Villagers in Myanmar fought security forces with catapults and crossbows along the Ayeyarwady river delta region on Saturday, with local media putting the death toll at 20. 

Clashes broke out before dawn on Saturday at Hlayswe, some 150 kms northwest of the main city of Yangon, when soldiers arrived for a search operation, local media outlets and residents said. 

Khit Thit Media and the Delta News Agency said 20 civilians had been killed and many others wounded. The media stated that villagers had tried to fight back the forces with catapults after soldiers allegedly assaulted residents, in what they said was a search for arms. 

State-run MRTV said security forces were allegedly attacked with compressed air guns and darts.  

The death toll put out by the local media, is the highest in a single day in nearly two months. It was one of the worst violence-hit days in the Ayeyarwady region, since the coup broke out. 

Ayeyarwady region is an important rice growing area that has large populations of both the Bamar majority ethnic group and the Karen minority. 

Post-coup flareups have been reported from the borderlands, where 25-30 ethnic rebel armies have been waging war against the State since decades.  

The junta is also facing massive protests and paralysing strikes on a daily basis. 

The anti-junta Shwegu People’s Defence Force said it had attacked a police station in northern Shwegu late on Friday jointly with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). 

KIA claims that the attack inflicted heavy casualties on the forces, but did not specify any numbers. 

In eastern Myanmar, the MBPDF (Mobye People’s Defence Force) said it had clashed with the army on Friday and claimed that four soldiers had been killed. 

Despite the turmoil, Myanmar’s military regime has shown little sign of paying heed to the calls from its opponents to relinquish power.  

This week, the junta received its first high-profile foreign visitors – the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the two ASEAN envoys. 

A parallel underground opposition government said that after the envoys’ visit on Friday, it had lost faith in ASEAN’s attempts to end the crisis. 

It is now clear that the revolt started by the youth of the Country is becoming a national resistance movement involving the middle class. 

Young people were the first in Myanmar to peacefully protest the country’s military regime. Then came labour unions. In the following weeks, Mynamar’s resistance movement has expanded dramatically in recent weeks to include some perhaps unlikely activists: doctors, nurses, bankers, grocers, railway workers and other working professionals. 

Myanmar was under military rule from 1962 to 2011. During the elections in 2015, the National Democratic League won by a landslide, and party leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a well-known dissident, became the country’s leader.  

The army overthrew her government on February 1, 2021, and imposed martial law. 

Soon, thousands of Myanmar’s health care workers refused to work – an attempt to thwart the coup regime by grinding government machinery to a halt.  

Health workers hold 10% of all government jobs in Myanmar. Most hospitals and medical schools have closed their doors. 

As elsewhere in the world, doctors and nurses in Myanmar had become public heroes during the pandemic. Their high social status make them important allies to the pro-democracy cause. 

Doctors and nurses are among many other civil servants in Myanmar to engage in civil disobedience. Up to 90% of the staff in some government ministries are on strike, according to a senior official in the Ministry of Electricity and Energy; the junta says it’s 30%.  

Some of Myanmar’s 7.4 million private-sector workers are also on strike, that includes banking sector employees, whose absence has forced the government to limit daily cash withdrawals. 

Despite increasingly deadly military crackdowns, since early March, the protests are still gaining steam. 

Active support from the middle class differentiates current protests from previous pro-democracy movements in Myanmar, from the Buddhist monks’ “saffron revolution” against the military dictatorship in 2007, to student protests for education reform in 2015. 

Those protests, which did not achieve their goals, were confined to one segment of the population. This time around, Generation Z is leading Myanmar’s pro-democracy uprising, and some of my university students from there were arrested in a March 3 crackdown and are facing up to three years in prison. 

Some workers walked away from their jobs to rally behind the young people. Other middle-class professionals support the movement more discreetly, with money, rations, shelter and professional services like legal advice. 

People across Myanmar are also boycotting products produced by the army and its conglomerates, such as Myanmar beer and the Joox music app, and goods imported from China and Singapore – two top investors in Myanmar, neither of which condemned the coup. 

After bank workers began to strike late last month, international observers raised concerns that banking sector in Myanmar would collapse.  

But, banks serve very few people in Myanmar. As of 2017, only 6% of the Southeast Asian country’s 54 million people were served by a financial institution. 

