The young men only had a moment to study the river before rushing into the waist-deep water. The brothers – ranging in age from 15 to 21 – were unfamiliar with the border area and afraid of being seen. On the run from Myanmar’s military, they pushed on into the Thaunggin River.
After just a few minutes of wading, they stumbled into no man’s land. Moments after crossing the river, three smugglers dressed in military fatigues met them. After handing over 6,000 Thai baht (US$200) and exchanging a few words, the smugglers led them deeper into the woods and then to safety in Thailand.
Three months after the military coup on 1 February, four Burmese brothers have told the Guardian of how they were inspired to join the fight against the military – and how their involvement in protests in Yangon that turned violent eventually forced them to flee at the end of March.
Safely outside the country, the brothers have given an account of brutal military repression and their decision to take the fight to the military in a bid to prevent further violence. Their journey would take them from peaceful protest in Yangon to petrol bombing police stations and running for their lives.
Lin*, 21,the eldest of the four brothers, said he had watched the coup unfold from his home in western Thailand, close to the border. Seeing the death toll mount amid growing military brutality he felt compelled to join the resistance movement, and soon his three younger brothers and two cousins from different parts of Myanmar followed him to Yangon.
At 15, Za* is the youngest of the brothers. He said he took part in the resistance because he wanted to stop the violence on the streets. “Look at how many people they have killed in the past two months. If we don’t do anything and just let it happen so many more innocent people will die,” Za said.
Joining the protests
The men met up in Yangon and for the first few days joined the peaceful protests. Soon, they became part of a nightwatch team protecting residential neighbourhoods from night-time raids by security forces. Armed with sticks and swords they say they helped women, children and the elderly move around safely.
As they continued to demonstrate, some teams of frontline protesters began discussing the possibility of hitting back, Lin says. “People started saying we need to fight back. But they didn’t know how, and they were scared.” Lin says he was concerned it was just what Myanmar’s military, also known as the Tatmadaw, was hoping for.
They told how they joined a small minority of protesters on the frontlines squaring off against security forces, using molotov cocktails and slingshots in what they said they believed was a legitimate form of self-defence against the military’s automatic weapons. But it was not without cost. During one attack on a police station, Lin says one of the team died after being hit in the head by a rubber bullet. He was in his 50s.
“I don’t want my children to grow up in the situation that my generation and the older generations did,” says Moe*, 18, another of the brothers.
The first attack
It was about 11pm when the group carried out its first attack on a police station.
Lin describes how they moved towards the building, with more people joining the group as they got closer. Some were carrying molotov cocktails, others were armed with slingshots and swords, he says. But when the men edged near to the police station, the group hesitated.
Lin says: “At that time I was aggressive, I was mad, no one was willing to throw the cocktail bomb. “I came back [to Yangon] thinking I was going to be a peaceful protester … but if I needed to be another thing, then I will be that, too,” Lin said. “So I took the molotov and went up to the [overpass] bridge.”
The bottle landed right on top of a pile of rubbish leaning against the building. Flames started to shoot upwards towards the roof, Lin says. “We wanted to scare them,” he says of the Tatmadaw. “You make us feel unsafe, then we want you to feel unsafe too.”
Lin says a truck full of Tatmadaw soldiers arrived, and the group started retreating. Footage seen by the Guardian shows teargas rounds whizzing past them as they fled. The group could hear the sound of people celebrating in their homes as they sprinted past. “It was like we were coming back from war.”
Over the next few days, the brothers, along with a handful of other teams, targeted multiple police stations. Lin says he doesn’t believe they injured anyone in the attacks. They were unsuccessful in burning down the buildings. He says the attacks were psychological warfare and the men felt they had to show some degree of force to counter the military.
‘We had to run’
The campaign continued until the day Lin says they heard one of their friends had been abducted by security forces. “They contacted us and said he died. They tortured and killed him,” he recalls.
“We all had to run at that point. They said, ‘One of our guys is gone. We are on the run now. You should too.’” They agreed it was time to leave.
The brothers woke up early to begin their trip east to Hpa-An, the capital city in Karen state, close to the border with Thailand. The day after they left their apartment in Yangon, a neighbour told them police had searched it.
After laying low in Hpa-An for a few days, they finally got the call to leave. They would have to make the cross near Myawaddy, a town known for its casinos and entertainment venues. After just a few minutes of wading through the river, they stumbled into no man’s land. Moments after crossing the river, three smugglers dressed in military fatigues met them.
The smugglers demanded their payment upfront before they moved the brothers to a secret location. After paying the troops, the group hiked for another 20 minutes in the dark to a bunker where they were told to wait.
“We were afraid of them because they were strangers with guns and we were in their place,” says Htet*, 18, another of the four brothers. “If they wanted to do something they could’ve and we didn’t have anything to stop that.”
At around 3pm they were told it was finally time to go. They walked along a dirt path that would lead to a paved road, their guide told them. After more trekking on their own, they found their way out of the woods. They had made it.
The group crossed the border at a time when Myanmar’s military had killed more than 550 people and detained nearly 3,000, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
“It was a hard decision to make to come here. Even though we are safe and comfortable, we want to be back there. But it was just too dangerous,” Lin says.
“But the good thing was I had my brothers. I wouldn’t have been able to handle it alone.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities