Myanmar's Buddhists and Christians join fight against junta

Fighters from diverse backgrounds unite in their quest for equality, chanting Buddhist texts and singing gospel songs

Buddhist members of the Chinland Defense Force take part in weekly prayers at their camp (photo: DW)
Buddhist members of the Chinland Defense Force take part in weekly prayers at their camp (photo: DW)


Young fighters with the "Chinland Defense Forces" pack the floor of a tarpaulin-walled room at their mountain base on a Saturday evening, chanting over Buddhist texts illuminated by candles and smartphones.

This is the headquarters of the Chinland Defense Force – Kalay, Kabaw, Gangaw (CDF-KKG) Battalion 4. And for the Buddhists in this resistance group, Saturdays are for praying.

The CDF-KKG is fighting Myanmar's military junta, which in recent months has been losing ground across the country to an armed ethnic militia who have launched an offensive. The junta took power in a coup in 2021, and the conflict between the military and resistance groups has not ceased since.

Battalion 4's base in the northeastern part of Chin State is cut into a mountain that overlooks townships in the bordering Sagaing Region.

The military overran its previous base in the valley. The mountainside's thick tree cover provides cover from attacks by the junta's jets and drones.

Christian members of the CDF-KKG pray during a service (Photo: DW)
Christian members of the CDF-KKG pray during a service (Photo: DW)

Ethnic groups come together in fight against junta

The Chinland Defense Force groups tied to geographic areas in Chin State, overwhelmingly consist of Chin Christians.

However, the CDF-KKG has more mixed membership and also includes Bamar Buddhists — the majority ethnic and religious group in Myanmar. Fighters from different backgrounds defend the ideas of equality they want for their country.

Sin Bout, 23, is from a Buddhist family in Sagaing Region's Kale Township. He left university after the 2021 coup, joining the CDF-KKG in March 2022.

He told DW that he had learned in state-run schools that the various ethnic armies fighting Myanmar's military were terrorists. That included the Chin National Army, which supports defense force groups like his.

"After the coup, I know they are not terrorists. They are fighting for their freedom," he said, explaining that was why he had joined the fight.

On Sundays, there's a Christian service. The resistance fighters play the guitar and sing gospel songs.

Sang Nu, a Chin Christian, left medical school to join the CDF-KKG. The 23-year-old told DW that she believed her knowledge of medicine might come in useful, especially for the other young women in the group.

She experienced various degrees of religious discrimination when she was growing up, she said. She explained that new Christian churches couldn't get permits while Buddhist temples multiplied. Ethnic minorities such as the Chin seemed to be passed over for government jobs.

This is part of the reason why she joined the resistance, she said, explaining that she wanted more independence for her community but was happy to work alongside others, such as the Bamars, who are her compatriots.

Junta tries to exploit religious division

Since the coup, the junta has leaned into religious divisions in Myanmar for legitimacy.

A report by the United States Institute of Peace said that the junta leader, Min Aung Hlaing, had tried to position himself as a protector of Buddhism, making frequent public appearances with Buddhist leaders.

At 25 meters tall, the world's largest sculpture of a sitting Buddha was completed in July in the capital, Naypyidaw.

Sang Nu said that there was no tension between the different ethnic and religious fighters in Battalion 4. "We feel like we are one family. Our enemy is only the military," she said.

The more important issues they faced were a lack of medical supplies and weapons, she added. However, she did also point out that the resistance could do more to include women, who make up at least 10% of her battallion but are rarely sent to the frontline. She said that women could contribute more than providing medical care in the rear.

Resistance draws local support

In the valley below CDF-KKG's mountain base, near the junta-controlled city of Kale, a former boarding school made of wood no longer welcomes students, but a steady stream of resistance fighters.

Austin Mon, 51, was once the principal. He has lived through two prior uprisings against the military — in 1988 and 1996. He supported the democracy movement then, but didn't involve himself in activism. His parents had told him it was too dangerous.

Now that he has a family of his own, he sees this conflict as his last chance to fight for democracy. After closing his school, he became vice-president of the CDF-KKG.

Austin Mon said that around a fifth of his former students had also joined the resistance group — youths from diverse ethnic, religious and economic backgrounds.

"When I saw my former students join the CDF, I felt proud. But when they go to the frontline I worry. They are always on my mind when they go. I can't eat or sleep," he said.

Injuries are an integral part of the fight against the junta (photo: DW)
Injuries are an integral part of the fight against the junta (photo: DW)

Despite this, he said that he would fight to the end. This revolution could not be missed, he said.

Sin Bout from Battalion 4 also said that there would be no returning home for him until the war was over. "I miss my family and friends. But we don't have a choice. We feel like it is our duty," he said.

He explained his ideal Myanmar would be a country where there is equal treatment of all ethnic and religious groups, freedom of speech and economic opportunity.

He said that the military had stolen these things from his generation — as it had already done to others who came before.

In the cool mountain air of the camp, Sin Bout strummed his acoustic guitar and sang songs he wrote about revolution and the struggle for a free Myanmar.

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