Defying the military’s repression of the anti-dictatorship movement in Myanmar, a 24-year old protest leader has been leading rallies in rural Sagaing Region with the help of local defence forces for nearly four months.
The village demonstrations have come to represent not only the widespread public rejection of the junta, but the control over territory that resistance groups have gained throughout northwestern Myanmar.
Frequently at the forefront of these events is Than Kyaw Oo, chair of the Monywa University Student Union and member of the Monywa People’s Strike Committee.
He spoke with Myanmar Now on Tuesday about the need for both civil disobedience and armed resistance, the year ahead for the revolution, and the goal of achieving federal democracy.
Myanmar Now: Why are rallies being held in villages in Sagaing Region? How are the people responding to these events?
Than Kyaw Oo: It’s our duty to protest in Monywa town but we are focusing on the rural areas, because internet access has been cut off in many of these areas and people there may not be up to date with the current political situation.
In many of the places I’ve visited, the majority of the people and community leaders had given up participating in protests and are focusing more on armed resistance. They underestimated protests, in other words.
Over time, we managed to convince them to let us hold a trial rally. At the first rally, we tried to enlighten the people regarding the current political situation. Many civilians typically haven’t had much knowledge of politics, especially about federal democracy, which is our primary goal. That’s why we are trying to share with them what we know.
We explained why we were revolting against the dictatorship, what is currently happening politically, why the people need to come together as one, and why the people are the primary force that drives a revolution. We gave speeches on politics and fearlessness.
They soon began to believe that both armed resistance and protests were equally important in eradicating the dictatorship. The people began to understand that we couldn’t win this fight with armed resistance alone.
MN: What topics do you cover at these rallies?
TKO: Mainly the current political situation. We have recently acquired several political advantages. We talk about the political, military and diplomatic advantages we have over the dictatorship, and how the people’s support has brought several of these advantages.
Although the National Unity Government is acting as the front of the revolution, they’re not the leaders of this revolution. The people are the leaders of the revolution. The only reason we have made it this far is because of the people’s support. We try to focus our talks on that.
We also talk about why we are risking our lives to fight back against the dictatorship, and we tell them that armed resistance is a dangerous path and that we need the unity of the people to win this fight.
MN: Local defence forces are in charge of security at your rallies. What can you tell us about this?
TKO: Before every rally, I have to talk with village defence forces, village administration teams, and village leaders. We need to know what the villagers are like before we start each rally. The important thing is that we can’t just talk about fearlessness. We need to find out how much political knowledge the villagers have beforehand. We also need to find out what challenges the leaders are facing. After gathering all this information, we decide what to talk about.
Every time we meet with these leaders before rallies, they tell us that they will provide security for us and they ask us if they can be armed. We always agree to this as the people are more encouraged if they see the presence of armed resistance forces, so they follow us around in uniforms—armed with their handmade rifles—during our rallies.
MN: The military has been committing atrocities in the villages in Sagaing Region. However, if the local defence forces are providing security for anti-coup rallies and protests, does that mean that the resistance forces now have greater control over the region?
TKO: I’ve asked locals who are influential in these areas, and they have said that the military troops are mostly present in urban areas and outskirts, in order to maintain their administrative mechanisms. They have no control over the rural areas.
Our local defence forces have major control over those rural areas, at least through last year. In early 2022, the military started using the air force to carry out attacks, so that has become quite worrying. Normally, they wouldn’t dare to pass through these parts in cars as they fear getting attacked with explosives. They know that the local defence forces are here.
As well as not having control over rural areas, the military also is losing control of their own government mechanism. The local defence forces have demonstrated to us their influence over the area. One of the reasons why they are providing security for us is to demonstrate the solidarity that exists between the armed resistance forces and the community—not only to the people of Myanmar but also to the international community.
As for the control over the region, I think it’s safe to assume that the resistance forces have 80 to 90 percent control over the regions where they are now present. The military’s air force is really the main thing to worry about.
MN: Do you feel that the revolution will not be successful if there is only armed resistance and no public protests?
TKO: The first thing we need to acknowledge is that the General Strike Committee decided to divide the revolution into two parts. The first part is organising protests and political rallies in order to help make the public politically aware and keep the revolutionary spirit alive.
Another part is armed resistance, which would eventually completely overthrow the dictatorship. As the current chairperson of the Monywa Strike Committee, I deal with on-the-ground matters. In every rally, I try to emphasise the fact that no organisation can exist for very long without the support and trust of the people. The people’s trust is the only thing that is keeping the defence forces going. The same thing could be said about local defence forces in various villages.
The armed resistance cannot achieve its goals without the support of the people. The people need to back the armed resistance for it to thrive. Once people start losing faith in the revolution, the concept of the revolution itself will start to fall apart. Another obvious example is that without funding from the people, the resistance forces will no longer be able to fight.
MN: What do the locals think about the local defence forces and People’s Defence Forces (PDFs) that accompany you to these rallies?
TKO: They greet and welcome them wholeheartedly. They regard the defence force members as the ‘people’s soldiers,’ or people that put their lives on the line for the well-being of civilians.
The public understands that the local defence force members, including those in the PDF, are not getting paid and that they are living off of donations. They understand that they are trying their best, using whatever weapons they can get with these donations. That’s why people love and care for them.
MN: What do people say is their reason for revolting against the military council?
TKO: They don’t say much apart from the fact that they can’t stand being oppressed by the military. The military is committing atrocious crimes. The people have said that the only way to defeat the military council is through armed resistance because ‘their skulls are too thick’ to understand diplomacy.
They know how good things were during the administration of the government elected by the people. We had a five-year democracy, after all. People are able to compare the situation then with the situation now. It’s clear why they are revolting against the dictatorship: they don’t like to stand by and watch as the military commits atrocities. There’s no other reason.
MN: Children and senior citizens are also in attendance at your rallies. Can you comment on the ages of the people present?
TKO: I found that senior citizens are very highly motivated. They have even said that they need to fight back against the military that has been terrorising the whole country and has no humanity. Elderly men have said they are ready to give their lives, armed only with a sword.
Sometimes I even cry during these rallies, because of the contrast between the people living in cities and cronies that are only donating to the revolutionary forces to protect themselves, and the elderly people in the rural areas that are ready to risk their lives for this cause.
MN: It has been nearly one year since the military staged the coup. As a protest leader, what would you like to say to the people at this time?
TKO: I think it’s safe to say that the revolution is progressing as expected. People are still protesting in major cities. Even if there are no protest mobs, there are still small flash mob groups.
This just highlights that the people have been winning in the 2021 Spring Revolution. As our leaders have always said, this is a game where we bet our lives. If we lose, we will have no life or future to return to.
We can see this in the way that the military has been terrorising the country. If they lose, they’d lose everything too, including their own lives. That’s why they are not going to hold back in this fight, as it could destroy their lives, as well. In other words, both sides are wagering their own lives in this game.
The people of the country will have to go through much more suffering… so many more bad things are yet to come. I say this not because I want to discourage the people but so that they are able to prepare for the worst.
Last year, the people won. We need more of their support this year to continue fighting. The only reason we are winning today is because of this support. The armed resistance is becoming stronger because of the people’s support.
We need to sit tight and keep fighting. We need all of our bodies and souls to win this fight. This is the only way to achieve federal democracy.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Credit to Myanmar NOW