500 Days of Spring: The Kalay Protesters Who Never Quit

While protests against the coup in most of the country have become rare in the face of brutal repression, a small rebel group in Kalay is approaching 500 days of continuous protests.

By FRONTIER

On May 25, the Kalay Strike Force came together for the same reason it has had for the past 472 consecutive days: to protest the 2021 military coup.

“Since we started protesting in February, the army has launched at least 35 crackdowns against us, using various forms of violence,” protest leader Ko Bike Pu* said. Border.

In the weeks after the military seized power on February 1 last year, crowds of hundreds of thousands joined protests across the country, until the ruthless use lethal force chases them from the streets.

While the bloody crackdowns convinced many to turn to armed revolution, some continued to courageously express nonviolent opposition to the junta, with occasional flash-mob demonstrations reported in Yangon and other cities. In Kalay township, Sagaing region, the protests that started on February 7 last year have never stopped.

“There have been many deaths, injuries and arrests, but we are making progress. We will never back down. We want the whole world to see that the people of Kalay have not accepted the regime and are protesting the coup through non-violent means,” Bike Pu said.

Kalay Township in northwest Sagaing borders Chin State and almost half of its 350,000 people are of Chin ethnicity, according to 2019 figures from the General Administration Department. Kalay Town, a district capital just a few kilometers from the Chin border, is an important commercial and industrial center and has many government offices.

The Sagaing region and Chin State have seen some of the fiercest fighting since the coup, largely led by newly formed anti-coup armed groups which are assisted by more ethnic armed organizations. established.

Kalay township was the scene of one of the first indications that people were starting to fight back against the increasingly brutal repression by the military. On March 28, 2021, four civilians were killed in an attack on a protest camp called the Tarhan Fortification, which infuriated the general population. When the army launched another attempt to take over the camp on April 7, militants armed with traditional homemade Tumi rifles returned fire against much more heavily armed soldiers. At least eight civilians were reportedly killed during this clash.

People’s Defense Force troops provide security for protesters in Ayadaw township, also in Sagaing, in February 2022. (Mar Naw | Frontier)

The first days of the protest

On February 7, 2021, the first mass protest was organized by Kalay University Students Union and All Burma Federation of Student Unions (Kalay Township) in collaboration with political parties and groups from the civil society. Hundreds of people joined the first protest and by March the numbers were in the thousands. As the ranks swelled, junta forces intensified their attempts to quell peaceful protests.

On March 17, as Bike Pu was leading a protest along a road between the villages of Mya Hla and Taung Thar west of Kalay town, three military vehicles full of soldiers drove towards them. Protesters dispersed and Bike Pu sprinted into a wheat field as soldiers opened fire. The bullets missed and he reached a construction site across the field unscathed.

“With the help of construction workers, I pretended to be one of them and worked on the site for the rest of the day. It was the construction workers who gave me the name ‘Bike Pu’,” he says. Bike Pu means “big belly”.

It was a chance to escape serious injury or death for Bike Pu, but tragedy was not far off. On March 27, fortified protest camps were built in Tarhan and Taung Thar neighborhoods, to provide places of refuge for unarmed protesters during the junta’s crackdown.

“People stayed in Tarhan’s camp overnight in case he was attacked. We were ready to defend ourselves with tumi rifles, air rifles and homemade firearms,” said Ko Wai Naing Oo*. The 22-year-old Chin is a former protest leader who has since become the commander of Kalay People’s Defense Force Battalion 1.

Civilians in Kalay first requested military training from the National Chin Front in April, after a series of violent crackdowns. Originally called the Kalay Civil Army, it was later renamed Kalay PDF and is now under the National Unity Government, a parallel administration set up by lawmakers elected in defiance of the coup. State. The fighters said the Kalay PDF consists of nine battalions of 250 to 300 troops and operates under the western command of the NUG Ministry of Defence.

The March 28 attack killed eight people, including three women. But the attempt by junta forces to take over the camp failed due to fierce resistance from Kalay residents.

“We were the first to attack junta troops with tumi rifles during the spring revolution. We were also the first to form a local resistance group, Kalay Civil Army,” Wai Naing Oo said proudly.

The KCA was formed on April 7, the day junta forces used heavy weapons and explosives to destroy the Tarhan protest camp in an operation that left 12 people dead and scores injured.

“We suffered heavy losses in the Battle of Tahan. It is impossible to defeat the army with homemade weapons, but due to strong emotions and outrage at inhumane behavior, we fought back against the junta troops,” Wai Naing Oo said.

After its brutal takeover of Tarhan camp, there was a wave of arrests of protesters and residents accused the junta of shooting civilians indiscriminately, including random passers-by. The Kalay Strike Force said 150 people were killed and 500 arrested in Kalay Township in the year following the coup.

As resistance to the junta grew, the military began to monitor protests more closely, leading to more arrests. After the April 7 junta raid, the number of demonstrators dropped sharply, either for fear of being arrested or because they had joined the armed resistance.

Those determined to keep protesting changed tack and began staging flash mobs around the city’s outskirts, waving anti-dictatorship banners before quickly dispersing.

They regularly post their activities on the Kalay Strike Force Facebook page, but are careful never to mention the location of flash mobs in advance. Amid the heightened crackdown, protest organizers worked closely with PDFs and urban guerrilla groups to keep protesters safe.

Protesters march through an undisclosed location in Kalay township in April 2022. (Supplied | Kalay Strike Force)

“I wondered if it was right that I did nothing”

On August 26 last year, the 400th day of protests, 12 women were arrested and several others injured when soldiers blocked a protest by blocking exits with vehicles. In March this year, the army dealt a devastating blow to the movement by arresting protest leader Ko Myo Thit Kyaw.

Since then, protesters have gathered in a small village in Kalay Township under the protection of Kalay PDF Battalion 6, where they continue to stage flash-mob protests and share their activities on their social media page.

“They [junta troops] follow our activities closely. We have to be very careful because we take a lot of risks to protest daily,” said Ma Ei San, 34, who has three daughters aged 3 to 15.

Ei San joined the protests after the junta stormed the Tarhan protest camp on March 28 last year. She said that before the coup she ran a tailoring business and had little interest in politics. But the army’s ruthless crackdown on peaceful protesters, many of whom were her neighbors, motivated her to join the protests.

“Protesters walked past my house every day and I wondered if it was right for me to do nothing. Finally, I decided to join the protest group. It was not an easy decision for me because I had to give up my whole life,” Ei San said.

After her home in Kalay town was raided twice, Ei San went into hiding with her 15-year-old daughter while her husband lives elsewhere with his other two children. Ei San is proud of her eldest daughter, who joined the anti-coup movement. “She is the main writer of the protest banners and also participates in the protests,” she said.

Clashes between regime forces and other resistance groups continue across the country, with Sagaing becoming a major hotspot of armed conflict. The latest report from the Institute for Strategy and Policy Myanmar says there were at least 439 clashes in the Sagaing region between July 1, 2021 and May 15, 2022, the second highest in the country after the state of Kayin. Figures from monitoring group Data for Myanmar show that 7,500 of the 10,000 homes burned by junta forces were in the Sagaing area.

Despite the persecution and the risk to their lives, the demonstrators say they are determined to continue demonstrating peacefully in order to maintain the revolutionary fervor at home and show the world that the people still oppose the army.

But some in Kalay don’t seem to appreciate the sacrifices.

“Some people don’t like us because they think the army is oppressing the people of Kalay because of the protests. It’s very depressing to hear that,” Ei San said. “That’s why it gives us courage when someone posts encouraging comments about our protest activities on our Facebook page.”

* indicates the use of a pseudonym on request for security reasons