KNDF troops on the streets of downtown Loikaw on January 2. (Andrew Nachemson | Frontier)

‘We’ll never give up’: The fight for Loikaw

The assault on the Kayah State capital has largely stalled, but it has forced the Myanmar military to recall troops from elsewhere and allowed resistance groups to consolidate control over most of the state.


When the Karenni Nationalities Defence Force launched its surprise attack on the Kayah State capital Loikaw on November 11, it made quick progress through the Myanmar military’s defensive lines, sweeping across the northern half of the town.

But then the military regrouped, turning the battle into a slog. As 19-year-old KNDF fighter Khu Reh and his unit approached a block of government housing on November 25, he found out first-hand the regime wasn’t going to give up Loikaw without a fight. Coming under heavy fire, they bunkered down, but two days later the military started launching artillery from multiple directions at once.

“My comrade got hit in the arm so I told him to give me his gun and helped him retreat,” Khu Reh told Frontier during an interview at a KNDF Battalion 12 camp, around 25 kilometres north of Loikaw, on December 30. “But after a while, I felt dizzy and lightheaded, and when I touched my head, my hand was covered in blood.”

Due to the surge in adrenaline, he hadn’t even noticed he’d been struck by artillery in the head and leg. A doctor was able to stitch up his head wound, but bits of shrapnel remain embedded in his leg today.

Khu Reh was a 16-year-old high school student when the military seized power in February 2021, overthrowing the elected National League for Democracy government. Like millions of others, he took to the streets to protest, marching in Loikaw in his school uniform – a white button-down shirt and green longyi.

The peaceful protests he joined were met with tear gas, while others faced live rounds as the military gunned down hundreds across the country. The brutal crackdowns provoked an armed uprising, with newly-formed anti-coup militias like the KNDF teaming up with ethnic armed groups like the Karenni Army that have been fighting for political autonomy for decades. 

As of September, the United Nations estimated that 1.7 million people have been displaced by fighting since the coup, including 108,000 in Kayah.

Khu Reh fled the crackdowns and sheltered at a charity home for the elderly, but by December 2021 he was angry enough to join the fight.

“I heard some of my friends were killed by the military, and I got so angry I contacted the KNDF and said I wanted to join,” he recalled. “Sometimes I feel afraid or nervous, but what motivates me is the memory of my friends, and the many, many other young people who have given their lives in this war.”

Khu Reh was just 17 when he took up arms, but said he had the tacit approval of his parents.

“No parent ever likes their child going to war,” he said. “They’re really worried about me but they never tell me not to do it. They just tell me to always be careful and safe.”

KNDF fighter Khu Reh, 19, who was injured by artillery fire in Loikaw in November. (Andrew Nachemson | Frontier)

‘Harder than expected’

The initial shock and awe of the Loikaw assault allowed the KNDF to quickly reach the heart of the capital, but since then the offensive has stalled. When Frontier visited the downtown area on January 2, the military was dug in only a few blocks from Loikaw University, which Karenni forces had seized on November 15. 

KNDF deputy commander Marwi admitted that the military had even won back some ground in recent weeks, and said the KNDF had lost 60 troops statewide since the operation began – a huge leap in the death toll.

“The airstrikes and mortar attacks are very hard for us to deal with… In Demoso they would fire three or four, but in Loikaw it’s 50 at a time and all we can do is hide,” he said, referring to a town just south of Loikaw that saw clashes in 2021.

Fighting was in a lull during Frontier’s Loikaw visit, the eerie silence only broken by the occasional crackle of gunfire. Marwi said both sides were recovering and resupplying after weeks of heavy fighting that had destroyed many buildings downtown. “To take down Loikaw we will need more resources and ammunition,” he said.

But at Khu Reh’s camp north of Loikaw, there was a massive crater about 50 meters from where the soldiers slept. He said it was from a shell fired just a few days before. The morning after Frontier arrived, on December 31, his unit awoke again to the steady drumbeat of heavy artillery less than eight kilometres away. 

Htoo Kyaw Oo, the 42-year-old commander of Battalion 12, explained that the KNDF had ousted the military from a nearby stretch of National Highway 5, in order to cut off supplies to the military forces holed up in Loikaw. However, the regime soldiers had regrouped in the nearby forests and were now trying to reclaim the road.

The regime controls the highway running south from Loikaw to Hpasawng town and onwards to Kayin State, although even there the troops are regularly harried by ambushes and IED attacks. The stretch north of Loikaw, however, is much more contested. A new front was opened just this week when the Pa’O National Liberation Army joined resistance groups in attacking Hsi Hseng town in southern Shan State, 60km to the north.

Attempts to choke off the military in Loikaw have come amid growing recognition that the initial effort to take the town had faltered.

“It’s been a lot harder than expected. The military hasn’t given up easily,” Htoo Kyaw Oo said of the assault on Loikaw, which has claimed the lives of five troops from his battalion. “But we have to keep fighting until the end. We’ll never give up. Loikaw is the capital so we need to take it for our state to be free.”

KNDF Battalion 12 commander Htoo Kyaw Oo pictured at his camp in northern Loikaw Township on December 31. (Andrew Nachemson | Frontier)

‘Small but strong’

The resistance-aligned Karenni State Police stood guard at a checkpoint on the northern outskirts of Loikaw, offering us beef curry and beer seemingly smuggled from China. Some of them played the guitar and smoked cheroots while explosions echoed from inside the town.

