On February 1, 2021, just hours after it was revealed that key members of Myanmar’s government had been detained following a military coup d’état, the National League for Democracy (NLD) released a statement on its Facebook page in which former State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi urged people “not to accept the coup…and resist it resoundingly.” Almost immediately, nationwide strikes and mass protests emerged as part of an organized campaign of resistance referred to as the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM)”. Within a week, protesters numbering in the hundreds of thousands were gathering in the streets of Myanmar’s two largest cities, Yangon and Mandalay. Meanwhile, the breadth and scale of the nationwide strike campaign brought the country to a standstill, with hospitals, banks, schools, and even government ministries forced to close their doors due to lack of staff.
Initially, the new junta government was keen to be seen dealing with the protests in a proportional manner. Police relied on conventional crowd control tactics and used non-lethal weapons such as rubber bullets and tear gas. However, this was soon abandoned in favor of a more aggressive approach in which armed police and the military employed lethal force during repressive crackdowns. The protesters, who had been largely peaceful up until this point, responded by arming themselves with rudimentary weapons and formed guard units to protect other protesters. Teams of night watchmen were also created to provide warning of the arrival of security forces conducting night-time raids. This soon gave rise to local resistance groups, known as People’s Defense Forces (PDFs), that took on the responsibility of defending their communities and resisting government rule.
Now, more than a year on from the coup, PDFs have emerged as a new dominant force among Myanmar’s already crowded group of anti-state actors. According to my own research, there are over 70 separate PDFs in Sagaing Region alone, and perhaps as many as 300 nationwide. PDFs not only claim to have killed thousands of junta soldiers, but have also begun carving out “liberated zones” in rural regions of Myanmar, complete with their own “people’s administrations.” This article is the first of a three-part series examining the emergence of PDFs, the ongoing challenges they face in their fight against the military, and the potential implications these new actors may have on the future of the Union of Myanmar.
Peaceful Protest and Civil Disobedience
From as early as February 2, plans for a nationwide campaign of civil disobedience to resist the newly formed junta government were being put in place. Led principally by doctors and other healthcare workers, some small-scale protests began the same day. However, on February 6, tens of thousands of people gathered on the streets of Yangon to protest against military rule. At first, there was genuine sense that the CDM could force the military to relinquish power and restore the civilian government. The fact that Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s armed forces, was making public pleas for people to return to work was seen as a sign the CDM was working.
Soon though, the state’s initially restrained response to the now daily protests gave way to a far more violent approach. Reports began appearing of the presence of soldiers among the ranks of police at protests, as well as the use of live ammunition. On February 13, the CDM’s first death occurred when the family of Ma Mya Thwet Thwet Khine, a 20-year girl who had been shot in the head, was forced to take her off life support after she was pronounced braindead. Ma Mya Thwet Thwet Khine was immediately heralded as a martyr and her image adopted as new symbol of the CDM and the anti-coup resistance writ large.
Even as the death count continued to climb, people saw hope in the rising number of police joining the CDM. On March 1, a police major from Yangon region police force became the highest ranking officer to defect, and was closely followed by two senior officers from Mandalay, demonstrating that discontent was not limited only to the rank-and-file. Then, on March 2, the Karen National Union (KNU), one of Myanmar’s largest ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), announced that 12 soldiers had deserted the Tatmadaw – the official name of Myanmar’s armed forces – and surrendered themselves to the KNU Brigade 5 in a show of solidarity with the anti-coup movement.
While some protesters clung to the belief that whole battalions would defect from the military, as occurred during the Syrian uprising, or that the police could be pried from the arms of the military and made to switch sides, in reality the chances of either of these happening was always slim. Although the number of defectors has continued to increase, the rate has been slow and fairly constant. The current figure stands at approximately 2,000 defectors from the military and 6,000 police officers. To put this in perspective, in August 2021, the number of army defectors was estimated to be around 1,500, giving a rate of 1,000 defectors per year, or 83 per month. The Tatmadaw is believed to have 407,000 personnel, of which 375,000 belong to the army alone, while the police force has an estimated 93,000 employees. Of course, for both institutions, not all personnel will be soldiers or on-the-ground police officers, however if the current rate of defection continues, it will be 75 years until just a fifth of the army had defected (I have seen some argue that a defection rate of 20 percent would lead to the Tatmadaw’s collapse).
