In the wake of last year’s coup, elected members of parliament wasted no time forming the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) to act as a voice for Myanmar’s legitimate lawmakers. It wasn’t until April, however, that it was able to bring the National Unity Government (NUG) into being. And it would be a few more weeks before the new shadow government’s armed wing, the People’s Defence Force (PDF), was born.
On May 5, to mark the first anniversary of the PDF’s formation, Myanmar Now spoke to the NUG’s defence minister, Yee Mon, about the challenges and lessons of the past year and his predictions for the future of the revolution.
Myanmar Now: What kind of progress has the PDF made over the course of one year?
Yee Mon: I am actually very satisfied with the PDF’s journey over the past year. I’m proud of it, in fact. Our comrades started from nothing at all. They had no military training and no weapons. At the beginning of the armed resistance, they had to invent their own weapons to fight back against the junta. So you can say we have really come a long way since then.
We have been able to arm our troops to some extent, so that’s a win for us. When the PDF was first founded, we didn’t even have any funds, but thanks to the people’s support and our troops’ commitment, dedication and perseverance, we managed to overcome many challenges.
What were the challenges, and what lessons have been learned over the past year?
Everyone has hopes and dreams. The NUG itself hopes to arm as many troops as possible so that the revolution can be finished as soon as possible. I’m sure that PDF troops on the ground feel the same way.
However, I have to admit that we are a bit handicapped when it comes to experience. Some troops are finding it difficult to follow orders, as they’re not used to life in the military. We have had some technical disadvantages as well.
The failure of the PDF troops to follow orders has resulted in the deaths of a number of troops, so I guess that’s one of the lessons learnt.
Some of the troops went beyond the guerrilla techniques and tried to face the enemy head-on without calculating the enemy’s strength and they had to pay for their mistake with their lives. We need to learn from these mistakes to make our PDF stronger in the future.
What are the future plans of the PDF now that every state and region has its own PDF groups?
The PDF and its allies now actually have the upper hand in terms of strategy. They are relentlessly attacking the military wherever they can in order to exhaust them. Also, everyone can now see that the military is starting to lose ground.
We are also working hard to perfect our technical skills as well, since we are now strategically superior. We also need to calculate and compare the exact strengths of the revolutionary forces and the junta forces.
Our revolutionary forces are already very dedicated and they’re at their peak right now. You could say that we are now 10 times better than when we first started, considering the amount of funds and arms we have acquired.
The military, on the other hand, is losing ground. If the revolutionary forces keep up the pressure, I can say for sure that there isn’t much time left for the military council.
To what extent have you armed the PDF?
We have formed a total of 259 PDF battalions and local defence forces in 250 townships, according to our latest records. We have also finished forming regional commands and supervision teams. We are prioritizing the formation of supervision teams for each district at the moment.
In just eight months, we managed to arm 10 times more troops than when we started. We have collected more weapons and ammunition for the coming months. Therefore, we are going to be able to provide more weapons for the defence forces.
We are also finally able to make our own semi-automatic rifles and support is also given for the production of those rifles. Therefore, the revolution is going to pick up momentum in the coming months.
Will you be able to provide tactical weapons such as ones that can shoot down military aircraft?
We currently need weapons that could disrupt enemy aircraft and destroy enemy bases. We are currently collecting funds and looking for materials for such weapons.
‘We need to create a chain of command and unify under one flag’ – NUG defence minister
‘We need to create a chain of command and unify under one flag’ – NUG defence minister
Yee Mon tells Myanmar Now the underground government has been in contact with most of the People’s Defence Force chapters across the country
How would you respond if the commander-in-chief of the coup regime invited you to a meeting?
The NUG and the PDF represent the people. Therefore, we cannot do anything that is against the people’s will.
The one firm goal that every citizen of the country has is to eradicate the military dictatorship once and for all. Therefore, we cannot make any deals or conduct any kind of business with the military council.
Many political leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, have said that political problems should be solved through diplomatic and political means. What do you say to that?
We have always tried to solve political problems by political and diplomatic means, from the very beginning. Aung San Suu Kyi herself dedicated 30 years to this approach. However, not only did the problem not get solved, it actually got so bad that we’re in this state right now. The military cannot comprehend the idea of diplomacy and political solutions. They only know how to reign over the people using weapons. That has been their policy for 60 whole years. The coup was their ultimate move, one could say.
We are facing an organisation whose only known way of communication is through combat. Therefore, we have no choice but to take up arms against them. We are doing this for the history of our country.
It is the decision of all the people of Myanmar to remove the military from the country’s politics and build a federal union that can provide sustainable peace and stability for the people.
What orders have been given regarding military informants?
We don’t refer to them as military informants, but as the junta’s fifth columnists, as they are aiding the junta in their acts of terror against the people.
These terrorist groups may be either armed groups or unarmed groups providing information to the junta in order to oppress the people. However, we don’t regard everyone [in public service] who doesn’t join the Civil Disobedience Movement to be a terrorist, as long as they don’t terrorise the people.
We have supervision teams for every district to deal with complaints and reports regarding fifth columnists and terrorist groups. The ministry of defence has also given orders that only after thorough examination by the district supervision teams should legal action be taken against them, in accordance with either military judiciary laws or civil judiciary laws.
A group called Thwe Thout (“Blood-sworn”) has been targeting and killing the NLD party members and their supporters and families. What do you know about this?
We are collecting data regarding this matter. We have already received some important information regarding this. I can tell you this now—this Thwe Thout group is just another group sponsored by the military.
Junta officials from the central region military command are the ones who founded groups in Mandalay to target the families of NLD and PDF members. They’ve been constantly making threats as well.
