bathed in more than a week.

But the biggest concern for Mi Meh was her safety. “Jets often fly overhead,” she said. “We have a lot of women and children here … I really worry because [the military] doesn’t have humanity. They can kill us any time.”

Al Jazeera has used a pseudonym for Mi Meh, who like several people interviewed for this article, spoke on condition of anonymity because the military continues to arrest and kill those who criticise or oppose it.

Mi Meh’s township is among several across Kayah and neighbouring Shan State where locals have recently been forced to flee. According to UN estimates, between 85,000 and 100,000 people from Demoso, Loikaw and Hpruso townships in Kayah State and Pekon and Hsiseng in Shan State fled their homes in the 10 days following May 21, when fighting broke out between the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s military is known, and a civilian resistance group calling itself the Karenni People’s Defense Force (KPDF).

The KPDF is among dozens of civilian defence forces to emerge since late March, while decades-long conflicts between ethnic armed organisations and the Tatmadaw have also reignited. In the first two months following a February 1 military coup, millions took to the streets demanding a return to civilian rule, but the Tatmadaw’s continuous use of terror – it has so far killed 849 civilians and arrested more than 5,800 – has pushed increasing numbers towards armed resistance.

“Since the Burmese regime’s forces [Tatmadaw] are snatching and murdering innocent civilians arbitrarily, there’s no other option for the people but to defend themselves with whatever means they can get,” a local community leader in Kayah told Al Jazeera. “They [civilian defence forces] don’t have firepower like the Burmese regime’s forces … but they have the will and the determination to resist evil.”

Joining forces

The Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), made up of legislators removed by the coup, endorsed the people’s right to self-defence on March 14. On May 5, the CRPH-appointed National Unity Government, which is running a shadow government in opposition to the military, announced the formation of a national-level People’s Defence Force, a step towards a federal army that would unite the country’s disparate ethnic armed organisations and other resistance groups.

Civilian fighters in Kayah have not come under this People’s Defence Force but have, since June 2, joined local armed groups to form the Karenni Nationalities Defence Force (KNDF).

Armed largely with homemade hunting rifles, Karenni fighters are the latest to emerge as a civilian defence force against a military that, according to the Stockholm Peace Institute, purchased $2.4bn in arms over the past 10 years, mostly from China and Russia. Both before and after the coup, the Tatmadaw has not hesitated to use these weapons on civilians, especially in areas of armed resistance.

A member of the People’s Defence Force (PDF) makes a handmade gun to be used in fighting against security forces near Demoso in Kayah state on June 4, 2021 [Stringer/AFP]

“The military have been violating human rights for many years, but now it’s more often and more obvious … [violations] happen every day,” said Khu Te Bu of the Karenni National Progressive Party and deputy minister of Home Affairs under the National Unity Government.

On June 2, the KNPP issued an urgent appeal for the Tatmadaw to cease attacks and threats against aid workers and civilians and to open blocked roads so food and supplies could enter the state. It also called for the UN, international governments and humanitarian organisations to provide immediate humanitarian assistance to the displaced and hold the Tatmadaw accountable for its actions.

Patterns of Tatmadaw violence seen since the coup mirror decades of human rights abuses which the Karenni, along with other ethnic minorities in Myanmar, have suffered at the hands of the Tatmadaw, which has systematically gone after civilians in areas where ethnic armed organisations have fought for self-determination and equal rights. In Kayah, tens of thousands were forced into relocation sites or to flee into the forest or across the border to Thailand, predominantly in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“Since May 21, we have been re-experiencing violations like the military committed in the past,” Banya Kun Aung of the Karenni Human Rights Organization told Al Jazeera.

Al Jazeera’s calls to the military spokesperson for comment on human rights violations and attacks on civilians in Kayah since May 21 went unanswered.

Churches attacked

The recent fighting in Kayah erupted on May 21, when Tatmadaw troops opened fire in residential areas of Demoso and arrested 13 people. The KPDF, at times supported by local armed groups, has since razed police stations, ambushed approaching troops and engaged in gun battles.

This handout photo from local media group Kantarawaddy Times taken and released on May 24, 2021 shows a damaged church in which four people were killed in army shelling [Kantarawaddy Times via AFP]

The Tatmadaw has responded with continuous air and ground attacks on civilian areas.

