Japanese government should stop training Myanmar army
Defying military repression of the anti-dictatorship movement in Myanmar, a 24-year-old protest leader has been leading rallies in rural Sagaing with the help of local defense forces for nearly four months.
The village protests have come to represent not only widespread public rejection of the junta, but also the control of territory resistance groups have won across northwestern Myanmar.
Than Kyaw Oo, president of the Monywa University Students’ Union and member of the Monywa People’s Strike Committee, is often at the forefront of these events.
He spoke to Myanmar Now on Tuesday about the need for civil disobedience and armed resistance, the year ahead for revolution and the goal of achieving federal democracy.
Myanmar Now: Why are rallies held in villages in the Sagaing region? How do people react to these events?
Than Kyaw Oo: It is our duty to protest in Monywa town, but we are focusing on rural areas because internet access has been cut off in many of these areas and people may not be aware of the current political situation.
In many places I have visited, the majority of people and community leaders have given up participating in protests and are focusing more on armed resistance. In other words, they underestimated the protests.
We explained why we are revolting against the dictatorship, what is currently happening politically, why the people must unite and why the people are the main driving force of a revolution.
Over time, we managed to convince them to let us organize a test rally. At the first gathering, we tried to enlighten people about the current political situation. Many civilians generally don’t have much knowledge of politics, especially about federal democracy, which is our main focus. That’s why we try to share with them what we know.
We explained why we are revolting against the dictatorship, what is currently happening politically, why the people must come together and why the people are the main driving force of a revolution. We gave speeches about politics and fearlessness.
They quickly began to believe that armed resistance and protests were equally important in eradicating the dictatorship. People started to understand that we couldn’t win this fight with armed resistance alone.
MN: What topics do you discuss at these gatherings?
TKO: Mainly the current political situation. We have recently acquired several political advantages. We talk about the political, military and diplomatic advantages we have over the dictatorship, and how the support of the people has brought many of these advantages.
Although the national unity government acts as the front of the revolution, they are not the leaders of this revolution. The people are the leader of the revolution. The only reason we got here is because of people’s support. We try to focus our discussions on that.
People started to understand that we couldn’t win this fight with armed resistance alone.
We also talk about why we are risking our lives to fight against dictatorship, and we tell them that armed resistance is a dangerous path and that we need the unity of the people to win this fight.
MN: The local defense forces are in charge of security during your gatherings. What can you tell us about this?
TKO: Before each gathering, I have to speak with the village defense forces, the village administration teams and the village chiefs. We need to know how the villagers are before starting each rally. The important thing is that we cannot simply speak of fearlessness. We must first find out the level of political knowledge of the villagers. We also need to uncover the challenges leaders face. After gathering all this information, we decide what to talk about.
Every time we meet these leaders before rallies, they tell us that they will ensure our security and they ask if they can be armed. We always agree with this because people are more encouraged if they see the presence of armed resistance forces, so they follow us in uniform – armed with their handmade guns – at our rallies.
MN: The army committed atrocities in the villages of the Sagaing region. However, if local defense forces are providing security for anti-coup rallies and demonstrations, does this mean that resistance forces now have greater control over the area?
TKO: I interviewed locals who are influential in these areas, and they told me that military troops are mostly present in urban and outlying areas, in order to maintain their administrative mechanisms. They have no control over rural areas.
Our local defense forces exercise major control over these rural areas, at least until last year. At the beginning of 2022, the army started using the air force to carry out attacks, which became quite worrying. Normally, they wouldn’t dare drive through these parts because they fear being attacked with explosives. They know the local defense forces are here.
In addition to not having control over rural areas, the military also loses control of its own government machinery. The local defense forces showed us their influence on the area. One of the reasons they provide our security is to demonstrate the solidarity that exists between the armed resistance forces and the community, not only to the people of Myanmar but also to the international community.
As for the control of the region, I think it is reasonable to assume that the resistance forces control 80 or 90% of the regions where they are presently present. The military air force is really the main thing to worry about.
MN: Do you think the revolution will not succeed if there is only armed resistance and no public protests?
TKO: The first thing we have to recognize is that the General Strike Committee has decided to divide the revolution into two parts. The first part is to organize demonstrations and political rallies to help raise political awareness and keep the revolutionary spirit alive.
Another part is armed resistance, which would eventually overthrow the dictatorship completely. As the current chairman of the Monywa strike committee, I deal with matters on the ground. In every rally, I try to emphasize the fact that no organization can exist for very long without the support and trust of the people. The trust of the people is the only thing that keeps the defense forces going. The same could be said of the local defense forces in various villages.
The armed resistance cannot achieve its goals without the support of the people. The people must support the armed resistance for it to thrive. Once people start to lose faith in the revolution, the concept of revolution itself will start to crumble. Another obvious example is that without funding from the people, the resistance forces will no longer be able to fight.
The armed resistance cannot achieve its goals without the support of the people
We are simply trying to keep alive the revolutionary spirit of the people. We must inculcate in the people a kind of mental toughness which cannot be broken by military oppression. As the people’s hatred towards the army grows, the army fears that more people will join the revolution.
MN: What do the locals of the local defense forces and the People’s Defense Forces (PDF) who accompany you in these gatherings think?
TKO: They greet them and welcome them wholeheartedly. They see members of the defense forces as the “soldiers of the people”, or people who risk their lives for the well-being of civilians.
The public understands that members of the local defense forces, including those of the PDF, are unpaid and live on donations. They understand that they are doing their best, using all the weapons they can get from these gifts. That’s why people love them and take care of them.
MN: What do people think is their reason for rebelling against the military council?
TKO: They don’t say much except that they can’t stand being oppressed by the army. The army commits atrocious crimes. People said the only way to defeat the military council was through armed resistance because “their skulls are too thick” to understand diplomacy.
They know how well things went during the administration of the popularly elected government. We had a five-year democracy, after all. People can compare the situation then with the situation today. The reason why they are revolting against the dictatorship is clear: they do not like to sit idly by and watch the military commit atrocities. There is no other reason.
MN: Children and seniors are also present during your gatherings. Can you comment on the ages of those present?
TKO: I found that the seniors are very motivated. They even said that they had to fight back against the army which is terrorizing the whole country and which has no humanity. Elderly men said they were ready to lay down their lives, armed only with a sword.
Sometimes I even cry at these gatherings, because of the contrast between the city dwellers and cronies who only donate to the revolutionary forces to protect themselves, and the rural elderly who are willing to risk their lives for this cause.
MN: It’s been almost a year since the military staged the coup. As a protest leader, what would you like to tell people right now?
TKO: I think it’s safe to say that the revolution is progressing as expected. People are still protesting in big cities. Even though there are no protest mobs, there are still small flash mob groups.
It just underlines that the people have won the 2021 spring revolution. As our leaders have always said, this is a game where we are betting our lives. If we lose, we will have no life or future to return to.
We can see it in the way the army terrorizes the country. If they lose, they will lose everything, including their own lives. That’s why they’re not going to hold back in this fight because it might also destroy their lives. In other words, both parties are betting their own lives in this game.
The people of the land will have to endure much more suffering… so many more bad things are yet to come. I say this not because I want to discourage people but so they can prepare for the worst.
Last year, the people won. We need more of their support this year to keep fighting. The only reason we win today is because of that support. Armed resistance is growing thanks to popular support.
We have to sit still and keep fighting. We need all our body and all our soul to win this fight. This is the only way to achieve federal democracy.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.