The KNDF said the assault on the capital was first launched via this road, as evidenced by the burned-out wreckage of a nearby police station. 

Lay Win Oo, the KSP officer in charge of the checkpoint, had served in the Myanmar Police Force in Loikaw before the coup, but walked out in protest soon after. 

“I don’t want to kill them or arrest them, I just want them to lay down their guns and join the people,” he said of his colleagues still serving in the regime’s police force. “I think they should join us because we still need more people in this revolution and we will need them to develop our state after the revolution. They can still be useful for us.” 

After the 33-year-old fled the force in March 2021, he and 40 other police defectors founded the KSP in August that year. He said since then, another 30 police from Kayah have defected and around 30 from other parts of the country have travelled to join them as well.

Lay Win Oo said switching sides was an easy decision for him, because he was already disillusioned with the police force before the coup.

“When I was a police officer, I really didn’t like the military already because of the very rigid and harsh hierarchy and authoritarian nature,” he said. “If you’re higher up, you press down on the people below you.”

After defecting, he spent several months hiding in the forest with the swelling ranks of new resistance fighters.

“I wasn’t worried for myself, only for my family. It was dangerous for them because they could get arrested instead of me,” he said.

For now, the KSP functions largely as an extension of the KNDF, manning checkpoints and guarding prisoners of war, alleged spies and the occasional criminal gang leader. But while the resistance administration is still being built, Marwi said the regime’s has crumbled.

KNDF deputy commander Marwi looks down at the floating bodies of Tatmadaw troops in a lake in downtown Loikaw on January 2. (Andrew Nachemson | Frontier)

“We’ve already collapsed their governance in Loikaw. There’s no administration; they can’t govern anything,” Marwi said. “Their staff have already fled. Only our troops and their troops remain.”

Rocco Luka, deputy chairman of the Demoso People’s Defence Force, said the capital has also been cleared of military informers.

“There are no spies in Loikaw because we killed them all already,” he said, briefly laughing before straightening his face.

“Actually, I don’t want to kill anybody, but my people are suffering, my children are suffering,” he said. “I call all my soldiers my children.”

Wearing a cowboy hat with a pistol strapped to his hip and a bottle of whisky in hand, it was no surprise to hear Rocco Luka had spent four years in Texas. But the transformation of this friendly, middle-aged car repair shop owner into a guerrilla fighter was more remarkable.

“Here, everyone is a soldier,” he said. “Our state is small but strong.”

Like many other prominent dissidents, Rocco Luka said he’s facing multiple arrest warrants, and his home in eastern Demoso Township was burned down by the military.

“No problem,” he said of his lost home. “When we win, we will build again.”

There will be much rebuilding to do. Military defeats in the state have left a trail of destruction. The paved road connecting Demoso with Moebye in southern Shan is lined with the rubble of buildings levelled by artillery and air strikes. Pan Tein village, on the main road in southern Kayah’s Mese Township, is similarly obliterated, its once proud church riddled with holes and off-limits due to unexploded ordnance.

A KNPLF fighter mans a bunker in Demoso Township on December 31, one day before he’s scheduled to be sent to the frontlines in Loikaw. (Andrew Nachemson | Frontier)

‘Everything needs to change’

The assault on Loikaw comes amid a shift in the post-coup conflict, with resistance groups increasingly seizing and holding major towns. This shift began in late October, when the Three Brotherhood Alliance of ethnic armed groups routed the military regime across northern Shan, seizing a number of towns and border crossings with China.

Believing the military had lost the will to fight, other resistance forces launched their own offensives to varying degrees of success. Some of them captured towns in mountainous Chin State, on the Indian border, and in Sagaing Region in Myanmar’s central Dry Zone. In other places, like Loikaw, the military has mounted a surprisingly fierce defence. 

But in order to defend Loikaw, the regime has had to recall troops from across Kayah, allowing the KNDF to consolidate control over previously contested areas of the state, such as Mese.

“Before the Loikaw operation there were a lot of troops in Mese but when we started to fight in Loikaw they had to come here to defend it,” Marwi said, adding that a similar dynamic had played out in eastern Demoso.

He said it’s crucial for displaced civilians from these areas to return home, in order to feel a semblance of normalcy and to plant their crops. 

“Thousands and thousands of IDPs have the chance to go back to their houses and their farms to grow rice again,” he said.

Many areas of Kayah remain depopulated, but life continues in others. While the downtown is empty apart from combatants, even on the peripheries of Loikaw, some farms, fresh markets and butchers are functioning. 

With resistance groups feeling victory in Kayah within reach, more thought is being given to the future.

“After this revolution succeeds, everything needs to change, the whole system, [including] the way we structure the police and military,” Lay Win Oo said. “Then I might be interested in continuing to work as a police officer, but not if it doesn’t change.”

Even during the decade of political reform before the coup, the police force remained firmly under the control of the military, which was itself autonomous from civilian oversight. 

Many young people like Khu Reh hardly remember the pre-2011 days of absolute military rule, but they heard horror stories from their parents. Having grown up in a period of relative freedom, they are determined to keep up the fight.

“Young people are giving their lives in the revolution and they aren’t asking for anything for themselves,” said Htoo Kyaw Oo. “They just want Myanmar to be a good country, with real democracy and peace.”

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