‘They’re using the pandemic to render the people powerless to revolt against them’

It has been more than five months since Myanmar’s generals seized power and began slaughtering peaceful protesters. After months of one-sided violence, many who resisted the return of military rule decided it was time to start fighting back. 

People’s Defence Forces (PDFs) have been forming all over the country as part of the armed resistance to the military’s brutal rule. Conceived of by the shadow National Unity Government (NUG) as a nascent federal army, this emerging fighting force has turned to guerrilla warfare and other means to weaken the military’s hold on power.

Now another deadly threat has gripped Myanmar: the third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, which is raging out of control. Rather than assisting suffering civilians, the military has used this public health crisis to undermine the resistance.

In this interview, Myanmar Now speaks with Comrade Thet Thant (“Rainbow” in Burmese), the spokesperson for the eastern Yangon PDF, about the current state of the movement to overthrow the junta amid the catastrophic collapse of Myanmar’s healthcare system.

Q: Many who support armed struggle have been expecting an all-out battle since April. Three month later, they’re starting to lose faith. What would you say to them?

A: It’s true that the people have been expecting us to start attacking the military council since April. However, we PDFs still need to build a force big enough to go against the military. We have to prepare everything down to the last detail. Some people don’t understand this and tend to rush us. This is understandable, considering how much they’re going through.

Considering that every hour, every minute, and every second is like an eternity for them, it’s normal for them to ask, “Are you even doing this anymore?” or “When exactly are you going to do it?” I would just like to assure them that we have already made the decision to overthrow the military council one way or another through armed struggle.

I know you are all waiting for us. I know you all rely on us. I promise we will arrive at your door very soon. We are currently engaging in guerrilla warfare, but please know that it won’t be long before we begin an all-out battle.

Q: What do you hope for from civilians?

A: The people are inseparable from the PDF. Anyone opposing the military council is part of the PDF. When we engage in armed struggle, I don’t think civilians will just stand by and watch. They will take part in any way they can.

Take Mandalay for example. When fighting broke out there, people started burning tires, blocking traffic, and so on. If a junta soldier disguises himself as a PDF fighter, local people can notify the PDF. This will unify the people and the PDF. People can also help the PDF in the physical battle. The PDF is a people’s army, stemming from the people themselves.

PDF troops attend a ceremony marking their graduation from basic training. (Photo- Supplied)

Q: In some cases, the military has abducted civilians and used them as human shields. What can be done to prevent this?

A: They’re still using human shields in every ward and township to this day. They have no sympathy for civilians, even during the pandemic. They exploit the suffering of the people. This just became obvious in Mindat, [where civilians have been denied access to basic necessities despite a ceasefire]. They’ve been using civilians as human shields in many ways for a long time.

Q: What preparations have you made to minimize the impact of the conflict on civilians?

A: The impact on civilians is already huge all over the country. There have been violent crackdowns on anti-dictatorship protests. But now that we’re going through the third wave of the pandemic, every street in every township has a funeral in it.

If the international community doesn’t take any real action very soon, this will go down in history as a very ugly episode.

Thanks to the military council’s poor management skills and healthcare programs, even places like Yangon are having hundreds of deaths every day. It’s the same in rural areas. Many people have caught Covid-19, and many have died.

We can’t even find words to describe the losses that people are facing right now. They have nothing left to lose. If the PDFs don’t engage in armed struggle soon, the civilians will, with whatever weapons they can find, even if it is just the shoes on their feet. If the international community doesn’t take any real action very soon, this will go down in history as a very ugly episode.

Q: In Mandalay, a “Comrade Tun Tauk Naing” infiltrated the PDF as a spy. What have you learned from that incident?

A: There will always be snitches. But we can’t let them destroy our whole purpose. We have put systematic precautions in place at every level. We have prepared on every level to avoid the danger of being infiltrated.

Q: What are the major challenges that you are facing?

A: Everything’s a challenge, even the uniforms. We expected all these challenges even before we started. We just have to figure out how to overcome them. We’ve made some progress.

Q: Now that the PDF is preparing to go on the offensive, what would you like to say to civilians?

A: People are now quite emotional because of the third wave of the pandemic. There is no way to keep them under control. Many are starting to think that they are going to die anyway. Therefore, I would like to ask them to collaborate with the PDF in any way possible when the time comes.

We can only win if the people work together with the PDF. We can only protect the people if they lead us.

The PDF isn’t a separate force. The duty to fight for the success of the Spring Revolution does not lie just in the hands of the PDF. The PDF was formed only because the people started revolting against the junta, swearing to eradicate the dictatorship. The PDF has no power without the people behind them. We can only win if the people work together with the PDF. We can only protect the people if they lead us.

There is no use separating the PDF from the people. All people have to do is to look out for our flag and listen for our voice. Keep your eyes and ears sharp. If we want to win, we have to work together. We can’t win this battle with Generation Z alone. All generations, be they X, Y, or Z, have to work together.

Q: More and more people are dying in the third wave of the pandemic. Many are criticizing the junta’s response. Do you think this will strengthen the revolution? What do you say to those who feel the third wave has weakened the revolution?

A: The situation we’re in right now is just like that of the stolen son in the Mahawthada story* that we all learned about in middle school. This is just like that scene when it became evident who was the mother and who was the ogress.

We have the people’s government that looks after the people as if they were their own children, and another one that doesn’t value the lives of its people and only cares about its own power, just like the ogress in the story.

Our country is disadvantaged in every possible way, not to mention extremely poor. When the pandemic started, we got through the first and second waves by working together, to the point that we managed better than many rich countries. We even received praise from other countries.

Now we’re going through the third wave, which the military council has no control over. You suspect you have Covid-19? You have to get a test at your own expense. The pandemic has already reached rural areas. Even the Wai Bar Gi infectious diseases hospital, which played an important role in the first wave, doesn’t have enough doctors anymore.

They’re blatantly exploiting the pandemic in the cruellest way possible.

The junta is deliberately causing the pandemic to kill as many civilians as possible. If you get infected, you’re going to need oxygen. Therefore, they cut off oxygen supplies. It’s obvious they want people to die. They’re using the pandemic to render the people powerless to revolt against them. They’re blatantly exploiting the pandemic in the cruellest way possible.

The people know that. Their hatred towards them is growing with every passing day. They won’t hesitate to hit them with their own shoes whenever they see them. 

The NUG, on the other hand, has to fill in the gaps wherever they are needed. Doctors who helped out during the protest? Detained. Medicine donated? Confiscated. But are we slowing down in any way? No. We’re employing teleconsultations for the patients. We’re trying to get as much oxygen as possible. The NUG and the doctors partaking in the Civil Disobedience Movement are working together to get through this pandemic.

Q: The junta has depicted the NUG and the PDFs as terrorist organizations. How do you avoid falling into their traps?

A: Everyone knows that every single word that the junta has spoken since the coup has been a blatant lie. Despite their attempts to paint the NUG and the PDFs as terrorists, people know the difference. So we’re not worried. All of the junta’s lies are in vain.

* In the Buddhist story, Mahawthada is an earlier incarnation of the Buddha. When a woman and a demon disguised as a woman both lay claim to an infant, Mahawthada must determine who is the real mother of the child. He does so and restores the infant to the rightful parent.

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