The Tatmadaw is a highly cohesive organization, built around a central ideology that portrays the military as the guardian of national unity, and reinforced by an expansive patronage network. Its members exist largely separate from mainstream society. Often born into multi-generational military families, they are educated in military schools, their wives are given jobs in military companies, and when their children are sick, they are cared for in military hospitals. Particularly for the lower ranks, this means that despite their meager salaries, the need to support their families makes them beholden to the military. High-ranking officers are able to supplement their income through the taking of bribes, to which the military turns a blind eye, but are equally tied to the military through the same system of incentives, as well as the promise of progressively lucrative opportunities for corruption.
Although defectors have spoken positively of the prospect of more soldiers deserting the military, they have also stressed the difficulty in escaping a lifetime of indoctrination and incentivization. In May 2021, the Asia Times reported that veteran members of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) and State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the two military juntas that ruled Myanmar from 1988 to 2011, had confidentially expressed displeasure with the manner in which Min Aung Hlaing is managing the current crisis. Without knowing the source of these remarks, it is difficult to judge their significance, but the fact that they were made confidentially to the media suggests that the people making them are not yet in a position to act and nothing further has come of it since.
As for the police, unlike in 1946, when they sided with protesters campaigning for independence from the British by refusing to work for the colonial administration, they are now rigidly under the control of the state. Like the military, the police force is a distinctly insular organization which is able to exert significant control over its members. In multiple statements made by defectors there is evidence of commanding officers threatening to find and kill anyone that attempts to run away and join the CDM. And despite most defectors expressing a common concern that the police is being used by the military to do its dirty work, this has not prevented the majority of officers from carrying out orders to shoot at unarmed civilians.
The increasing threat of assault, arrest, or even death at the hands of Myanmar’s security forces quickly put an end to the mass protests seen during the early days of the coup government. While small protests continued in many places, they relied on new guerrilla tactics such as flash mobs and the use of social media as a form of intelligence network, both of which were borrowed from the recent protests in Hong Kong. At the same time, there was a distinct shift away from the previous emphasis on peaceful protests, as more radical sections of the CDM began to advocate for the need to meet force with force. Primarily made up of people from Generation Z, these young radicals formed guard units with the aim of protecting fellow protesters as best they could using large metal shields, Molotov cocktails, and hand-held catapults.
The fact that the new smaller protests were usually confined to a specific town or district, and made up of people from the local area, introduced a new territorial aspect to resistance in Myanmar. This was compounded by the response of state security forces, which was to target protest sites with community-wide raids, often in the small hours of the morning, to identify protesters and make arrests. The threat of armed men coming into towns and villages at night to abduct loved ones, while looting local businesses and shooting indiscriminately into people’s homes, created a siege mentality and people understandably felt the need to defend themselves. Many communities, particularly those in urban areas, set up teams of night watchmen and built roadblocks and fortified strongholds to deny access to security forces.
By early March, several of Yangon’s suburban townships had become hotbeds of resistance. Almost daily protests were occurring and security forces had yet to breach protesters’ rudimentary system of defenses. This didn’t last long, however. On March 3, at least seven people were killed in North Okkalapa as part of a deadly nationwide crackdown on protests. Then, on March 15, security forces conducted simultaneous raids on multiple townships in Yangon, with Hlaing Tharyar, Thingangyun, Kyimyindaing, and South Dagon townships among the worst affected. On this day alone, 59 people were killed and the total death count since the beginning of the coup was now approaching 250.
