Ready for war: my journey from peaceful poet to revolutionary soldier

Days after the military coup in February 2021, demonstrations erupted across Myanmar. The military responded by shooting unarmed protesters with live rounds. People were beaten, arbitrarily detained and imprisoned.

On the frontlines of protests in Yangon in February and early March, I witnessed soldiers and police firing live rounds into crowds, and on 8 March, I was one of hundreds of protesters who were barricaded overnight on Kyun Taw Road in Yangon’s Sanchaung township, where soldiers and police went from house to house searching for people to arrest.

Witnessing the military’s atrocities and campaign of terror from the frontline, I realised that the only way to fight back was through armed revolution.

I am one of thousands of activists and young people from cities and towns across Myanmar to take up arms. Some joined existing armed groups – known as ethnic armed organisations – in the country’s border areas, where minorities have been fighting for self-determination for decades; others, like me, formed new revolutionary groups.

Bamar People’s Liberation Army recruits being trained. Photograph: Courtesy of BPLA

In the first week of March, I travelled to an area of Myanmar’s borderlands and joined a group of 17 people in establishing the Bamar People’s Liberation Army on 17 April.

As a poet and human rights activist, my revolutionary journey has been very tough. We must overcome our ego, homesickness and intellectual pride. Our trainers always told us that we must fight a revolution within ourselves before we can fight a revolution against others.

Q&A What is the Reporting Myanmar series? In February 2021, Myanmar’s progress towards democracy was brutally stalled when the military seized power and took control of the country. In the year since, the country has been plunged into violence, poverty and mass displacement as the military attempts to crush widespread resistance to its rule. Internet blackouts, arbitrary arrests, a ruthless curtailing of freedom of speech and escalating military attacks on civilian areas have silenced the voices of people from Myanmar. For this special series, the Guardian’s Rights and freedom project has partnered with a diverse group of journalists from Myanmar, many working in secret, to bring their reporting on life under military rule to a global audience. Journalists in Myanmar are working in dangerous and difficult circumstances, as the military government attacks the free press and shuts down local media outlets. Many reporters still inside the country fear arrest, with others forced to leave their homes and go into hiding in areas increasingly under attack from military forces. All the reporting in this series will be carried out by journalists from Myanmar, with support from the editors on the Rights and freedom project. These are the stories that journalists from Myanmar want to tell about what is happening to their country at this critical moment. Show Hide

During the three months of training, we ran drills and studied the battlefield and governance systems without rest from 4am to 10pm. To train our minds and bodies to become stronger, we were only allowed two meals a day, limited to five minutes, and we sometimes went days without eating. Outside food was also prohibited, and we were never able to fill our stomachs.

I spent more than six months in Yangon’s notorious Insein Prison. Recalling that time is like a nightmare

I have endured days under the scorching sun without a sip of water; I have also stood to attention under heavy rain to the sound of harsh commands that felt like hot liquid iron being poured into my ears, and have experienced the feeling that blows with a cane could fall on my hips at any time.

By the end of the training, my potbelly had disappeared and I had turned to skin and bones. I used to get tired just climbing three floors of stairs in my city apartment building; now, I am running up and down hilly jungle terrain. My mindset had also hardened. I had lived my entire life as an anti-war poet. But the former peacemaker who once could not stand even the sound of gunfire is now hungry for war. I believe we have no other choice.

This month, in an alliance with an ethnic armed organisation, we began active combat with the military, which is continuing.


‘I used to get tired just climbing stairs. Now I am running up and down hilly jungle terrain. My mindset had also hardened.’ Photograph: Courtesy of BPLA

My story as an activist goes back to around 2012. It was the early years of the country’s political transition, and I was elected as a representative under Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) for a youth working group in Yangon.

In 2015, while campaigning for the NLD for November’s general elections, I was jailed under charges of defamation for writing a satirical poem about having a tattoo of the president, Thein Sein, on my penis. I spent more than six months in Yangon’s notorious Insein Prison. Recalling that time is like a nightmare. I was repeatedly interrogated, without breaks for eating, and subjected to mental torture.

