Reporting from the Thai/Burma border.
The ethnic resistance armies are finally turning the tide in Burma’s civil war. Outgunned by Chinese and Russian aircraft, they pray for weapons and assistance from the United States, a country whose federal democracy they wish to emulate.
On February 5th, the Burmese army, known as the Tatmadaw, launched airstrikes on civilians in Shadaw Township, located in the eastern part of Kayah State in Myanmar. There were no rebel soldiers present, and this ruthless attack resulted in the deaths of women and children. On the same day, they also dropped a 500-pound bomb on a school. A refugee in Thailand shared a heartbreaking photo with me, showing a pink Barbie backpack amidst the rubble. Civilians fled the area, seeking refuge at the Thai border. However, Thai authorities turned them away, leaving them stranded in the jungle, caught between a sealed border and a government that wants to kill them.
Since 1948, there has been periodic fighting between Burma’s many ethnic minority peoples, resisting the repression of the genocidal Burmese Government. At least 70 armed resistance groups have formed over the years. Most, but not all, were ethnic. Most were fighting against the government. Some groups were defeated; others were disbanded. Some splintered into two or more groups, while some switched to the government side and others switched back again. As a result, the war has been a revolving door of acronyms like: Arakan Army (AA), All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF), Chin National Front (CNF), Karenni National Solidarity Organization (KNSO), Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), Shan State Nationalities People’s Liberation Organization (SNPLO), and Wa National Organization (WNO).
Over the course of seven decades of conflict, the names of the groups involved may have changed, but one grim reality has persisted: thousands of civilians have lost their lives, and millions have been forced from their homes. Those fortunate enough to escape have fled to Thailand. However, many others find themselves in internally displaced people’s (IDP) camps within Burma, where they are still considered targets by the Burma army.
In Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province, I visited the Karenni Social Development Center, a school providing further education for Karenni children who have completed grade ten. At this school, children receive classes in human rights, law, English, and computers, with the hope that they can become leaders of opposition groups or community leaders if the war ends and they can return to Burma. Watching the happy kids interact and laugh with one another, they seemed like typical young people anywhere. However, my gaze shifted to the mural on the wall, depicting a village being bombed by government aircraft, with distraught civilians running in terror. It was a stark reminder of why they were there. Although they had never met before starting school, they shared this one commonality: the world of their childhood had been destroyed.
The volunteer English teacher from the United States, Molly Ryan, shared, “Some of the older ones were former soldiers.” They had been forced to kill their own people before escaping to Thailand to become refugees. “Sometimes, I see this blank look on their faces, and I know they are reliving their past.”
Being in the camps in northern Thailand or in the IDP camps and military bases inside of Burma, the war is a daily reality for me, and more so for them. But, most of the world outside is unaware. The Rohingya genocide was in the news a few years ago, but even large news media didn’t know that it was just one of many. The Karen resistance army was featured in the movie Rambo IV, and recently, the Shan army played a role in the Jack Ryan TV series. But for the most part, no one knows about Burma, except the Chinese who are funding the Tatmadaw, as well as several of the ethnic armed groups. In exchange, Beijing receives natural resources, as well as access to the Indian Ocean.
With a complete lock on media, the Burmese government is able to suppress a great deal of information about its nefarious activities from leaving the country. Fortunately, most of the major ethnic groups, such as Shan, Karen, Karenni, Wa, Chin, and Kachin, all have their own external media. These outlets receive feeds from guerrilla journalists inside of Burma who document the government’s human rights abuses. Additionally, there are social media groups to which ethnics inside of Burma post, ensuring their counterparts abroad are aware of war crimes being committed within the country. Khu Ko Reh of the Karenni Civil Society Network (KCSN) explained that information sometimes takes a while to get out because when civilians flee to the jungle, they avoid turning on their phones out of fear that the signals could be used by fighter jets for targeting.
In October, the ethnic resistance armies began forming alliances and launching coordinated strikes, which have been significantly impacting government forces. David Eubanks, head of the Free Burma Rangers (FBR), a cross-border aid group, estimates that the ethnics now control between 50-70% of the country’s landmass. However, in discussions with soldiers and leaders, as well as in my own observations, they have all identified the critical need for anti-aircraft weapons. The junta is armed with Russian and Chinese helicopters and jets, for which the ethnic soldiers have no effective defense. This situation reminded me of the movie “Charlie Wilson’s War,” which depicts the true story of how a U.S. congressman campaigned to provide anti-aircraft weapons to the Mujahideen, proving to be a game-changer in driving the Russians out of Afghanistan.
The Karenni and Shan leaders I have met with expressed their desire to establish a federal democracy, similar to America, if they win the war. An ethnic Christian spiritual leader, speaking under anonymity, remarked, “America tried to change Afghanistan to democracy. They spent a lot of money and lives, but nothing has changed. Burma is different. The people want change, they want democracy. But America is not helping.”
Everyone I talk to, from civilians to soldiers, politicians, and even school teachers, keeps asking why America left so many weapons in Afghanistan and sent so much money to Ukraine when the ethnic resistance armies could win their war with just a fraction of the cost. Moreover, America would gain a strategic ally bordering on China and the Indian Ocean.