“They are shooting everyone they see,” said Banya Kun Aung of the Karenni Human Rights Organization. “Civilians have become hostages because of the political crisis.”

The KPDF claims to have killed more than 120 members of the Tatmadaw, according to Al Jazeera’s tally of local media reports. Meanwhile, Yangon-based The Irrawaddy news website reported that at least eight civilian fighters and 23 civilians were killed in Kayah and neighbouring townships of Shan State between May 21 and 31.

Among civilian casualties were a young man shot in the head with his hands tied behind his back on May 24 in Loikaw township and a 14-year-old boy shot dead in Loikaw township on May 27, the latest of more than 73 children to be killed by the security forces, according to the National Unity Government.

Churches have been repeatedly attacked in the predominantly-Christian area. On May 24, four people were killed and at least eight injured when heavy artillery struck a Catholic church in Loikaw township where more than 300 villagers had sought refuge.

A local community leader told Al Jazeera that on May 29, Tatmadaw forces raided a Catholic seminary in Loikaw where more than 1,300 civilians were sheltering, killed a volunteer cook and ate the food he had prepared. The same day, according to the community leader, the Tatmadaw raided and looted a Catholic parish house and convent in Demoso. On June 6, a Catholic church in Demoso called Queen of Peace, which had raised a white flag of peace, was damaged by artillery fire. “If the churches are no longer safe for the people to take shelter and protection, where can we find safer places?” asked the community leader.

The Tatmadaw has justified its attacks on temples, churches and administrative buildings by claiming that the facilities sheltered “local rebels.”

Humanitarian access has been hampered by insecurity, roadblocks, landmine risks and lengthy or unclear approval processes, according to the UN.

Local media has reported that the Tatmadaw has cut off access to Kayah State from Shan State as well as road access to Loikaw, the Kayah State capital.

Military chief Min Aung Hlaing met diplomats from ASEAN as well as the Red Cross chief last week  [Myanmar Ministry of Information via EPA]

‘Shooting all day’

On June 3, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross met army chief Min Aung Hlaing to share concerns on the current humanitarian situation in Myanmar and “reinforce ongoing efforts to ensure space for neutral and impartial humanitarian action.”

In Kayah, the Tatmadaw has continuously attacked and threatened humanitarian workers trying to help those displaced in recent clashes.

On May 26, security forces gunned down two youth delivering food from a church to displaced people in Demoso township and arrested three volunteers who were returning from delivering assistance there. The next day, a volunteer youth with Free Burma Rangers, a Christian humanitarian group, was shot dead in Demoso township while trying to assist civilians.

A representative from the Karenni National Women’s Organization (KNWO), a Kayah-based civil society organisation that is monitoring the crisis, told Al Jazeera that Kayah’s mountainous terrain is also posing a challenge to aid delivery. “From above, it might look like [displacement sites] are near each other, but one place and another are far; you may even have to cross mountains,” she said.

As in other parts of the country experiencing mass displacement since the coup, she said that food insecurity was rising. On May 27, military snipers shot dead two young men in Demoso township who were travelling back to their villages to get rice. “[People] are afraid to go back to their houses to take necessities because they don’t know where soldiers might be hiding or aiming their guns,” she told Al Jazeera.

Thousands have fled into the jungle to escape the fighting [Stringer/AFP]

Those trapped in cities and towns, including the elderly and disabled, are also facing trouble getting food, as curfews and ongoing violence leave them afraid to leave their homes. “We buy food quickly … Other than that, we don’t dare go out … because [Tatmadaw] snipers can shoot us any time,” said a woman in Loikaw who spoke on condition of anonymity. “I hear the sound of shooting all day.”

The generals’ forces, she said, are also raiding homes for food and valuables, following patterns seen in other parts of the country. “They went into houses and took everything, including rice, oil, and salt … They took what they wanted and destroyed the houses,” the woman said.

With the rainy season approaching, aid groups warn there could be more serious food shortages if farmers in conflict areas are unable to plant their crops, and health concerns are growing too.

Insufficient shelter and hygiene facilities leave populations vulnerable to malaria and diarrhetic diseases, while access to medicine and health services remain severely deficient. “There are just a few nurses among the displaced people but they themselves are also displaced,” the representative from the KNWO told Al Jazeera. Compounding these problems, local aid groups are running out of funds. “We only have local donors who can give small amounts … we don’t know how long we can hold up,” she said.

Source: Al Jazeera