Armed Civilian Resistance
Faced with overwhelming odds and such extreme brutality, it wasn’t long before protesters began to militarize. The first step was toward the use of air-rifles and homemade gas-powered guns, but by the end of March reports of bombings and arson attacks against military bases and military-owned businesses started to appear. This was perhaps a consequence of the growing number of youths that were departing Myanmar’s major cities and traveling to the borderlands to receive military training from EAOs in the hope of acquiring skills, such as bomb-making and weapons handling, that could be brought back and passed onto other protesters. Meanwhile, the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), a parallel government created by former MPs ousted by the coup, declared plans to form a federal army which would include all members of the resistance from the village/ward level to the township level, as well as pro-CDM EAOs.
The beginning of April marked the emergence of People’s Defense Forces (PDFs), which have since become one of the primary agents of anti-coup resistance. The first PDFs were formed in Sagaing, a remote province bordering India in Myanmar’s northwest with a largely rural population. On April 1, junta forces entered Natchaung village in Kalay Township and opened fire. Instead of attempting to flee, however, residents decided to fight back using locally-made single-shot hunting rifles known as “Tumi” guns. A couple of days later, a police officer who had defected to the CDM led a group from Sagaing’s Tamu Township in a grenade attack on a police outpost which resulted in the death of five police officers, as well as the defector himself. Residents from Pinlebu and Yinmabin townships were the next to take up arms as armed resistance spread, first through Sagaing, and then into neighboring Chin State.
Like Sagaing, Chin State is a thinly populated region, more mountainous and inaccessible than its eastern neighbor, but with an equally strong tradition of hunting and a storied history of anti-colonial resistance. The Chinland Defense Force (CDF) was established on April 4 and began combat operations on April 25 in response to the arrest of seven anti-regime protesters in Mindat Township. Following four days of continuous fighting that resulted in the deaths of at least 30 Tatmadaw troops, the detained protesters were released and government soldiers withdrew from the town. For many, the CDF was the first local militia to demonstrate the viability of civilian armed resistance despite the Tatmadaw’s considerable advantages in experience, training, and equipment. As a new beacon of hope, the CDF was able to attract large numbers of recruits and soon established a chapter in Hakha, the state capital.
From here, armed civilian resistance expanded across the country, with new PDFs appearing in the Magwe, Mandalay, and Bago regions, as well as in Kayah State. Most recently, PDFs have formed in Ayeyarwaddy Region and even in Rakhine State, where the CDM movement has yet to find much support.
Whereas at first PDFs were simply defending their local areas from Tatmadaw incursions, as they have grown in strength and number, they have taken on a more offensive role. Access to sophisticated weaponry has been a key denominator in the evolution of PDF tactics. For instance, the PDFs in Magwe, Mandalay, and Bago regions were some of the first to carry out direct attacks on military bases using a mixture of improvised components and 107mm rockets presumed to have been acquired on the black market. There is also evidence that EAOs have been supplying PDFs with weaponry. In June, the Tatmadaw intercepted a large cache of weapons on a truck bound for Mandalay. The four PDF members arrested at the scene apparently admitted to having obtained the arms and received training from the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). In other cases, PDFs have acquired weapons and ammunition by attacking poorly defended police stations or simply by looting the bodies of regime soldiers killed in battle.
In a short space of time, PDFs have evolved from their rudimentary beginnings, when they were little more than rag-tag groups of individuals armed with home-made weapons, to organized military outfits with an established system of rank, training programs, modern weaponry, uniforms, and even their own media outlets. There is visual evidence of PDF members possessing high-powered assault rifles, grenade launchers, and sniper rifles, as well using home-made mortars and commercial drones to conduct aerial attacks on junta soldiers. Despite this, PDFs continue to face many challenges in their fight against the junta, including the superior strength and experience of the Tatmadaw, the risk of civilian attrition, inadequate support from the opposition National Unity Government, and potentially conflicting interests with local EAOs. Each of these factors will be explored in detail in the second article in this series.