Tanintharyi PDF fighters patrol a village in Tanintharyi Region on October 17. (Mar Naw | Frontier)

‘We’re not standing still’: Taking the fight to Tanintharyi


Cooperation among armed groups has allowed the resistance to carve out strongholds in Myanmar’s deep south, but a discrepancy in firepower helps the junta hold on.

The resistance fighters spent a restless night under the palm trees, with strict orders not to make a sound or use any lights.

“The firepower of the Myanmar military is too strong and their reinforcements can arrive quickly,” a Karen National Union lieutenant explained in whispers. “If we can’t take the camp quickly, it won’t be good for us.”

At 5am on October 19, the silence was broken by the first explosion, from a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, and the tranquility of the Tanintharyi Region forest gave way to the chaos of war.

Soldiers in the outpost opened fire with automatic rifles while the resistance unleashed a bombing barrage with two drones. Originally designed to spray chemical fertiliser on farmland, the agricultural drones had been repurposed to overthrow a military dictatorship. But during its eighth bombing run, one of the drones failed to return, presumably shot down or incapacitated by a jammer – a loss of 100,000 Thai baht, over US$2,700.

After two hours of fighting, which left one resistance member dead, the KNU lieutenant gave the order to retreat, knowing military reinforcements would arrive soon.

The mood of the troops on the way back to their village in Myeik Township was sour. “The mission failed,” said a member of the Myeik People’s Defence Force. “It’s too early to talk about taking the cities, it’s still difficult for us to seize a military camp. The difference in firepower is too big.”

The military seized power in a 2021 coup, deposing the elected National League for Democracy government, before violently dispersing peaceful protests. In response, anti-regime militias broadly known as PDFs formed across the country, often cooperating with more established ethnic armed groups like the KNU.

Resistance fighters prepare to travel to the front line on small boats from a village in a “liberated” area of Tanintharyi Region on October 21. (Mar Naw | Frontier)

While resistance forces might not yet be ready to take towns in Tanintharyi, Frontier’s recent trip to Myanmar’s southernmost region showed a stunning lack of military control in rural areas. From the moment we crossed the border into Tanintharyi Township, about a week before the battle in Myeik, we encountered not the yellow, green and red of the flag of the Union of Myanmar – introduced by the previous military regime in 2010 – but the red, white and blue of the Karen.

Soon after, we were eating wild boar curry with the young men of the Tanintharyi PDF at a small camp. The outpost previously belonged to the KNU, until the local commander joined the Kawthoolei Army (KTLA), which split off from the KNU last year.

But despite some lingering bad blood, this camp is freely used by the KNU, KTLA and PDFs, as are many of the outposts along the Thailand-Tanintharyi border.

Some 30 minutes away from the camp sits the Maw Taung-Prachuap official border gate, which is still controlled by the junta and is an important conduit for the seafood trade. After lunch, we loaded up the car and drove onto the road.

“We need to be careful while we pass through the Maw Taung area. There are sometimes military checkpoints,” said Ko Sea, a member of the Tanintharyi PDF. “But don’t worry, after Maw Taung, the road is under our control.”

A prisoner sits in a makeshift jail in a Fire Service Department building in a “liberated” village in Tanintharyi Region on October 12. (Mar Naw | Frontier)

On the road again

As we drove through a seemingly never-ending row of oil palm plantations lining both sides of the road, Ko Sea’s claim appeared to be correct. Fierce clashes had broken out along this stretch in April this year, lasting for two weeks and culminating in the military withdrawing. The roughly 50 miles of road connecting Maw Taung to the Union Highway was now in resistance hands.

“We could attack Maw Taung, but the fallout would be worse than the benefit because it would destroy border trade,” said a KTLA lieutenant, who explained that resistance groups also profit from border trade. “Also the Thai government doesn’t want fighting on its border.”

The oil palm plantations were previously owned by military-linked companies, before being seized by the resistance groups, who gave them over to private companies to manage while taking a monthly tax.

We passed through four KNU checkpoints on the road, which was also patrolled by armed KNU troops on motorbikes. A steady stream of trucks passed us going in the opposite direction, heading to the border loaded with popular exports like fruit and seafood, paying tolls at each checkpoint.

Several vans packed tight with people seeking work in Thailand and Malaysia also ply the road, paying tolls to the KNU. Locals refer to these vans as “balloon cars”, because the migrant workers are like untethered balloons being buffeted by heavy winds.

The KNU’s Brigade 4 is the most powerful armed actor in the region, with five battalions and a headquarters in Dawei Township’s Chaungwa village, near the border with Thailand. But it has a somewhat complicated relationship with other resistance actors because it has continued to mostly honour a local ceasefire with the military, despite the central KNU leadership saying it was voided by the coup.

