As donations dry up, some in resistance stake everything to stay in the fight

As Myanmar’s struggle to end military rule turns into a war of attrition, some in the armed resistance movement are beginning to wonder how much longer they can last.

Increasingly, members of donor-funded groups fighting on the frontlines say that they have been reduced to selling off their own property just to have something to fight with.

“Some of us have had to sell our cars, our houses, or even our parents’ land. After we buy weapons, we are left with barely enough to eat,” said one resistance fighter from Kani Township in Sagaing Region.

“We’re burning out. If the situation doesn’t change soon, I don’t see how we will be able to continue,” he added.

Although a decline in donations due to Myanmar’s worsening economic situation is a problem affecting all of the many armed groups that have emerged over the past year, some have been harder hit than others.

Some of us have had to sell our cars, our houses, or even our parents’ land. After we buy weapons, we are left with barely enough to eat

Groups that operate on a small scale and that are only loosely associated with the People’s Defence Force (PDF) established by the shadow National Unity Government (NUG) find it especially difficult to finance their activities.

“It’s difficult for us to form full battalions here, and people don’t want to support us unless we have at least one battalion,” said a member of another group in Sagaing.

As for his group’s place in the broader struggle, he insisted that he and his comrades are completely on board with the NUG’s efforts to spearhead the anti-regime movement.

“Although we are not directly under the command of the NUG, we will follow the revolutionary path that they have established,” he said.

To make up for its lack of funding, some of the group’s members have also become its benefactors, contributing as much money as they can from the sale of land and other property, he added.

High prices

Weapons are the single greatest expense facing Myanmar’s resistance forces, and sourcing them has only gotten more difficult since the fighting began.

Most weapons are purchased on the black market, and smuggling them into conflict zones is now more of a challenge than ever. But as with most things, they are still available to those willing to pay the price.

An AK-47 assault rifle that cost around 2m kyat (just over $1,000) a year ago now sells for four times that amount, according to sources familiar with the situation. In some areas, such as Yinmabin Township in southern Sagaing Region, the same guns can fetch as much as 12m kyat, the sources said.

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Recent recruits to an armed resistance group in Sagaing Region attend a basic-training graduation ceremony in February (Hero Tiger Force)

Driving this steep rise in prices is high demand, which has been fuelled by the spread of conflict to areas beyond those controlled by ethnic armed organizations (EAOs).

“In the past, only the EAOs used to buy weapons, but now there are groups all over the country that want them, and the arms brokers are taking advantage of this situation,” said a member of a group based in Mandalay.

For those who can’t afford to pay ever-rising prices for weapons, handmade rifles are the only real alternative, and using them sometimes comes at an even higher cost.

“People occasionally get injured by guns that weren’t made in a proper factory. Some have even had to pay with their lives,” said Thaw Zin, the vice-chair of a Sagaing-based group.

There are also other non-monetary costs that come with trying to maintain one’s commitment to the cause. One is the extreme strain that it can place on family relationships.

Thaw Zin said that his parents only reluctantly parted with some property that they had to sell in order to send him money.

“They felt terrible about having to sell off a lot that they saved up for years to buy, but in the end they did it because they knew their son’s life would be at risk without weapons,” he said.

Not all parents are so understanding, however. Some have even disowned children for selling family land without seeking their permission first, according to resistance sources who say they have encountered a number of such situations.

They felt terrible about having to sell off a lot that they saved up for years to buy, but in the end they did it because they knew their son’s life would be at risk without weapons

Public support

But it is still the support of the general public that matters most to keeping the armed struggle against military rule alive. And here, too, there are signs that the current situation may not be sustainable.

While economic pressures are a very real factor in deciding how much people are willing to give, there is also a growing sense that some donors are simply no longer convinced that all the sacrifices are worth it.

“I would say that the majority of the urban population don’t have our backs anymore,” said one Mandalay-based activist.

The greatest loss of support appears to be among those who have the most to give, but who also feel that they have too much to lose if they are caught financing anti-junta “terrorist” groups.

“The big business owners don’t dare to donate as they don’t want to harm their own businesses,” the Mandalay activist said, adding that he still gives 300,000 kyat ($160) a month to help finance resistance activities.

“Fear is slowly soaking into the minds of the public, 80% of whom would hesitate to donate if they thought it would harm their business,” said another individual who has continued to make monthly donations.

While smaller groups are seeing the greatest impact from waning support, the NUG has not been entirely spared.

Although its fundraising efforts have enjoyed considerable success so far, the NUG is facing growing criticism over its failure to provide sufficient weapons to those risking their lives to restore democracy in Myanmar.

What this will mean for the armed resistance movement remains to be seen, but as the junta shows no signs of relenting in its determination to crush its opponents at all costs, time is not on the side of those still struggling just to find guns.

Public support

But it is still the support of the general public that matters most to keeping the armed struggle against military rule alive. And here, too, there are signs that the current situation may not be sustainable.

While economic pressures are a very real factor in deciding how much people are willing to give, there is also a growing sense that some donors are simply no longer convinced that all the sacrifices are worth it.

“I would say that the majority of the urban population don’t have our backs anymore,” said one Mandalay-based activist.

The greatest loss of support appears to be among those who have the most to give, but who also feel that they have too much to lose if they are caught financing anti-junta “terrorist” groups.

“The big business owners don’t dare to donate as they don’t want to harm their own businesses,” the Mandalay activist said, adding that he still gives 300,000 kyat ($160) a month to help finance resistance activities.

“Fear is slowly soaking into the minds of the public, 80% of whom would hesitate to donate if they thought it would harm their business,” said another individual who has continued to make monthly donations.

While smaller groups are seeing the greatest impact from waning support, the NUG has not been entirely spared.

Although its fundraising efforts have enjoyed considerable success so far, the NUG is facing growing criticism over its failure to provide sufficient weapons to those risking their lives to restore democracy in Myanmar.

What this will mean for the armed resistance movement remains to be seen, but as the junta shows no signs of relenting in its determination to crush its opponents at all costs, time is not on the side of those still struggling just to find guns.

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