Ten young men in uniform are standing in an empty field singing “Kabar Ma Kyay Bu,” the unofficial anthem of Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement. Sung to the melody of “Dust in the Wind,” by the American rock band Kansas, the song’s title translates as “This Shall Never be Forgiven.”
Ever since the 1988 uprising, protesters have sung it as a rousing call to unite in the face of brutal oppression. On this occasion, however, the young men who are singing it sound more mournful than defiant.
Their voices are weighed down by grief because they have gathered to say farewell to a fallen comrade.
A guitar leans against a casket that is empty except for a commando uniform, a hat and a pair of slippers—items collected to remind them of Phyo, a young man who gave his life to the fight against Myanmar’s murderous regime.
Soon, however, even these few mementos, including his beloved guitar, will be gone.
“We have to cremate everything he loved so that his spirit will be free to leave. The clothes are there in place of his body,” his friend Arr Nyi explained.
This is not the first funeral that Arr Nyi has had to attend in recent months. Nor is he alone in having to take part in so many of these solemn ceremonies. All over the country, many have been held in honour of those whose lives have been cut short by war.
Most were young people who had led relatively carefree lives until they decided that they had to do more than just raise their voices against their oppressors.
“We all knew we would very likely end up dead when we made that decision. Still, it’s very heart-wrenching to have to go through this again and again,” said a sombre-looking Arr Nyi.
Phyo died on February 2, a day after the first anniversary of the coup that altered the course of his life and the lives of millions of others in Myanmar. But he didn’t just die—he was blown to pieces by a bomb intended for a junta convoy.
Like most who joined the armed struggle against the regime, he knew precious little about warfare until last year. Born and raised in Yangon, he was on his way to Japan to start a new job when the military overthrew his country’s elected government.
Months later, after taking part in protests and witnessing the savage response of Myanmar’s would-be rulers, he made his way to a “liberated area” under the control of an ethnic armed group. There he received some basic military training and underwent a hasty transformation from ordinary civilian to a soldier of the people.
He is remembered as exemplary in his newfound role.
“He was involved in everything that was going on in the camp. And he was willing to do anything to support the cause, no matter what it cost him,” said Arr Nyi.
“He was also considerate towards those lower than him in rank. He always shared his food, even if he was hungry,” she added.
Phyo and his friends formed their own guerilla unit, which they called the People’s Guard Force. Together, they carried out a number of successful missions.
On the day that he died, he and the other members of his group were planning an attack on an army convoy in Mon State’s Bilin Township.
In preparation for the ambush, they had laid an explosive device on the road that the convoy was expected to use. Hours later, however, they learned that it had taken a different route.
By this time, it was 3am. In another hour or two, street vendors would start using the road. Realising that innocent lives were at stake, they decided they had better disarm the explosive before it was too late.
It was a dangerous job, but Phyo volunteered for it without hesitation.
In the darkness, the other members of the group couldn’t see what was happening. But when they heard a beeping sound, they knew that Phyo was in trouble.
Seconds later, there was a loud blast. When they rushed over to see if he had somehow managed to escape, all they found was a hole two feet deep. There was nothing left of his body but torn pieces of flesh.
The fact that he was so completely obliterated suggested that Phyo had sacrificed himself to protect his comrades.
“I think the rest of his team survived only because he covered the detonated explosive device with his body,” said Arr Nyi.