During the pandemic, which hit Myanmar hard, non-profit organizations mobilized to create small aid networks that could provide funds to poor people who needed cash using online sites and phone apps.  

About 1 million people in Myanmar used a phone-to-phone cash transfer service called Wave every month last year. 

Now, during protests, those same aid networks are providing financial support to help striking civil servants and private-sector workers. 

Grocers provide rations to place food on protesters’ tables. Medical professionals help those hurt in the protests and provide free health care to their families. Teachers provide free education. 

Through new apps such as Stay away, people are scrutinizing how they spend their money to avoid unintentionally financing the army and its supporters, who have investments in nearly every sector of Myanmar’s economy, from supermarkets to entertainment. 

Moral shaming 

As protests grow, the military’s crackdowns are getting more brutal. As of March 15, more than 100 people had been killed and nearly 2,000 detained. Still, thousands of students and workers flood the streets every day. 

“Dhamma versus adhamma” is their slogan: “Justice versus injustice”. 

To help the frontline activists, residents residing near protest sites in Myanmar’s commercial capital, Yangon, build barricades and hide protesters from security forces.  

Businesses in the neighbourhood of Sanchaung close between 9am and 3pm for protests. Afterward, as trading and daily activities resume, neighbours clear the debris from clashes between security forces and protesters, then rebuild barricades for the next day of resistance. 

When soldiers beat, shoot and ‘kidnap’ protesters, people take videos and photos from nearby buildings and send them to media and to investigators at the United Nations. 

All over the country, social shaming of regime leaders and their families has become a tactic of the resistance. In the town of Monywa, in central Myanmar, residents have been following family members of the security forces in the streets and asking local shopkeepers not to serve them as customers. 

From striking students to online activists to no-show nurses to helpful neighbours, Myanmar’s protesters resist in different ways with a shared goal: to restore their country’s nascent democracy. 

With sustained resistance to the military and moral support from much of the nation, Myanmar’s peaceful demonstrations may contain the seeds of a revolution. 

Now hundreds of Bamar young men and women are joining the ranks of the “Federal Army” and “United Defence Force” which were formed by Burmese hardliners who were upset with rampant killings by the army. 

Recently, Burmese beauty queen Htar Htet Htet has turned rebel, promising to bring down the brutal military junta in Myanmar or die fighting it.  

Htet Htet represented Myanmar in the first Miss Grand International beauty pageant in Thailand in 2013. Eight years later, the 32-year-old fitness instructor, who contested against 60 participants, joined ethnic armed groups in Myanmar’s border regions.  

Hundreds of ethnic Bamars or Burmese, angered by death of protesting comrades in military/police firings, have joined the newly-formed urban rebel groups like the Federal Army and United Defence Force. 

Federal army and UDF has so far recruited 300 armed cadres in Burmese provinces and cities like Yangon, Mandalay after 2 months training on Karen and Kachin rebel bases.  

They killed 3 policemen in an off-take station on the Rakhine-Yunnan pipeline to signal China to push Myanmar’s military junta to back off and step down.  

More such cadres are undergoing training in KNU and KIA bases and these rebel groups have also started major offensives to put additional pressure on Myanmar’s military rescources. 

To sum up, military junta faces impending administrative paralysis due to strikes, armed resistance by FA and UDF and newly created urban militias like that at Mindat town in Chin Hills, intensified offensives by ethnic rebel armies and greater global pressure and scrutiny. 

Its main supporter China, stands exposed and faces wrath of Burmese people for supporting junta. Public anger burst forth when agitators attacked 26 Chinese factories near Yangon and Mandalay. 

For India, there is no reason to hedge its bets with the military junta, despite such opinion in Indian army.  

Caught up in its quagmire and intense conflict, the Myanmar army will not be able to do much against Northeast rebel bases in Sagaing.  

It is actually using these rebels to crush the people’s upsurge. It also needs Indian army support to fight Arakan Army.    

India cannot risk losing Goodwill of democratic parties, common people, resistance groups and ethnic rebel armies. 

India may consider a pushy mediator role by leveraging its links to multiple stakeholders, a dynamic policy like floating a Gandhi Peace Mission independently or in consonance with ASEAN to ensure China does not take the lead in conflict resolution that will help it recover its battered image. 

Subir Bhaumik

Subir Bhaumik is a Kolkata-based senior journalist. He can be reached at: sbhaum@gmail.com