Karenni youths form a new, and eager, fighting force

“We’re happy when we’re at war, but it’s not because we enjoy killing people,” said Hsaw Reh, a young Karenni man who has joined the armed resistance against Myanmar’s military regime.

As a member of the Karenni Generation Z Army (KGZA), 22-year-old Hsaw Reh (not his real name) is part of a new movement that has emerged since the February 1 coup. 

The KGZA, which operates as a unit of the Karenni Nationalities Defence Force (KNDF), consists mostly of younger people who had never even considered engaging in armed conflict before this year, despite growing up under military rule.

Before the army seized power, Hsaw Reh was happily pursuing a career as a teacher. He was studying at a college of education and working as a tutor when the tanks rolled into the capital Naypyitaw, crushing his generation’s hopes of a more democratic future. 

I am fighting now with the intention of preventing this from happening again to the kids to come – Hsaw Reh, a Karenni resistance fighter

As much as that event changed everything for him and others who came of age during Myanmar’s decade-long era of relative freedom, his goal remains the same: to ensure that today’s children have better lives than those who came before them.

“I’m really proud of myself. Because of my decision, I got to meet my brothers in arms, and this is something that I hold precious. I am fighting now with the intention of preventing this from happening again to the kids to come,” he said.

Hsaw Reh, 22, joined the armed resistance before the formation of the KNDF on May 31 (Supplied)

Like countless others around the country, Hsaw Reh did not immediately turn to armed resistance to fight the regime. It was the junta’s use of lethal force against peaceful protesters that convinced him to take up arms.

“It shook me to the core, watching the crackdown happen. Bullets were just flying past me. But we kept organizing more protests, while our seniors started arranging for armed resistance,” he recalled.

It was the death of his friend’s father, who was killed during a crackdown in Loikaw on March 19, that finally compelled Hsaw Reh to join those fighting on the frontlines.

It shook me to the core, watching the crackdown happen. Bullets were just flying past me – Hsaw Reh

His decision did not meet with his family’s approval. His father, a lance-corporal, and some of his siblings live together in the army barracks, so it was not easy for him to join a conflict that put him and them on opposing sides.

“Actually, my father wanted to join the Civil Disobedience Movement, but he said he couldn’t just leave because he had children in the army,” Hsaw Reh explained.

A new force is born

Serious fighting began in northern Karenni (Kayah) State on May 21 and soon spread to Pekhon Township in southern Shan State.  

It was at the end of that month that the KNDF was formed to consolidate the scattered resistance forces that were operating throughout the area.

“It gave us a much bigger unified force. Plus, we don’t have any confusion about who’s who anymore. Because we’re working as a team now, we can carry out tasks and solve problems even faster,” said a KNDF spokesperson.

Altogether, the KNDF has a total of 19 battalions under its command. There are also a number of other People’s Defence Force (PDF) groups active in the region that did not join the KNDF, but which work with them as allies.

Hsaw Reh, who fought in Kayah State’s Demoso Township before the KNDF was formed, said those early clashes were costly for the regime, despite the fact that the Karenni fighters were greatly outgunned.

“We had to take turns shooting during battles. It wasn’t until a few days later that we all started getting handmade rifles of our own,” he said, adding that it was their superior knowledge of the local terrain and unity as a fighting force that enabled them to inflict heavy casualties.

“We managed to kill around two or three hundred soldiers. There was fighting every day, and they lost at least two or three soldiers in every battle. In Kyaukse Kan, Moebye and Sanpya 6 Miles, we really gave them hell,” he recalled.

KNDF troops go on patrol in Kayah State (Supplied)

After losing as many as 80 troops in the first few days alone, the military retaliated with airstrikes and mortar fire. Then it started targeting civilians, destroying not only their homes but also the churches and other buildings where they took refuge.

Three weeks of shelling and aerial bombardment by the military resulted in the destruction of 220 homes and other structures in Loikaw, Demoso and Pekhon townships and displaced an estimated 100,000 civilians, according to the United Nations.

It was at this stage that Hsaw Khu, a 38-year-old father of two, decided to join the resistance. 

We have our futures to fight for – 38-year-old Karenni resistance fighter Hsaw Khu

After spending a decade in Thailand, he had returned to his native Kayah State just five years ago to start a furniture business. But the coup shattered his peaceful family life and his dreams of prosperity.

When his home was flattened by army shelling, Hsaw Khu didn’t hesitate. He took his wife and sons, aged nine and five, to a safe place and became a full-time soldier of the revolution.

“We have our futures to fight for,” he said.

Joining forces

On June 15, the KNDF agreed to a temporary ceasefire after losing only 13 of its forces since the fighting began. The group accepted the agreement, which was brokered by local church leaders, in order to ease pressure on the civilian population.

Many who returned to their homes and shops after the ceasefire went into effect found that they had been looted by regime forces. In Demoso and Moebye, they also discovered the mutilated corpses of at least 20 civilians.

Despite the ceasefire, civilian casualties continue to mount. By mid-August, junta troops had killed a total of 82 people in the area, according to a network of local civil society groups.

While the KNDF refrained from mounting new offensives, the Karenni Army (KA), the armed wing of the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), has clashed repeatedly with the Myanmar military since fighting broke out near Pun Chaung, a village on the Loikaw-Shartaw highway, on July 2.

Two weeks later, on July 16, KNDF forces joined the KA as it engaged regime forces near the village of Nan Phe in Bawlakhe Township. The two Karenni armed groups have been cooperating ever since. 

“We have a common enemy, so we have to help each other,” Khu Daniel, the KNPP’s secretary 1, told Myanmar Now. He emphasized, however, that the KNDF has not joined the KA, but remains an independent force. 

“We’ve been fighting against the dictatorship for 70 years. Now that many more are joining us in the fight, it has made it easier for us. We all have the same goal, after all,” he added.

The Karenni State Consultative Council (KSCC), a body formed on April 9 and consisting of elected MPs and representatives of political parties, armed groups, and civil society organizations, has recognized the KNDF as a state defence force.

For its part, the KNDF says it is ready to do its part to overthrow the regime.

KNDF recruits stand at attention as they receive military training (Supplied)

Regarding the resumption of fighting and its impact on civilians, a spokesperson for the group urged his fellow citizens to bear with the hardships for as long as it takes to achieve victory.

“We have to take this opportunity to end this once and for all. If we can’t push through these inconveniences, we will have to live with this corrupt system for the rest of our lives,” he said.

For those who have joined the ranks of the KNDF, this message has fallen on eager ears. 

If we can’t push through these inconveniences, we will have to live with this corrupt system for the rest of our lives – KNDF spokesperson

Nineteen-year-old “Mary” left her home to join the protests in February and is now part of a KNDF battalion that includes four other young women, aged 19 to 25. 

Just five feet tall and weighing a mere 100 pounds, the former first-year student at Loikaw University says she and her comrades are in high spirits as they gird for war. 

“I’m not quite satisfied with myself as I haven’t taken part in a real battle yet, but I’m happy for those who are actually fighting now,” she said.

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