Under the cover of darkness, a group young insurgents moves slowly through a village located about halfway between the towns of Ayadaw and Wetlet in Sagaing Region. Their target is the police station in Shwe Pan Kone, a community of around 500 households located on the eastern bank of the Muu River.
The plan is to ambush some 30 junta troops based at the police station. And so, at around 4am on October 17, they prepared to carry out their mission.
There is a chill in the early morning air, but Kyaw Gyi, a 31-year-old member of a group called 96 Soldiers, is sweating as he awaits the signal to attack. He is less than 10 metres from a bunker located inside the police station compound, ready to fire an RPG launcher mounted on his shoulder. There are two other members of his team next to him, also bracing for the battle that is about to begin.
One of them is Nay Htet, 21, who Kyaw Gyi regards as a close comrade, despite the difference in their ages. Both took part in Yangon’s anti-coup protests, but didn’t meet until later, after they decided to join the armed resistance movement. They became friends while undergoing military training in a liberated area, and have been together ever since.
When the signal comes, Kyaw Gyi fires his weapon. His ears still ringing from the blast, he is engulfed in noise and chaos, as the police inside the station return fire with machine guns.
In the midst of this commotion, he hears someone shout: “Nay Htet is hit!” But by this time, Kyaw Gyi has already fallen back, so he’s not sure of the actual situation. He doesn’t know yet if his friend is seriously injured, or worse.
I was choked up. I couldn’t cry because we were still fighting. I should have been the one who got shot
Some members of their team provide cover so that others can extract Nay Htet. He is still alive. Kyaw Gyi is busy preparing for a second shot with the RPG launcher, but he wants to speak to Nay Htet before they take him away.
“I asked him if he was shot. He responded by standing still at first, and then he collapsed,” Kyaw Gyi recounted.
The two sides continued to clash for about an hour, until helicopters and jet fighters arrived and forced the resistance fighters to retreat. But even as the battle raged, Kyaw Gyi couldn’t stop thinking about his fallen comrade.
“I was choked up. I couldn’t cry because we were still fighting. I should have been the one who got shot,” he said.
Kyaw Gyi was exhausted and still in a daze of disbelief when he returned to his group’s camp and saw Nay Htet’s lifeless body laid out on a bamboo stretcher. He and one other resistance fighter had been killed.
Arrest and torture
The two men, a decade apart in age, had only known each other for about a year.
After meeting in a jungle training camp, they joined 96 Soldiers, a group that takes its name from the number of members it had when it was first formed. Although their camp was in Myanmar’s south, several members of the group decided to go north, to Sagaing and Magway regions, where the regime was facing staunch resistance to its rule.
It was in late June that Kyaw Gyi, Nay Htet, and a young female member of the 96 Soldiers group decided to embark on their own upcountry journey to an unfamiliar region.
They made it as far as Myit Chay, a small town in Magway Region located about 25km southwest of Pakokku. Not knowing the area at all, they set up camp at a spot that turned out to be near the local police station.
Soon discovered by police officers on patrol, they were taken into custody. They were beaten throughout their interrogation, but ultimately, it was photos on their phones that betrayed their involvement in the resistance movement.
Once their identities had been established, the Myit Chay police decided to send them to Pakokku. But when some members of a local Pyu Saw Htee group learned about their presence in the town—Myit Chay was, unbeknownst to the trio, a stronghold of the military-backed militia—they demanded that the police hand them over.
Luckily for them, that didn’t happen.