Villages empty, civilian armed groups rise in eastern Myanmar

After the military began launching indiscriminate air attacks and shelling on her township of Demoso in Myanmar’s southeastern Kayah State, also known as Karenni, everyone fled to the jungle.

With only the clothes on her back and a small tarpaulin for ground cover, Mi Meh and the others from her village set up camp. When Al Jazeera spoke to her on May 27, she was running out of food and water, her clothes were drenched by heavy rains and she had not bathed in more than a week.

But the biggest concern for Mi Meh was her safety. “Jets often fly overhead,” she said. “We have a lot of women and children here … I really worry because [the military] doesn’t have humanity. They can kill us any time.”

Al Jazeera has used a pseudonym for Mi Meh, who like several people interviewed for this article, spoke on condition of anonymity because the military continues to arrest and kill those who criticise or oppose it.

Mi Meh’s township is among several across Kayah and neighbouring Shan State where locals have recently been forced to flee. According to UN estimates, between 85,000 and 100,000 people from Demoso, Loikaw and Hpruso townships in Kayah State and Pekon and Hsiseng in Shan State fled their homes in the 10 days following May 21, when fighting broke out between the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s military is known, and a civilian resistance group calling itself the Karenni People’s Defense Force (KPDF).

The KPDF is among dozens of civilian defence forces to emerge since late March, while decades-long conflicts between ethnic armed organisations and the Tatmadaw have also reignited. In the first two months following a February 1 military coup, millions took to the streets demanding a return to civilian rule, but the Tatmadaw’s continuous use of terror – it has so far killed 849 civilians and arrested more than 5,800 – has pushed increasing numbers towards armed resistance.

“Since the Burmese regime’s forces [Tatmadaw] are snatching and murdering innocent civilians arbitrarily, there’s no other option for the people but to defend themselves with whatever means they can get,” a local community leader in Kayah told Al Jazeera. “They [civilian defence forces] don’t have firepower like the Burmese regime’s forces … but they have the will and the determination to resist evil.”