After the coup: surviving in the shelter of the jungles of Myanmar

Khin Khin was living happily near the town of Hpa-an in southeastern Myanmar when everything changed two years ago.

After the coup: surviving in the shelter of the jungles of Myanmar

Khin Khin was living happily near the town of Hpa-an in southeastern Myanmar when everything changed two years ago. Until then, the region with its numerous caves and pagodas also attracted tourists from all over the world. The 44-year-old worked as a nurse. Married, mother of three children. Her husband was a member of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of then Prime Minister Aung San Suu Kyi. When the military putsch and the soldiers came, the family was not at home. This was her salvation.

Today, Khin Khin lives as an internally displaced person in the jungle of Karen State on the border with Thailand. "I can't go home until Min Aung Hlaing is dead," she says. What is meant is the general who is considered to be the mastermind of the coup on February 1, 2021 - and who has a powerful ally in Russia.

Since that fateful day, the former Burma, just on the path to democratic reforms, has inexorably slipped back into the days of previous military dictatorships. Suu Kyi was arrested and has since been sentenced to a total of more than 30 years in prison. The country has become synonymous with bloody oppression, chaos and despair. Any resistance is brutally suppressed. The junta does not shy away from indiscriminately killing civilians in airstrikes or torturing opposition members to death.

Other crises draw attention

According to the latest estimates by the non-governmental think tank "Institute for Strategy and Policy - Myanmar" (ISP), two million people have fled attacks and arrests by the army since the coup - and are now living in their own country as displaced persons. They come from big cities like Yangon and Mandalay as well as from small villages. They often fought their way through the jungle for days.

The world is currently looking at other places of horror, above all the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine, or the civil war in Syria. That's why the horror of Myanmar hardly ever makes the headlines. But for most of the Southeast Asian country's 54 million people, which borders Thailand, Laos, India, Bangladesh and China, the constant military abuses are a grim reality.

The Singaporean newspaper Straits Times recently stated: "From Ukraine to Syria and Myanmar, we live in a world of refugees." There have not been so many displaced persons since 1945. "Being a refugee - torn from home, friends, possessions, culture - is always a horrific predicament," the paper said. This is what Maung Win, a Yangon policeman who has joined the resistance, found out.

Living conditions in camps are bad

He's clearing parts of the forest to build bombproof shelters. They are supposed to protect the refugees from the junta's airstrikes. Just like Khin Khin, he currently resides in an area controlled by the powerful "Karen National Union" (KNU). The KNU is the oldest armed group in the multi-ethnic state of Myanmar. She has been fighting for freedom for more than 70 years and has offered protection to many internally displaced persons since the coup.

"I will never regret having chosen this path, I am proud of it," said Maung Win (27) of the German Press Agency. "I was ordered to join the military, but I refused and joined the resistance." As he tells how he had to leave family and friends behind, he sighs deeply.

Most of the camp live in small huts or tents. There is no clean drinking water. Many suffer from diseases such as diarrhea. Medicines are scarce, getting supplies is dangerous. In order to build new settlements, parts of the forest are burned down. Waste is thrown into the flames because people don't know where else to dispose of it. The smell is acrid. But the worst is the uncertainty. Will they ever be able to return home?

Many displaced persons are children

In neighboring Karenni State (also known as Kayah State), many have also fled to the forests. Nang Phaw was pregnant when junta forces used heavy weapons to attack her village in early 2022. "I was scared to death, I thought one of the rockets would fall right on my head," says the 28-year-old. She just ran out into the darkness, aimless, aimless, in panic. Since then she has been a refugee - for the first time in her life.

According to surveys by the Karenni Human Rights Group, 20 percent of those displaced are children under the age of eight. Most suffer from malnutrition. According to human rights activists, aid deliveries from the United Nations, among others, are repeatedly blocked by the junta. A number that gives food for thought: 200,000 of the almost 300,000 inhabitants in Karenni state are now living as internally displaced persons.

Again and again there are reports of massacres of the civilian population. One of the worst became known at the end of 2021. The charred bodies of more than 30 people, including children and two Save the Children employees, were found in burned vehicles in Karenni State. "The military reportedly forced people out of their cars, arrested some, killed others and burned their bodies," the children's charity said at the time, condemning the attack as a violation of international humanitarian law.

Terror by the military: villages are set on fire

The strategy of the military also includes destroying as many houses as possible. It is estimated that there are already tens of thousands. "The military wants to scare people," says Ko Tun, who helps displaced people. If there was even a suspicion that a member of the resistance was hiding somewhere, the entire settlement would often be burned down. "The soldiers find it useful to burn villages, so they do it regularly."

Refugees worry most about the future of their children. Because on the global stage, Myanmar is rarely high on the agenda. "I have to accept my current situation because I want them to be able to live freely one day," says Min Min from Yangon. The 40-year-old father of a son and daughter has also fled to the jungle on the border with Thailand. "I don't really care what becomes of me, but I still have hope for my children and that all the sacrifices we are making will pay off so that one day we can go home."