There is anguish in the voice of Thurain, who a few months ago was a young entrepreneur in Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar. Now he’s part of an underground resistance group opposing the brutal Burmese military that overthrew the nation’s democratically elected government in February. And he’s talking about an assassination his secret cadre executed.
Speaking with me through an encrypted application, Thurain—this is a pseudonym he uses—doesn’t want to go into details. He would rather talk about his overall operation and how he came to help build a clandestine network. Prior to the coup, Thurain, who is in his late 20s and who was born in a conflict zone near the Thai border, had several businesses, including a translation service and a software development firm. Since the military’s takeover, a nonviolent protest movement has steadily organized protests against the new dictatorship and demanded a restoration of democracy. The military junta has responded by killing hundreds of protesters and bystanders—including children—and detaining or arresting thousands. Initially, Thurain attended the protests, but he eventually decided that with his organizational skills he would be better suited to work in the shadows. “My personality is not a frontline person,” he said in an interview on the Insight Myanmar podcast last month. “My skill is more like strategic approach and coordination, and motivating people.”
Thurain describes his set-up to me: he works in a covert group that has about 50 members, and it collaborates with about eight other cells in the Yangon area. He says these bands have become part of a special task force of the People’s Defense Force, which was created in early May as the military wing of the National Unity Government, a coalition of anti-coup leaders and groups that insists it is the legitimate government of Myanmar. The NUG, which includes the National League for Democracy, the political party led by Aung San Suu Kyi that was ousted from power by the Burmese military, calls the PDF a precursor to a federal army that will attempt to join together various armed ethnic insurgent groups and the main political opposition. (Aung San Suu Kyi is being held by the junta and subjected to a rash of trumped-up charges that could lead to a sentence of life imprisonment.) According to Thurain, there are now about 250 people seeking membership in his group. But he and his colleagues are very careful in vetting who they allow in.
Their main mission at the moment is to prevent the military and the police from gaining control of the ward administration offices—local governing bodies that have tremendous influence within the neighborhoods they oversee. Under Burmese laws, these offices maintain active rosters of the civilians who live within their jurisdictions, tracking their residences and holding extensive demographic information on each person and household. This data reveals who lives where—say, a particular apartment is home to two parents and three children. The information will include the ages, ethnicity, and religion of each person in the dwelling.
As Thurain explains, if the military and police have access to this information, they can track and monitor the population and more effectively thwart and hunt down members of the political opposition and the resistance: “It makes it hard for people to hide.” So his group aims to prevent the security forces from taking over these offices. “We warn people in the ward offices not to work for the military and police,” he says. “We want to make sure the administration is not controlled by the military. Whoever controls the ward administration wins.” Most of the information in the ward offices, he points out, is contained in paper records. Several offices, he reports, have been bombed or burned to prevent the military from gaining access to these records.
Another key target for Thurain’s group are people believed to be informants providing information on the opposition to the military or police. “This part is complicated,” Thurain says. “We have to find evidence if they really are informants. Only if we have evidence that they are harmful to the people can we act.”
Mostly, he says, he and his comrades rely on persuasion to neutralize informants or junta collaborators: “We warn them three to four times. We ask them to please leave the area.” Sometimes they send letters to their targets or stick notices to their offices; “We tell them that people in this area don’t want you here. You should move.” He adds, “We don’t want to kill anyone. And almost all of the time we have succeeded.” But he also says, “If they don’t agree. We remove them.” What does this mean? Is there a specific threat? What happens if their targets are unpersuaded?
Thurain is reluctant to say more. “We will take the next step,” he remarks. He changes the subject, noting that his cell’s work is in preparation for what he and others believe is a coming civil war between the military and the opposition: “When that happens, we want there to be less people working with the military and police who are working for the townships and administrative bodies.”
He tells me that his group is starting to plan for direct attacks on the military and the police. Not in the immediate future, but perhaps soon. This course of action, he says, requires weapons and training that he and his colleagues do not yet have. If they were to move directly against the military and police at this time, he notes, “there is a very low chance we can win.” But his group, like others, is now starting to stockpile weapons, including rifles and guns. They have smuggled some arms into Yangon from the border, anticipating that the NUG will be able to raise its federal army in the coming weeks. He says that representatives of the PDF have provided his group with a timeline of when they expect to launch attacks against the military. That information is confidential.
In mid-May, according to Thurain, two members of his group were arrested—not because of their involvement in the underground but because they had participated in public protests. This caused the group to issue an order to its members: do not attend the demonstrations. An arrest of any member poses a danger to the entire unit. Following these arrests, the police took actions against their group that prompted Thurain and his colleagues to conclude that the arrested pair had been tortured and provided information on their cell. (Other detainees have described being tortured while being held.)
Several weeks prior to these arrests, two other people from the group were captured and killed. “They exposed me,” Thurain said. “The police don’t know my name, but they know someone like me exists, doing what I do.” He believes the security forces have been pursuing him. Consequently, he moves from one location to another frequently, often residing with friends. At one point in April, he was staying at an apartment in a compound, when a police raid occurred and the compound was searched. The apartment where he was hiding was the only one in the compound the police skipped. He often is terrified and has tried to calm himself through painting, writing poems, and meditation. (The military junta has killed several poets and imprisoned more than 30, according to the country’s National Poets’ Union.)
With some hesitation, Thurain returns to topic of using violence. He and his covert colleagues are not eager to adopt such measures, he insists: “We try all the time to get them”—his unit’s targets—”to leave. Only if they don’t, we take the next step.” He pauses and then continues: “We did it one time.”
There was a man in a nearby township who was running a spy ring aimed at the pro-democracy opposition, Thurain says. His operation had provided information to the military and police that led to the deaths of at least 10 people and the arrests of others. “People were so afraid in that township,” he recalls. This target had bodyguards, but Thurain’s group, using information from someone close to the alleged spy, found a way to evade the guards. Two members got close and killed him.
“With weapons?” I asked. “There were no weapons,” Thurain replies. “And nobody knew what happened to him. He just disappeared. We didn’t claim credit. We never claim credit. Our group is a ghost group.”
Wasn’t it hard to make a dead body disappear? “It’s not complicated,” he says. “It’s very simple. I don’t want to tell.”
Reflecting on this particular operation, Thurain observes, “Assassinations are very extreme, and we are not extremists. There is nothing more painful. When we are in a revolution there are things we don’t want to do but we must. I’m a businessman, a corporate consultant. But in a revolution there are things we don’t want to do but we have to do. I’m not comfortable with that. That’s what you must know.” And with a sadness in his voice, he adds, “I grew up under the military government [which ruled from 1962 until the 2010s]. We don’t want to go back. I’m the owner of three businesses. Me and the other people don’t want to go back to the previous dark ages. We’re fighting for our hope. You guys are lucky to be in your country. We still have to fight.”