With homemade rifles, Myanmar self-defence groups take fight to junta

At makeshift factories hidden in Myanmar’s jungle, locals who have formed self-defence groups make rifles to take the fight to the military junta, but their homemade weapons don’t always hit the mark.

Myanmar has been in chaos and its economy paralysed since the generals ousted Aung San Suu Kyi’s government in February, accusing it of fraud during 2020 elections.

Several communities across Myanmar — especially in townships that have seen a high death toll at the hands of police — have formed local “defence forces”.

At one workshop in Kayah state near the Thai border, an amateur gunsmith — pieces of wood strewn around him, the sounds of saws and hammering in the background — prepares to fit a trigger guard.

Another applies the final touches to the stock with a sander, before examining the finished product: a bolt-action rifle that would not look out of place in a WWI film. 

The performance of the homemade weapons is not always up to the exacting standards required in combat.

“One night, the military… shot at us with heavy artillery,” Ko John, a self-defence force member, told AFP.

Junta soldiers then closed to within 200-300 feet (60-90 metres) of the group.

“When we decided to shoot back at them, our guns did not fire as expected since they were homemade,” he said.

“We called for support from our two snipers and we shot eight rounds at them but only six rounds were fired properly.”

As well as the rise of local self-defence forces, analysts believe hundreds of anti-coup protesters from Myanmar’s towns and cities have trekked into insurgent-held areas to receive military training.

But part-time fighters know the odds are stacked against them in any confrontation with Myanmar’s military — one of Southeast Asia’s most battle-hardened and brutal.

Ko John described being overwhelmed by superior numbers and weaponry during one recent encounter.

“When we tried to capture the military camp, their helicopter arrived and the reinforcements from the helicopter shot down at us.”

Fighting has escalated in Kayah state in recent days, with locals accusing the military of using artillery shells that have landed in villages. 

After fleeing the clashes, Mar Ko, 36, and his family have been living in a makeshift shelter in the jungle for more than two weeks.

“The military shot at us with heavy weapons. That’s why we ran from there and stay hiding here,” he told AFP.

“Now we are running out (of food) and we need rice, salt and oil… For the curry, we eat whatever we have like banana stem and jackfruit.”

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