We have acquired enough evidence about this, and the ministry of defence will also release more information to the public.
Why do you think they have started taking actions like this now?
The only possible answer is that it is because they are out of options now. They can no longer face the PDF and the alliance forces on the battlefield, so they have decided to terrorise the people instead. However, I would like to say that this will not only not solve their problems, but it will also make it worse for them.
What would else you like to say to our readers?
It is certain that the military is losing ground. At a time like this, we need to continue attacking them relentlessly so that they can’t get up. However, the people are bound to suffer losses due to the military’s actions. I would like to tell them to keep holding on for a little longer.
As the people’s government, we will take full responsibility for all the losses when the revolution is over. We would like to tell the people that we are ready to eradicate the military, which is already losing stability.
‘Freedom is never free; it comes at a great price’— KNU
In an interview with Myanmar Now, the Karen ethnic armed organisation’s spokesperson Padoh Saw Taw Nee lauds public support for the resistance movement and condemns a junta-controlled election
More than 60 Karen civil society organisations, including the KWO, released a joint statement late last week calling for the resignation of all KNU central executive committee members with ties to so-called “new city projects,” including illegal casinos and other gambling businesses.
In response, the KNU released a statement on Sunday denying that it had issued any permits for illegal businesses in Karen (Kayin) State.
KNU congresses typically last about a month, and are attended by central executive committee members and representatives from each brigade.
Padoh Saw Liston, the district secretary for KNLA Brigade 6, said he didn’t expect the current congress to last any longer than usual, despite being the first to be conducted online—an innovation, he said, necessitated by the risk of airstrikes.
He added that the Karen public also hopes to see more “political integrity” in the group’s leadership.
“I think the public feels that the leadership’s behaviour should reflect the KNU’s political integrity, so I think there may be some changes. However, everything depends on the representatives’ skills,” he stated.
More than 50 representatives are slated to be elected as members of the KNU’s central executive committee during the congress. The elected representatives will then choose the group’s chair, vice-chair, and secretary general.
KNU territory is divided into seven districts, each one controlled by a different brigade of either the KNLA or the Karen National Defence Organisation, another armed wing under the KNU’s command.
Why thousands have left Myanmar’s military—and why most stay
While discontent is rife within the ranks, few soldiers are willing to risk the consequences of defecting
Another retired soldier who served in the army for 40 years told Myanmar Now that among these new recruits, the reasons for joining were often rooted in pragmatism over patriotism.
“No one has joined the army because they love the country,” he said.
Once provided with uniforms, weapons, and two weeks of combat training, family members of troops are often sent to reinforce weakened battalions and brigades nationwide, according to Cpt Zin Yaw, who left the Myanmar army after nearly 20 years to join the Civil Disobedience Movement.
“The new recruits are often underage and not in a good mental state,” he said, citing sources still in the military. “They were kept at the base just for show. Some were so unstable that they couldn’t be trusted enough to have their guns loaded with real bullets.”
He noted that this information came from an officer currently serving in the Southeastern Regional Command, active in Mon and Karen states, where intense fighting has taken place between the Myanmar army and resistance forces including the longstanding ethnic armed organisation the Karen National Union (KNU).
Children among troops
A former child soldier forcibly recruited into the military while on a Buddhist pilgrimage in 2019 affirmed that the Myanmar army resorted to unorthodox measures to bolster its troop numbers well before the coup.
Hein Zaw Oo said he was 16 and had just visited the Kyaiktiyo Pagoda in Mon State when he was approached by a police officer he met on the train back to his native Yangon. The officer convinced him to enlist, and initially sent him to Infantry Battalion 30 in Bago Region’s Taungoo Township. He then attended six months of combat training in Thabeikkyin Township in Mandalay.
“There were many underage children among the troops,” he recalled. “Many of them were younger than me.”
Speaking to Myanmar Now on the condition of anonymity, another army captain who served for 10 years before joining the CDM said that Hein Zaw Oo’s experience was not uncommon, and that railway stations had long been known military recruitment sites, particularly for minors.
“They target the boys who seem lost at the stations—naïve young boys are threatened and recruited into the army,” the captain said. “For example, they will accuse the boys of stealing, and after beating them, they will threaten them with prison if they don’t join [the army].”
Officers were under pressure to find two new recruits each month in order to secure their own promotions, he explained. Prior to the coup, they could expect to spend up to 2m kyat (nearly US$1,000) in “fees” to take credit for bringing on a new soldier.
“Some bases sell their troops’ recruitment records to those officers. The military recruitment units also sell the names of the people they have recruited, and the officers [who want a promotion] will buy from them,” he explained.
After he completed his training, teenager Hein Zaw Oo became a member of Light Infantry Battalion 2 under Light Infantry Division 44, and was—perhaps ironically—stationed in the Kyaikhto, the same township as the holy site he visited before he was recruited.
He was then deployed to Rakhine State to fight against the Arakan Army in 2020, and transferred across the country to Karen State one year after the coup. Looking for an escape, he contacted the Cobra Column—a combined force made up of KNU soldiers and members of the anti-junta People’s Defence Force—as they advanced along the highway connecting Myawaddy with Waw Lay along the Thai border in May 2022, and defected to the resistance.
Upon his arrival in liberated territory, Hein Zaw Oo told Myanmar Now that the “propaganda” spread by the military about the anti-junta armed groups turned out to be false.
“The army says that deserters who join the CDM will be killed by [the resistance forces] after being fed for a day or two,” he explained, speculating that the regime is desperate not to lose more troops to the movement it is struggling to suppress.