A woman with a stern face and hair pulled up in a tight ponytail stands among a group of men at a shooting range, taking aim at a target. Her look of determination marks her as a soldier in the making.
When she isn’t practising her kill shot, however, she makes a very different impression. Polite and well-spoken, she suddenly becomes a schoolteacher again.
Until last year, Private Swe Lay taught at a middle school in Chin State. Now she is an administrative officer with the Yaw People’s Defence Force (PDF) in Magway Region.
Originally from Gangaw Township, in Magway’s Yaw region, she had spent more than eight years at a village school in the Chin Hills. She loved her job so much that she didn’t mind being assigned to a remote location far from her hometown.
But when the military seized power last year, she stopped working to take part in the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), joining tens of thousands of other public employees around the country.
Like other educators, who were among the first to join the CDM, she couldn’t stand the lies that the newly installed regime used to justify its power grab.
“I just couldn’t work under the military dictatorship. I had to join the CDM because I cherish the truth,” the 29-year-old teacher-turned-soldier said.
From chalk to shotguns
It was while she was active in the CDM that Swe Lay saw that the junta was not just untruthful, but brutal. After seeing some villagers being murdered by soldiers, she decided it was time to take her fight to the next level.
“We asked for the truth in a fair way, but we didn’t get it. I couldn’t just watch them torture and kill people,” Swe Lay said.
“I thought a lot about what I should do, and then decided to join an armed group, because I knew we would have to use weapons to fight an armed force.”
More accustomed to holding chalk than guns, she faced many difficulties in turning herself into a soldier. She had to transform herself physically and mentally during the military training.
“I was away from my family. I couldn’t support or take care of them the way I did before. It wasn’t easy being a woman in military training,” she said.
“But I am prepared to face any obstacle to overthrow the military dictatorship,” she added.
The Yaw PDF was formed five months after the coup. From the beginning, it has included CDM doctors and teachers who received military training from ethnic armed groups.
Its goal is to uproot the military dictatorship and replace it with a new federal democracy that guarantees equality among all ethnic groups. It seeks to achieve autonomy and peace in a country that has long deprived its people of both.
‘I believe in the NUG’
Unlike many other PDFs, the Yaw PDF is part of a nascent federal army being formed by Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government (NUG). It reports directly to the NUG’s Ministry of Defence and is under its command structure.
It is also one of several resistance forces active in the area. It has cooperated with a number of these other groups to carry out 30 missions, including ambushes and landmine attacks.
Like other armed groups that have been formed since last year, the Yaw PDF manufactures many of its own small arms and explosives.
It also manages its own recruitment. Those who wish to join must pass an entrance interview and take a medical examination. Minors are not accepted.
Because it depends on donations from the public, its finances are limited. What it needs most of all, according to Swe Lay, are more and better weapons.
Despite the many challenges that Myanmar’s resistance groups face, Swe Lay is confident that they will succeed in creating a democratic, federal union.
“I believe in the NUG. I count on the NUG. I just hope the NUG will supply weapons as soon as possible,” she said.
To those who are having doubts, she said not to give up. She also assured them that those who are fighting for Myanmar’s freedom from oppression are doing their best.
As for her own future, she was less certain.
“Anything can happen once you chose this path. So I don’t think much about being back in the classroom with the children like before,” she said.