Members of the Tanintharyi People’s Defence Force march towards Tanintharyi Township’s Ban Law village, now under resistance control, on October 17.

Inside the ‘liberated’ villages of Myanmar’s deep south

Pictures by photojournalist Mar Naw capture life in resistance-controlled areas of Tanintharyi Region, where anti-junta groups have established parallel health and education systems but also allowed harmful mining operations to continue.


Tanintharyi Region, in Myanmar’s deep south, has not had the pitched battles seen in Shan and Kayah states or Sagaing Region. Nonetheless, the resistance has wrested swathes of countryside from the military in Tanintharyi, especially in the township of the same name along the border with Thailand.

On a recent trip to “liberated” areas of Tanintharyi Township, Frontier found the military and its state apparatus to be almost completely absent. In place of regime soldiers, villages and roads were patrolled by People’s Defence Force fighters, who took up arms to fight the 2021 coup.

The veteran Karen National Union, whose Brigade 4 is headquartered near the Thai border in Dawei Township, is the most powerful armed group in the region but has ceded control of some, mostly Bamar, villages to the Tanintharyi PDF. Brigade 4 has also mentored PDF fighters and fought some battles alongside them, but it has been more cautious than KNU brigades elsewhere in Myanmar. This has inhibited the resistance war in the region, but also created a space for other groups to grow.

Ko Star, leader of the Tanintharyi PDF, told Frontier they work with an assortment of armed groups, including the recently resurrected Communist Party of Burma, who together control 80 percent of the township.

The population appears to have welcomed the nascent resistance administration, which includes courts and jails as well as fledgling healthcare and education systems.

The schools are staffed by experienced teachers who refused to serve under the new junta, instead quitting their government jobs and joining the Civil Disobedience Movement. They follow a curriculum set by the National Unity Government, the parallel administration established by ousted lawmakers in the coup, to which the Tanintharyi PDF is aligned.

There are comparatively few clashes in the township, but Frontier encountered people displaced by fighting elsewhere in the region.

Otherwise, life in resistance-controlled areas goes on largely as normal. Sadly, this includes continued mining operations that are destroying the environment. In Thaboleik village, poorly regulated lead mining has created an apocalyptic landscape of craters and blocked or polluted the waterways. The main difference is that it’s now a KNU-appointed committee, not the junta, that grants mining concessions.

The Myeik PDF parades in Ta Ku village on October 13 to mark the completion of a basic training programme for resistance fighters.
Tanintharyi Township’s Thaboleik village on October 22. The village is one of the few Bamar-majority villages controlled by the Karen National Union and is home to lucrative – but environmentally damaging – lead mining operations.
Students attend lessons in a crowded school run by teachers following the National Unity Government curriculum in Tanintharyi Township’s Ta Ku village on October 13.
People displaced by conflict receive food from a local volunteer group in Ta Ku village on October 14.
Tanintharyi PDF members put their ammunition out to dry in the sun in Thaboleik village before heading to battle on October 22.
Prisoners in a resistance-run jail in Ta Ku village on October 14. Resistance authorities say most of the prisoners in the region’s ‘liberated’ areas are jailed for drug-related offences.
A young woman pans for lead near a mining site in Thaboleik village on October 15.
An injured PDF soldier receives treatment at a clinic in Ta Ku village on October 12.
Tanintharyi PDF fighters near Ta Ku village board a boat heading to the front line near Maw Taung, a border crossing with Thailand, on October 21.

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