BANGKOK: Myanmar’s fearsome military is training militias to fight opposition to its rule, defectors and resistance members say, after attacks on junta troops intensified following a call for civilians to target the armed forces was issued by the government in exile earlier this month.
The Myanmar Army, known as the Tatmadaw, is one of the largest in Southeast Asia with an estimated 400,000 troops. It ousted the elected government in a coup in February, inflicting deadly violence on those protesting its rule.
Non-violent protests across the country against the junta then saw a series of bloody crackdowns from early March, with some protestors subsequently taking up arms, supported by army defectors.
“Defection is now growing like never before because soldiers and police are ashamed to be in uniform,” Maj. Hein Thaw Oo, who left Light Infantry Division No. 99 in late March and has since been training civilians, told Arab News via a messaging app last week.
“We know for sure that more than 1,500 soldiers defected so far,” he added.
While the armed resistance is increasing, and the exiled National Unity Government called for a “defensive war” against the junta in September, the army is forming pro-military civilian groups to crush it.
Last month, the State Administration Council was quoted by state media as discussing the “systematic formation of village people’s militias,” to take action against the NUG and its affiliate organizations.
“They might be armed,” Hein Thaw Oo said. “This is likely to counter the public opposition and public resistance to the military rule.”
Members of hardline, pro-military groups, known as Pyu Saw Htee, which in recent months targeted a number of lawmakers ousted by the junta, have been seen joining army training in Bago region.
“Some wards in Bago town are Pyu Saw Htee strongholds. It was not surprising to see they are so happy and eager to join such training,” said Kyaw Zeya, a former Bago lawmaker wholeads the People’s Defense Force, an umbrella of anti-junta groups.
“They are blood-thirsty thugs. Because of them, the junta was able to slaughter peaceful protesters back in March,” he told Arab News, adding that the Pyu Saw Htee have been training in large numbers. “Once they are armed, I can’t imagine how chaotic the situation will be.”
Located some 80 km from Myanmar’s largest city Yangon, Bago town, where junta troops killed dozens of people during peaceful demonstration in March, is seen as being of strategic value to both sides.
“The junta considers the resistance forces in Bago a major threat to its presence in Yangon,” a rebel leader from the region said on condition of anonymity. “They will do anything and everything to protect it.”
At least 1,121 civilians have been killed, and 6,718, including elected politicians, activists, medics and journalists, are currently detained in Myanmar, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners Burma, which tracks arrests and deaths following the military takeover.