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Myanmar Army on the Ropes

We're excited to announce that our latest film commissioned by Al Jazeera English People and Power will TX on Wednesday 11 April. Myanmar Army on the Ropes is Studio 9 Films' third production about the coalition of ethnic armed opposition groups and People's Defense Force (PDF) volunteers in Myanmar fighting back against the deeply unpopular and increasingly beleaguered military junta.

Since the junta's coup in 2021, increasing numbers of ethnic Burmese pro-democracy fighters have joined long-standing ethnic resistance forces to overthrow the regime. With the recent intensification of conflict in October 2023, across Myanmar more than 3 million people have been displaced and 500 killed, with a humanitarian situation "in freefall" according to the OHCHR.

Our team gained unprecedented, rare access to film with the Karen and PDF forces, making a dangerous journey up river and over the Pegu Yomas mountain range deep into territory only recently taken from the Myanmar Army.

What comes across so vividly in this third of the trilogy is how much more organised and professional the PDF appear. Today, it's not just young "keyboard warriors" who have joined up but also older professionals who bring knowledge and maturity. We found many volunteers who are young urbanites unaccustomed to the reality of war but eager to fight for democracy's cause like Myin Nin Ko. "I'd never seen an armed group before I came here. I'd only seen it in movies."

Yebaw Tin Oo is a commander for the PDF in Karen State who was elected as an MP for the National League for Democracy. When the junta overthrew the government, instead of going underground or fleeing the country, he chose to stay and fight. "I lived a normal civilian life before. Now I am living like a soldier. At first I was terrified... What we are doing is for the future of our country and people. That motivation helps overcome the fear."

Our field producer Ashley South, an independent researcher, author and consultant, has been writing on Myanmar since 2001 and has seen first-hand the progress made by the Karen National Liberation Front.

"I had been to the Karen National Union (KNU) Third Brigade area in the 1990s and 00s - at a time when the hills were controlled by the insurgents, the foothills were violently contested and the river valley strongly controlled by the central Myanmar government. I visited again as a support player to the 2012 KNU ceasefire, together with government ministers, KNU officials and foreign dignitaries. If you had told me back then, that a decade later the whole area would be controlled by the KNU, I wouldn't have believed you. Yet here we were: almost the entire east bank of the Sittaung River now under KNU control (bar a couple of stubbornly resistant Myanmar Army strongholds). We crossed the river and travelled across the plains still farther to the east, getting to within 10 miles of the Pegu Yomas mountain range. These villages have not been controlled by opposition forces since the 1950s – if then. The KNU and Allied People's Defence Forces were on the front foot, with the military and political momentum on their side. The sense of achievement was extraordinary and exhilarating - but at great civilian cost: we drove through many abandoned and partially destroyed villages, bypassing blown-up bridges, met people forcibly displaced by Myanmar Army airstrikes and artillery attacks. I remember praying with the IDPs, giving thanks and asking for deliverance, while drones passed overhead. Extraordinary resilience.

"Since leaving the area, we learnt that several of the villages we visited have again been attacked - and in some cases overrun - by the Myanmar Army. The struggle for freedom in Burma and the Karen Free State of Kawthoolei continues, as it has done most decades since independence in 1948."

While the struggle continues, the PDF has cause for optimism: "Accounts from Myanmar army soldiers who have surrendered or defected over the past three months reveal that the military is suffering from plunging morale and overstretched logistics amid a rebel offensive that has prompted mass surrenders" (Washington Post). However, since our filming finished, several of the villages we visited have been recaptured by the Myanmar Army after sustained shelling, drone and air attack. This is a pattern repeated across the country in which the junta uses drones, helicopters and fighting bombers to devastate the towns and villages which it has been forced out of. The consequences for civilians have been devastating. Opposition forces may have made substantial gains but while they have little or no defence against air attack, their ability to hold territory and protect the civilian population remains tenuous.

See Myanmar Army on the Ropes on Al Jazeera English on Wednesday 11 April at 09:30. Also available soon on YouTube.


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