Brigade 4 leaders have been accused of prioritising business interests such as mining, logging, casinos and border trade over the uprising against the military. But this has also created a space for other groups to grow.

The KTLA was formed last year, after its leader Nerdah Bo Mya admitted to overseeing a 2021 massacre of 25 construction workers, who he claimed were military spies. He refused to submit to a KNU investigation, striking off on his own instead.

Students take the matriculation exam at an NUG-run school in Tanintharyi Region on October 13. (Mar Naw | Frontier)

While KTLA may have ignoble origins, many troops in Tanintharyi have switched sides because they are frustrated with Brigade 4’s inaction, in contrast with the KTLA’s hardline approach.

But here in Tanintharyi Township, Frontier observed that most foot soldiers from the different factions are on friendly terms and work together. While Brigade 4 may not be confronting the regime as openly as some want, it has helped found five PDF battalions, and as seen in Myeik, leads some operations against the military.

“Brigade 4 assisted us in many ways, but they don’t always provide clear military leadership,” Ko Sea said. “We don’t want any conflict with them, since they are our mentors, even though their truce with the military hinders our ability to operate freely in many areas.”

Ko Star, leader of the Tanintharyi PDF, said he expects fighting to intensify soon, and remains convinced the resistance can prevail in Tanintharyi.

“We’re quiet but we’re not standing still,” said the politician turned resistance fighter. Ko Star was once the chairman of the NLD’s Tanintharyi Township chapter, winning a seat in the regional parliament during the 2020 election, which the military refused to recognise.

“If the KNU’s Brigade 4 fully supported the resistance, we could easily take over the cities and quickly liberate the entire region,” he claimed.

Locals liberate themselves

Rather than taking the road all the way to the Union Highway, where military influence begins, we headed for the rural heart of Tanintharyi Township in the Tenasserim Hills. The muddy roads forced us to swap the car for motorbikes, managing two river crossings by boat, before arriving in a village tract resistance groups claim as a “liberated area”.

While the KNU’s guidance has been crucial, many also credit the local armed groups who have risen up to expel junta troops from their communities.

One of the strongest groups in Tanintharyi Township is known as the Bat Ma Laik militia, which also participated in the October 19 battle in Myeik. The name, which translates to “non-aligned group” is a bit of an anachronism. Like many localised resistance forces, it was formed independently and organically by members of the community, but has since come under the authority of the National Unity Government, a parallel administration appointed by elected lawmakers deposed in the coup.

The group was founded by a local veteran soldier, U L Gyi, who commanded the Communist Party of Burma’s Tanintharyi unit even after the party imploded in 1989, but he eventually gave up and disbanded the unit in 1994.

“I was living away from politics and war for many years, I wasn’t even involved with any political party before the coup. But the coup shocked me again, so I jumped back into the armed resistance,” he told Frontier.

After the coup, he gathered the young men in his village tract and began launching attacks on regime positions, like police stations and government offices, using homemade guns. The success of their resistance led U L Gyi to be appointed head of the Tanintharyi Township People’s Administration Team, the NUG’s local civilian governing body.

The leader of the Bat Ma Laik militia L Gyi, in a blue shirt, commands his troops on their way to the front line in Tanintharyi Region on October 21. (Mar Naw | Frontier)

The claims of liberation did not appear unfounded. Every day, Frontier saw young PDF troops openly patrolling the villages in uniform. Resistance fighters in nearby village tracts even sometimes retreated here for refuge, because of its reputation as a stronghold.

Frontier saw a Fire Service Department building transformed into a makeshift prison, which resistance police said mostly hosts drug dealers.

We also witnessed a matriculation exam at an NUG-run school, with over 150 students taking a standardised test on smartphones. Each student logs onto a website launched by the NUG’s education ministry and answers multiple choice questions within a limited time frame.

“The system is really easy and there are no other complications with paperwork. It also reduces the possibility of human error and burdens for the teachers,” said the school’s teacher, one of tens of thousands who went on strike rather than working for the military regime.

Though resistance forces claim the military can’t penetrate into this area, the regime has found ways to make life difficult for ordinary people. Electricity has been cut, aside from a few generators, while locals struggle to get enough rice and gasoline.

In the second week of October, military forces allegedly blocked a truck carrying 200 bags of rice from entering the resistance-controlled area.

“Prices went up and our agriculture businesses are struggling. Even though there isn’t heavy fighting here, we are still suffering the impacts of war,” said a betel nut farmer in the village tract.

The day after the failed assault on the military camp in Myeik, the undeterred Bat Ma Laik group and PDF allies were already preparing for the next battle. They gathered at the port of their liberated village, loading equipment onto the small boats that would take them up river to the front lines of the Tanintharyi conflict.

Residents of the village came out to see them off, donating food and drinks. As the boats pulled away from the port, the fighters turned back to the villagers, flashing the three-finger pro-democracy salute.

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