I was released in May 2016. It was just three months after the NLD government was sworn in to parliament, where they shared power with the military under the rules of a constitution drafted by the military in 2008.

Since my release, I have continuously dedicated myself to promoting freedom of expression and equal rights. In 2016, I began advocating to amend the Telecommunications Law. Introduced in 2013, the law criminalised defamation over telecommunications networks and saw more than 250 people, including 37 journalists, charged during the NLD’s term.

In January 2018, I founded Athan (Voice), a research-based activist organisation focused on promoting freedom of expression, media freedom and access to information rights in Myanmar.

When I joined the NLD, it was with the hope and expectation that they could bring human rights and justice for everyone in Myanmar when they came to power. But in October 2018, I resigned from the party due to my different views from Aung San Suu Kyi on the state of press freedom in the country, and particularly her decision not to speak out for the rights of the Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who were jailed in relation to their coverage of the military’s massacre of 10 Rohingya people in Rakhine state.

‘To train our minds and bodies, we were only allowed two meals a day. Sometimes we went days without eating.’ Photograph: Courtesy of BPLA

During the NLD’s five-year term, I openly criticised party leaders over oppression of minorities including the Rohingya, restrictions on press freedom and freedom of expression, a prolonged internet shutdown in Rakhine and Chin states, and their failure to speak out against human rights abuses openly committed by the military.

I also played a leading role in numerous activist campaigns for the rights of journalists, activists and oppressed minority groups including the Kachin, Karenni, Arakanese and Rohingya.

On 8 November 2020, the NLD again won a landslide victory in general elections, and the newly elected government was set to convene parliament on 1 February. The military, whose party suffered a humiliating loss, had refused to accept the election results, and its commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing had already warned that the military might “take action” if its claims of election irregularities were not addressed. Still, I didn’t really believe Min Aung Hlaing would dare to stage a coup.


It became clear to me that the coup had happened at 4am on 1 February, when I received a call that two friends and fellow activists had been arrested by the military. Soldiers came to arrest me too, but fortunately I was not at home.

We also seek to ensure that, if Aung San Suu Kyi is released, that no political compromises are made in the name of stability

On 11 February, I joined people from different ethnic groups, including the majority Bamar group to which I belong, in forming the General Strike Committee of Nationalities. We called for the repeal of the 2008 constitution and the establishment of a federal democratic union – demands that were eventually supported at the national level.

On 1 April, a body of elected parliamentarians operating in exile announced the abolition of the 2008 constitution and establishment of an interim National Unity government based on a federal democracy charter. It marked the early stages of a shift in people’s mindsets.

The public abandoned the idea that we must endure whatever the military does to us and make compromises according to the military’s demands. Instead, this Spring Revolution has shown a commitment to root out nationalism and religious extremism, and has also pushed to end gender discrimination, patriarchy and military dictatorship once and for all.

The BPLA training camp. ‘Our trainers told us we must fight a revolution within ourselves before we can fight a revolution against others.’ Photograph: Courtesy of BPLA

Among the objectives of the Bamar People’s Liberation Army are to end the dominance of Bamar Buddhists over other ethnic groups and to strengthen the unity of Myanmar’s diverse ethnic groups under a federal democratic union.

We also seek to ensure that, if Aung San Suu Kyi is released from house arrest, no political compromises are made under the name of state stability.

If this Spring Revolution, in which people from all social strata have participated with unity and solidarity, cannot lead to the establishment of a new federal democratic union that can guarantee peace and democracy, then justice and equality will still be far off in Myanmar.

Maung Saungkha is a poet, human rights and freedom of expression activist. In April, he co-founded the Bamar People’s Liberation Army

Translated by Nu Nu Lusan; additional editing by Emily Fishbein

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