Three months after the coup, four brothers tell how they joined the protesters who were fighting the junta before fleeing to the border
The youth only had a moment to study the river before running into the waist-high water. The brothers – aged between 15 and 21 – did not know the border region and were afraid of being seen. Fleeing the Myanmar military, they advanced to the Thaunggin River.
After just a few minutes of walking, they stumbled on no-man’s-land. Moments after crossing the river, three smugglers dressed in military uniforms found them. After delivering over 6,000 Thai baht ($ 200) and exchanging a few words, the smugglers drove them into the forest and then to safety in Thailand.
Three months after the military coup on February 1, four Burmese brothers told the Guardian how they were inspired to join the fight against the military – and how their involvement in the violent Yangon protests forced them to flee in late March.
Safe outside the country, the brothers reported on the brutal military repression and their decision to fight the military in an attempt to prevent further violence. The journey would take them from a peaceful protest in Yangon to the petrol bombing stations and running for their lives.
Lin *, 21, the eldest of the four brothers, said he had seen the coup from his home in western Thailand, near the border. Seeing the death toll rise amid growing military brutality, he felt compelled to join the resistance movement, and soon his three younger brothers and two cousins from different parts of Myanmar followed him to Yangon.
At 15, Za * is the youngest of the brothers. He said he participated in the resistance because he wanted to end street violence. “See how many people they have killed in the past two months. If we do nothing and just let it happen, many more innocent people will die, ”said Za.
Joining the protests
The men met in Yangon and in the early days joined the peaceful protests. Soon, they became part of a night surveillance team that protected residential neighborhoods from nighttime attacks by security forces. Armed with sticks and swords, they say they have helped women, children and the elderly to move safely.
As they continued to demonstrate, some teams of frontline protesters began to discuss the possibility of fighting back, says Lin. “People started saying that we need to strike back. But they did not know how and were afraid. ”Lin says he was concerned about what the Myanmar military, also known as Tatmadaw, expected.
They told how they joined a small minority of protesters on the front lines fighting security forces, using Molotov cocktails and slingshots in what they said was believed to be a legitimate form of self-defense against the military’s automatic weapons. But it was not without cost. During an attack on a police station, Lin said one of the team members died after being hit in the head by a rubber bullet. He was in his 50s.
“I don’t want my children to grow up in the same situation as my generation and the older generations,” says Moe *, 18, another brother.
The first attack
It was about 11 pm when the group carried out its first attack on a police station.
Lin describes how they moved towards the building, with more people joining the group as they approached. Some carried Molotov cocktails, others were armed with slingshots and swords, he says. But when the men approached the police station, the group hesitated.
Lin says: “At that time I was aggressive, I was crazy, no one was willing to throw the cocktail bomb. “I came back [to Yangon] thinking that I would be a peaceful protester … but if I needed to be something else, then I will be that too,” said Lin. “So I took the molotov and went up to the bridge [viaduct].”
The bottle fell right on top of a pile of garbage leaning against the building. The flames started to rise towards the roof, says Lin. “We wanted to scare them,” he says of Tatmadaw. “You make us feel insecure, so we want you to feel insecure too.”
Lin says that a truck full of Tatmadaw soldiers arrived and the group started to retreat. Images seen by the Guardian show tear gas bullets whizzing past them as they fled. The group could hear the sound of people celebrating in their homes as they ran by. “It was like we were coming back from the war.”
In the following days, the brothers, along with a handful of other teams, attacked several police stations. Lin says he doesn’t believe they hurt anyone in the attacks. They were unsuccessful in setting buildings on fire. He says the attacks were a psychological war and the men felt they had to show some degree of strength to contain the military.
‘We had to run’
The campaign continued until the day Lin said he heard that one of his friends had been kidnapped by security forces. “They contacted us and said that he died. They tortured and killed him, ”he recalls.
“We all had to run at that point. They said: ‘One of our boys is gone. We are running away now. You should, too. ‘”They agreed it was time to leave.
The brothers woke up early to begin their journey east, to Hpa-An, the state capital of Karen, near the border with Thailand. The day after they left his apartment in Yangon, a neighbor said that the police had searched him.
After hiding in Hpa-An for a few days, they finally got the call to leave. They would have to make the cross near Myawaddy, a city known for its casinos and entertainment venues. After only a few minutes of crossing the river, they stumbled across a no-man’s-land. Moments after crossing the river, three smugglers dressed in military uniforms found them.
Smugglers demanded payment in advance before moving the brothers to a secret location. After paying the troops, the group walked for another 20 minutes in the dark to a bunker where they were told to wait.
“We were afraid of them because they were strangers with guns and we were in their place,” said Htet *, 18, another of the four brothers. “If they wanted to do something, they could do it and we had nothing to stop it.”
At around 3 pm, they were told that it was finally time to leave. They walked a dirt path that would lead to a paved road, their guide told them. After more hikes on their own, they found their way out of the forest. They did it.
The group crossed the border at a time when the Myanmar military killed more than 550 people and detained nearly 3,000, according to the Association for Assistance to Political Prisoners.
“It was a difficult decision to come here. Even though we are safe and comfortable, we want to be back there. But it was very dangerous, ”says Lin.
“But the good thing was that I had my brothers. I would not have been able to handle it myself. “