Young people leaving lives behind for secret jungle missions

In Myanmar’s eastern Karenni State, the sleepy jungle town of Demoso has come alive with revolutionary fervour. In the burnt-red soil along the sides of the town’s main road, a transformation is under way. Newly made bamboo-and-wood-built shops and cafes have sprung up, and the talk in all of them is of one thing: resistance.

For decades, ethnic groups here have fought the military leadership that has ruled the South East Asian nation. A transition to democracy was cut short by a military coup three years ago, and since then, the town has become a magnet for young fighters and activists.

Robbed of their first taste of democratic freedom, they took to the streets and joined in acts of civil disobedience. They were met with violence and arrests.

Many left Yangon and other major cities for this remote jungle outpost to join the insurgency that is sweeping across the countryside.

In one new bar - Yangon Vibes - a long-haired rapper Novem Thu, 33, is on his second cocktail. Their specialty here is an electric blue margherita, but Novem Thu favours something darker. Around him the air buzzes with talk of the insurgents’ successes.

New bar Yangon Vibes serves cocktails in the jungle
New bar Yangon Vibes serves cocktails in the jungle [BBC]
Novem Thu
Rapper Novem Thu tries to motivate rebel fighters on the front line [BBC]

“There is only Plan A, destroying the military. There is no Plan B,” Novem tells me. He isn’t a soldier but spends most of his time with the resistance on the front line. “My job is to motivate them,” he says. His music is blood-curdling, and he brandishes a weapon in his videos - a toy gun from his brother, he tells me.

After sunset, Yangon Vibes pulls down blackout blinds over the bar’s bright lights, to avoid the military’s drones and war planes. This area has been bombed regularly. A revolutionary radio station, Federal FM, broadcasts from outside the town - using a mobile transmitter to avoid being targeted by airstrikes.

Most of Karenni is without electricity and the mobile network barely works - the military junta has cut off both. But the bar offers free internet, and so do cafes all along the main road, courtesy of the satellite service Starlink.

This is a generation that likes to stay connected and one that is mounting a nimble and effective war of resistance all from the cover of the jungle. Their insurgency is the greatest threat to military rule in Myanmar in years.

This is an under-reported conflict. The military restricts press freedom and has jailed hundreds of journalists. There is no way to hear the resistance side of this story through government-approved visits.

We travelled into Myanmar and spent a month living alongside resistance groups fighting across Karenni State.

On a dirt road outside Demoso we visit a hideout - a sanctuary for those fleeing the cities. Waiting in the small bamboo encampment is a group of eight young people, aged between 15 and 23, who have recently arrived. Many have travelled from far-away Yangon, along country roads at night.

An “underground railroad” has been established from Myanmar’s main cities, for those rebelling against the military’s new conscription law. It spirits them along clandestine routes, through safe houses and handlers, to Karenni and other resistance-held areas.

Some came by car, others by motorbike or boat, spending the night outdoors to try to avoid military checkpoints. At one, all the young people were told to get out of the car by the soldiers who then checked their papers and went through their phones. The young people had anticipated this and cleared their phones of anything incriminating. They were allowed to pass.

They almost look out of place in this wilderness. They are dressed in fashionable gear as they sit checking their phones, again thanks to Starlink, while cicadas buzz in the forest around them. One says he disguised himself as a villager, hiding his city clothes to avoid detection at a checkpoint.

The journey was hard, says Thura, “I had to spend that night sleeping with fear. It was a place I had never been or known. After that, they picked me up in the morning and brought me here safely.”

Names have been changed to protect the identity of those who spoke to us. Many of them still fear for their families back in the cities.

There is a burning sense of betrayal among them. They grew up during Myanmar’s transition to democracy, which began in 2015 after more than half a century of military rule. But the promise of freedom was snatched away with the military coup in 2021, which toppled the civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

Most of the group have completed the month-long basic military training offered by the armed opposition group, the Karenni Nationalities Defence Force (KNDF), which operates here.

The KNDF was established after the coup, and its leadership of a disparate grouping of Karenni resistance and ethnic groups, has pushed the troops of the military junta out of 90% of the state, it claims.

I ask one fighter, Thiha, why he has chosen to take up arms. He replies that he only has two choices - to fight for the military or to join the revolutionary forces.

“[If] I fight for [the army], I will be tormenting my own people and will be killing them,” he says.

There are those, however, who have chosen not to fight but to dedicate themselves to the revolution in other ways.

On a scorching hot day, we travel along a hillside track under the cover of the thick jungle canopy to reach a secret hospital which is treating civilians and fighters alike. It looks like no medical facility I have seen. On the outside there is a random collection of huts and shelters, but inside are scanners, X-ray machines and 60 hospital beds.

Subterfuge is essential, the previous hospital was bombed by the military.

Dr Yori works at a secret hospital
Dr Yori works at a secret hospital hidden in the rebel-held jungle [BBC]

I am met by 28-year-old Dr Yori, who fled here a year ago. What looks like a small, grey building, with newly planted vegetation camouflaging its roof turns out to be the entrance to an underground operating theatre. It is hidden away to stop the planes of the military junta bombing it, he tells me.

Men and women - many who have lost limbs - are lying on beds on a dirt floor in the recovery ward. The UN says Myanmar is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world and that injuries have soared since the coup.

The war has killed tens of thousands, many of them children. The military doesn’t distinguish between civilians and resistance fighters in opposition areas, it has labelled them terrorists and targeted both. In one nearby village, a family of six were killed in an airstrike - including a two-year-old and six-year-old child - in the days before I visited the hospital.