Phyo was 29 when he died. “Z” was just 24. Z (who pronounced his nom de guerre “Zed”) was another native of Yangon. Until the coup, he had worked in the city’s Mingalar market. Like Phyo, he decided to join the armed resistance after taking part in peaceful protests and witnessing the utter ruthlessness with which they were crushed. Unlike Phyo, however, he did not receive any military training. Instead, he joined a Yangon-based guerrilla force and learned how to make explosives from his more experienced comrades. “They got involved in urban guerrilla warfare without any kind of training. But they weren’t just a bunch of street thugs. They were all kids with bright futures,” recalled one of the senior members of the group, who did not want to be identified. Z’s life ended on February 24 while he and another member of his group were setting up a handmade explosive device. It suddenly went off in his hands while the cell phone used to detonate it was being charged. His friend, who was not badly injured, managed to flee the scene, but Z was found face down and dead by junta soldiers a few hours later. “Z” was killed instantly when an explosive went off in his hands because of a technical malfunction (Supplied) As a member of Generation Z—the generation that came of age during the decade-long “democratic transition” that ended abruptly last year—Z was prepared to die rather than return to life under military rule. As horrific as his own end was, his friends said they would continue their struggle, even at the risk of meeting a similar fate. “We will keep on fighting until the day that the words ‘Gen Z’ make them shudder with fear,” said one. “These young people don’t depend on anybody for support. They aren’t members of any party or organisation. They just can’t stand injustice,” said a member of Z’s group. If he were still alive, Nay Lin would be celebrating his birthday this week. Instead, March 17 will be remembered by his family as the day that he should have turned 18, but didn’t. He was just 16 years old when last year’s coup tore him away from the two great loves of his life—soccer and video games—and threw him into a life and death struggle for the future of his entire generation. Like so many others, he soon learned that the regime had no interest in listening to the will of the people, no matter how many millions took to the streets to express it. Determined to contribute what he could to the struggle, he sold his gaming computer for less than half the 1.8m kyat ($1,000) that he had paid for it and gave the money to an urban guerrilla group in his native Mandalay called Bama Lin Yone, or Burmese Eagle. He also joined the group, albeit in a limited capacity because of his age. He was assigned to find materials that could be used to make explosives, but wasn’t allowed to handle the finished products himself. It wasn’t until February 1, the anniversary of the coup, that he was chosen to take part in a military operation. The plan was to target three sites around Mandalay occupied by junta troops. Nay Lin and two others were supposed to lob hand grenades at a military outpost that was fortified with sandbags. However, when Nay Lin threw his grenade, it hit something and bounced back, injuring all three when it exploded a short distance away. He just lunged at the machete and brought it down on his leg. The whole time, he was crying and saying how sorry he was for the failure of their mission A piece of shrapnel had pierced Nay Lin’s leg, but at that moment, what really upset him was the thought that he had failed his comrades. As they fled to their hideout, he couldn’t stop apologising, according to a member of his group. Over the next two days, he became more and more distraught. His wound turned septic, and the pain was unbearable. And he couldn’t stop blaming himself for what had happened. That’s when he did something unthinkable. “He was feverish that day, and I think he just couldn’t stand it anymore. Suddenly he grabbed a machete that was used to open coconuts and started trying to hack his leg off,” said a friend who witnessed the incident. “No one could have imagined he would do such a thing. He just lunged at the machete and brought it down on his leg. The whole time, he was crying and saying how sorry he was for the failure of their mission,” he added. Nay Lin struck himself twice with the heavy blade. After the second blow, he started to bleed uncontrollably. He soon lost consciousness. His comrades called for a doctor, but it was too late: he never came round again. Because of the circumstances of his death, he had to be cremated secretly. “It broke our hearts to have to do it that way. We put his favourite PlayStation game CD with his body,” said a friend who was present at the simple ceremony. All his friends could do was ask Nay Lin’s family for their forgiveness. They knew that they weren’t happy with his decision to join the revolution. “They scolded him for selling his computer, but he was really proud of that. He said it was worth it,” one member of his group recalled. One of the detainees lost his leg in the blast and was reportedly taken for interrogation without medical treatment Accidental explosions kill even the most experienced resistance fighters. In Magway Region’s Myaing Township, where clashes have raged for nearly a year, two leaders of a local People’s Defence Force (PDF) died on March 7 while setting explosives to protect a village targeted by junta troops. “They heard that soldiers were on their way to burn down people’s homes, so they went to the village entrance to plant some explosives. They were both killed, and the soldiers never came to the village,” said a spokesperson for the Myaing PDF. The deaths of these two men, who were far from neophytes, highlighted the dangers of working with explosive devices that can easily malfunction. “Errors are inevitable, no matter how careful we are, because these devices are made by hand. Attaching batteries and circuits can be quite dangerous,” said the Myaing PDF spokesperson. He added, however, that this danger would not prevent armed resistance groups from using a tool that has so far proven to be very effective in pushing back against an oppressive regime. “We are writing our own history because we cannot accept the dictatorship. We are risking our lives so that future generations don’t have to suffer the way we are suffering,” he said.