14 Jun 2024

Myanmar’s regime retreats as Gen Z rebels advance

Foreign Affairs Correspondent

Myanmar’s military has long dominated the country’s political life, but now faces its most sustained threat ever.

Wearing flip-flops and shorts, “Cobra,” a young rebel commander, darts between alleyways in the largely deserted city of Loikaw, capital of Karenni State. Resistance forces now control the vast majority of this part of eastern Myanmar. Soldiers from the ruling military regime are pinned back to just a handful of locations, but their snipers still remain a threat.

In places, the frontlines are just a few hundred metres apart.

“We can hear their soldiers swearing at us before they open fire,” one teenager fighter tells me as he gazes out of a window of an abandoned villa being used as an outpost.


The rebels are massively outgunned by the regime. “They have fighter jets and tanks, we just have our spirit,” Cobra tells us.

But against all odds, it’s the resistance that has the upper hand.

Myanmar’s military has long dominated the country’s political life, but following a deeply unpopular coup three years ago, it now faces its most sustained threat ever.

The insurgency against the army began as peaceful protests. When soldiers killed hundreds of demonstrators, many fled to Myanmar’s jungle borderlands, forming armed resistance groups with the support of longstanding ethnic militias. A loose rebel coalition now controls more than half of the country, though the junta still hold all the major cities.

In Loikaw, not far from the border with Thailand, the skulls of dead regime soldiers lie in the streets, their bodies eaten by dogs. Not all the city’s inhabitants have fled. On its outskirts, we meet Zaw Hlaing Oo, a mechanic and his young family.

“We’ve got no money to go anywhere,” he explains helplessly.

A toy plastic gun lies on their porch.

“Our son sees the resistance fighters and insisted we buy him one,” says Zaw Hlaing Oo.

The rebels buy most of their weapons on the black market, they’re funded through donations by supporters. The regime, by contrast, is armed by its allies China and Russia.

Many inside Myanmar are bitter about the lack of foreign support for their revolution.

“We are just like the people in America, the people in Europe, we’re fighting for the same values: democracy… they’ve forgotten us,” says Maui, a former organic farmer, who’s now the deputy commander of the Karenni Nationalities Defence Force.

But he adds defiantly: “We the people of Myanmar are not waiting. With or without international support we must end this war.”

Customised drones

The revolution is driven by a mix of idealism and innovation. At a secret base, south of Loikaw, we meet a rebel unit customising commercial drones and fitting them with explosives. In an underground bunker, they show off a video, set to pumping heavy metal music, of recent successful strikes on regime forces, whilst in a makeshift workshop a 3D printer whirs into action, producing weapon parts.

Helping repair one of the unit’s most powerful models, normally used for spraying crops, is Ko Khant. He’s covered in tattoos, his body a tribute to his struggle, with the word “revolution” carved across his fingers and an image of the jailed politician Aung San Suu Kyi on his chest. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate was heavily criticised internationally for not speaking out against the military’s abuses of the Rohingya minority whilst in power, but domestically she’s still seen by many as a symbol of democratic hope.

Ko Khant used to work in digital marketing in Yangon, before joining protests against the coup. He’s part of Myanmar’s “Generation Z,” who grew up with a glimpse of greater democratic freedoms and connectivity to the outside world, only to see it snatched away as the military reasserted its dominance. “We just requested them to give us back our future but they didn’t listen… we want freedom.”

The regime labels fighters like Ko Khant “terrorists,” but it’s clear the movement has widespread popular support. On his arm he wears a tattoo of a flower emerging from the barrel of a gun. One day, he hopes not to have to fight any more.

For now, there’s no sign of an end to the bloodshed. Losing territory to rebel advances, and with its soldiers being killed or defecting, the regime has introduced a new conscription order, aiming to raise 5,000 recruits every month. The move has sent tens of thousands fleeing abroad, and has even pushed others to join the rebels, but it’s a sign of how determined the junta is to fight for its survival.

The regime isn’t trying to win hearts and minds, only to cow the population into submission. It denies deliberately targeting civilians but its soldiers have launched brutal campaigns of collective punishment targeting areas supporting the rebels, burning whole villages to the ground, launching airstrikes on hospitals and schools. Thousands of ordinary people have been killed, more than two million forced to flee their homes.

In February, a military jet struck a school in Daw Si Ei village whilst it was full of pupils. Their textbooks still lie amidst the debris, a child’s drawing hangs off a badly damaged wall. Four schoolchildren were killed, amongst them Hay Blute Moo’s 13-year-old son. At her home, a poster of the child adorns the bamboo hut, along with an image of a cake. He died just before his birthday.

“Parents ran from all over the village to check on their children,” Hay Blute Moo tells me, reliving the events of the attack.

“I was scared to go because the fighter jet was still flying overhead.”

Her other children, also pupils, returned home shortly afterwards. “I was feeling scared as I looked at them. I was crying. I told them to wait inside as I looked out for my eldest but he never came home.”

The brutality though only seems to strengthen the resolve of those opposed to the military. At the funeral of a young fighter, killed on the frontline in Loikaw, we catch up with Cobra the rebel commander. Dozens of his men have already been buried in the hilltop cemetery, but standing amidst their graves, he strikes a defiant tone.

“All of these guys gave their lives. We are fighting for our future. We will keep going for sure.”