From another ward, the sound of a baby crying pierces through the drill of the cicadas from the jungle. They also deliver babies here. Before the war, and until the young revolutionaries arrived, medical facilities were in short supply in Karenni state. None of the medical staff here are local, they have come from all over the country.

Yori’s fiance Tracy is one of them. She is in the operating theatre, finishing surgery on a man wounded in an artillery strike.

The couple didn’t get a chance to finish medical school. They were final-year students in Yangon, and vocal critics of the coup. Tracy was a student leader. The military issued arrest warrants for both her and Yori.

Initially, they considered taking up arms but realised their medical skills would be of more use in Karenni state. Their hospital has been up and running for three months now and has 35 staff, almost all under 30 years of age.

As we sit in the makeshift hospital canteen drinking instant coffee, I ask how they cope with the hardships of jungle living and cope mentally with the terrible injuries they treat.

“The mentality of the patients, you just saw this this morning, they're very strong men. [That] impacts on us. Even amputated soldiers are fighting, still fighting, why should we quit?” says Yori.

Tracy agrees. “We can cry the whole day, that’s OK. But we have to stand up again. If we are not here, who will treat those patients?”

Yori and Tracy
Tracy and Yori have already postponed wedding plans twice [BBC]

As we finish our coffee, it strikes me that they are very far away from home, in a conflict that most of the world knows little about. Do they think Myanmar’s war has been forgotten, I ask.

“A little bit, yes,” replies Yori. “Because maybe other people from other regions of the world might think that this is just a civil war because we are fighting each other for no probable reason. But there is a reason we are fighting, and the reason is basic human rights.”

The couple were meant to get married last year, but an upcoming opposition offensive meant their hospital would have been full of casualties, so they postponed. A second wedding this month was also delayed for the same reason. “Maybe this December,” Yori says with a smile. “I hope so,” laughs Tracy.

Karenni’s official state capital, Loikaw, is all but abandoned to the war. Since November, the KNDF and junta forces have been locked in street battles.

On a hot day in April, the boulevards and parks of the city are silent, but for the sound of crows and the occasional rifle fire. Whole neighbourhoods have been destroyed by the military’s airstrikes, armed drones, and mortar and artillery fire.

The city’s main military base is full of soldiers and is still being resupplied by helicopter. But on the ground at least, the opposition forces have them surrounded.

Sam and Cobra are both in their early 20s, they have known each other for 13 years and went to school together in Loikaw. They became national karate champions, and moved to Yangon, but now they find themselves back in this contested capital, in front line positions facing the military. Their path to becoming armed revolutionaries is not uncommon among the young fighters for the KNDF.

Before the military coup, Cobra had moved from karate to mixed martial arts, and was making good money in Yangon as a trainer.

“After the coup, we were protesting peacefully,” he says. “Then the army starts shooting people and killing the people.” Sam says he was never political, until karate competitions took him overseas. “I was in Japan when I saw my country didn’t have to be the way it was.”

Sam and Cobra
Sam and Cobra have known each other since they were children [BBC]
Sam and Cobra were national karate champions
Sam and Cobra were national karate champions [BBC]

Cobra is wearing body armour, which surprises me, as it is difficult to find in Myanmar. None of the other armed resistance fighters I met had any.

It’s not real, he explains, opening the plate carrier to show me a homemade steel plate inside. “It won’t stop a bullet, but most of the injuries here are from shrapnel.” Every member of their squad has been injured, some multiple times.

According to some estimates, the military has lost control of between half and two-thirds of the country, as established armed resistance and ethnic groups have joined together to challenge its rule.

But in many respects, it is hard to fully comprehend the strength of the resistance in Karenni, so much of it is hidden along dark forest tracks, away from view in deep jungle camps and bases.

Maw Hpray Myar
Teacher Maw Hpray Myar uses music to drown the din of war for children in Myanmar's jungle [BBC]

It is not a place to wander freely, as landmines are a constant threat. But along one remote pathway, comes the sound of Mozart being played uncertainly on a violin. The violinist is 26-year-old Maw Hpray Myar, who fled her home. Gathered around her are dozens of schoolchildren following along on their own instruments.

Music is her weapon, and the Golden Flower Music School, is a place of safety for the children where the din of war is drowned out. The kids, 35 of them, range in ages from 14 to 20.

The war has disrupted so many lives and Maw Hpray Myar explains that this is her revolutionary service, keeping the children safe and distracted from the suffering around them. But the fighting can’t be ignored, and I ask her how she feels that some of her students may choose to leave here for the front lines.

“They sacrifice their bodies, their limbs, their lives,” she says. “And they have to leave their girlfriends and boyfriends behind to go to the front line. That shows their dedicated heart and how strong their beliefs are. I will always respect and honour the comrades.” When I suggest that some may never return she begins to weep.

Music school
The children are in a place of relative safety far from the front line [BBC]

At the end of the morning’s lesson, she leads the children in song, in English, it is called Nowhere To Go. “We need peace,” they sing. “We need justice like a river. The grief of this war must end, must end.”

These are wilderness years. No-one I met in Karenni state expects the conflict will end anytime soon. So, they do what they can, living their undercover existence, tending the sick, caring for children and joining the armed struggle.

They have left lives and families behind, but it is a worthwhile sacrifice, they say, to build the Myanmar they were promised.