From Gen Z hipster to fighter: Building the resistance in Myanmar

Ko Aung Htwe’s Facebook posts have seen a dramatic change over the last year. He’s swapped waving two fingers in peace to three fingers in defiance on a Yangon street. He’s swapped his trendy clothes for military fatigues. And now he shoulders an assault rifle as he exchanges the comfort of the city for the discomfort of the hills.

What a difference a year makes.

Ko Aung Htwe is just one of many. His transition from Generation Z hipster to People’s Defence Force fighter is a reflection of the change that has affected many in his generation as they respond to the Myanmar military stepping in a year ago on February 1 to execute a coup and abruptly end the country’s troubled experiment with democracy under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi.

The action of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing to seize power under the pretence of alleged “election fraud” has plunged the Golden Land into a tailspin, prompting a crisis of epic proportions, relegating this ASEAN member to “black sheep” status, and causing squeals of horror from the United Nations and many of its members.

And, after the brutality Ko Aung Htwe saw on the street, it’s prompted this young man to become a freedom fighter.


There is a message behind Ko Aung Htwe morphing into an armed combatant. He is one of thousands around the country to take up arms, many fleeing urban centres for the hills.

Their message is one of “make-or-break”. Many Gen Z youngsters believe they only have one option – fight.

Most of them have grown up under the façade of a developing democracy and modernizing country – initially under the Thein Sein regime and then under the democratically-elected rule of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Demoracy-led government – only to have the rug pulled from under their feet as a result of the coup.

In hindsight, Myanmar’s democratic experiment was tenuous at best. The reality of close to six decades of military rule – punctured by the elusive hope of a military-managed democratic experiment – has hit home.

Min Aung Hlaing has pulled the plug and this is why thousands of young people like Ko Aung Htwe have taken up arms.

Rallying under the banners of People’s Defence Forces or PDFs, they are attempting to take on the Tatmadaw, a brutal military apparatus now hated by the majority of people in Myanmar judging by the protests that pop up around the country daily – images of coup-maker Min Aung Hlaing trampled in the dirt.


The most hated person in Myanmar is Min Aung Hlaing who has declared war on the people. The façade of “disciplined democracy” under the military-written 2008 Constitution has been stripped away.

Not a day goes by without an ugly reminder that this coup-maker’s claim to be “protecting the people” and “supporting democracy” is a lie, the brutal behaviour of his security forces one more reminder of how out of touch the junta leader is.

A year after Min Aung Hlaing executed the 1 February 2021 coup, his standing is in tatters on a local, regional and global level, even though the governments of China and Russia cautiously pay their respects, and the new Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) chair, Cambodia and its leader Hun Sen, offer an olive branch, saying if he pledges “peace” he can personally attend the next ASEAN summit .

The bruised standing of the coup-maker revolves around not only the coup d’etat but also the actions his security forces have taken to seek to bludgeon the protesting public into submission – killing about 1,500 civilians to date – bringing the military’s fight to the Bamar heartland – prompting people like Ko Aung Htwe to take action.


Opposition to the military junta is growing with many ordinary people like Ko Aung Htwe joining the ranks of what are called People’s Defence Forces or PDFs.

Min Aung Hlaing clearly misjudged the people of Myanmar. If he thought his power grab would prompt a limited response, he was mistaken.

Whether it is protesters marching, people banging pots and pans, the deathly quiet of the “Silent Strike” that emptied the streets on the coup anniversary, or the attacks of a growing legion of fledgling armed PDFs, the people of Myanmar are fighting back, churning up a crisis that is degenerating into outright civil war.

The National Unity Government’s declaration in spring to give the green light to a violent response to the Myanmar junta proved a game-changer for an ad hoc civilian organization that was seeking to grab the high ground and obtain international recognition as the people’s voice in light of the imprisoning of their elected civilian leadership.

The NUG stands in for Aung San Suu Kyi but also in a way supersedes the NLD leadership as The Lady’s non-violent creed makes way under the NUG for hit-and-run attacks, bombings and assassinations targeting the military and its associated administration and supporters – a fight that is growing increasingly bitter.

This is a people’s war run by fighters who are learning the ropes as they go along, operating with limited weaponry. The NUG does not directly control the PDFs that have popped up in many parts of the country to fight back against the coup-maker and his forces. Rather, it attempts to provide moral backing and possibly funding for the PDF’s campaigns of violence and local control.

Crucial elements in the opposition to the military junta are the Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAO) that have been operating in the country for decades and wield various degrees of autonomy, or in some cases have agreements with the Myanmar military. Myanmar’s myriad EAOs have largely held back from throwing their lot in with the democracy movement thanks to a longstanding mistrust of the majority Bamar elite – epitomised by Aung San Suu Kyi and her ousted National League for Democracy. This is a trust deficit that the NUG, dominated by lawmakers from her party, and which has widespread support, is trying to overcome.

Ko Aung Htwe is one of thousands. As an increasing number of young protesters like him take to the streets and hills – wielding three fingers or more deadly weapons – Myanmar stands on the brink of all-out civil war, many of the people committed to a bitter battle to oust the Myanmar military from control.

Despite the positive rethoric from the resistance, this looks set to be a long war.

Ko Aung Htwe is a pseudonym to protect his identity.

Reporting: Mizzima, AFP, AP, Foreign Policy

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