The moment occurred in February 2021, not long after the coup, as the junta tightened its grip on Yangon’s seven million increasingly agitated citizens. One afternoon around 2 p.m., a group of political dissidents convened in the modest apartment that Hemant and I shared. They had been invited by a friend we knew from our time working with Rohingya communities in Rakhine State. Our thoughts burned with anticipation as our living room turned into a debate floor and those gathered argued and strategized ways to resist the police and the junta’s military and intelligence apparatus.
Hours passed before a consensus was reached to organize a fundraising campaign to support the civil servants who had bravely gone on strike in protest of the recent military takeover. Courageous workers from the transportation, education, health, and postal sectors were in dire need of safe houses and food as they attempted to evade the junta’s soldiers and police patrols. The military was working ruthlessly to identify and arrest anyone involved in the strikes. As punishment for subversive actions, police were evicting demonstrators’ families from their homes.
Amid the fiery discussions, one figure stood out: a Burmese man in his 30s, bespectacled and bearded, his voice booming across the room like a clarion call to action. His name was Ko Tint.
From the shadows of that turbulent March—as police continued to tighten their grip on the city, more people disappeared, and the methods of interrogation grew ever more brutal—Ko Tint unexpectedly appeared on our doorstep one evening and asked to spend the night. We quickly welcomed him into our home, and later he told us that he no longer felt safe in his apartment. He’d been moving from place to place, sleeping on couches, never staying too long in one location.
I had seen him at public demonstrations before, fearlessly addressing massive crowds. But it wasn’t until I joined the General Strike Committee for Nationalities (GSCN) on the frontlines of the protests that I discovered his true importance. Ko Tint was deeply committed to any activity he believed would help end the junta’s rule of oppression. As co-founder of Youn Htwet Soe, (“Let’s Step Out From this Regime”) and a representative for Burmese youth in the GSCN, a prominent strike committee, he stood among the vanguard of the resistance movement.
By day, Ko Tint maintained a public personae. By night, he worked with the Yangon underground, preparing molotov cocktails and conducting sabotage missions on the military cordon that now encircled the city. A month after the coup, although demonstrators showed no signs of relenting, some within the resistance began questioning the effectiveness of non-violence. It had little effect on the military’s brutal suppression of dissent and a shift in strategy began to gain traction. The situation reached a boiling point in March when more than 100 protesters in several cities were murdered in broad daylight by junta soldiers. A cynical, cold-blooded attempt to intimidate protesters ended up galvanizing a collective sense of desperation and courage across Myanmar. For those in the resistance, it meant they must now fight the regime by any means necessary.
The following month, Ko Tint arranged for a group of student-rebels to travel to one of Myanmar’s liberated frontier regions, where they would receive military training, food, and shelter. They never made it. They were arrested before they left the city. Later that day, I received a frantic phone call urging me to flee immediately. I’d been sending money to one of the young men who’d just been arrested while hiding out in Yangon, and it was likely that my identity was now known to his interrogators. They must have had him under surveillance, and they wouldn’t hesitate to use torture to get whatever information they wanted out of him. In a matter of seconds, our situation had become perilous. We had to act quickly and decisively to have any chance of protecting ourselves or our loved ones.
For Hemant and I, that included our soon-to-be-born daughter. Hemant was eight-months pregnant at the time—our decision to escape from imminent danger in Yangon and seek refuge abroad meant we didn’t know if or when our parents would ever see their granddaughter. She was born two weeks after we arrived in the United States as asylum seekers. We were not the only ones who were forced to flee our homeland—to flee the fight—but there is little solace in knowing that others were forced to do the same.
Meanwhile, Ko Tint embarked on a very different journey. He made his way from Yangon to the Karenni (Kayah) State, a region with a reputation as one of the earliest and most formidable rebel strongholds in Myanmar. Its inhabitants had opted to take up arms rather than kowtow to Burma’s (Myanmar’s) seventy-year succession of oppressive regimes. It was within this hostile, volatile, rebellious environment that Ko Tint continued his obsessive pursuit of freedom, justice, and democracy for the people of Myanmar.
Beginning in October 2022, the conflict intensified between the junta’s armed forces (known as the Tatmadaw) and a defense coalition comprised of the Karenni National Defense Force (KNDF) and the Karenni Army. Sources reported that platoons of soldiers were attacking Karenni villages, massacring residents, and setting homes ablaze as punishment for supporting the rebels. Ko Tint went to help rescue the villagers who’d managed to flee the violence. A few weeks later, a mortar shell nearly struck his tent. He was wounded, but thankfully with non-life threatening injuries. In late March, just as this essay was about to be published, fighter jets strafed the rebel base where Ko Tint lives. He was wounded again, but he continues to fight. The trauma, he admits, will take much longer to heal than the wounds.
Late last year, the Tatmadaw shifted tactics and began bombing public spaces, hospitals, and schools from the air. They also target medics, like Ko Tint and his team. When they hear the roar of jets, they’re taught to rush toward the nearest bunker system, but often they must wait out the bombings as Air Force pilots decimate the surrounding tree cover and pin them down. Between air raids, Army forces fire a constant barrage of 120mm mortars and howitzers at the rebel base, but the ethnic militias don’t possess the long-range artillery to strike back. Every day, the Tatmadaw selects a different location to bomb. From Ko Tint’s vantage point, it all depends on fate. In the revolutionary areas, known as “Black Areas”, the junta doesn’t care about the public. Everyone is the enemy.
The committee that oversees Kayah’s Medical Division, on which Ko Tint serves, plans to open a medical college at the base that will receive training and support from doctors who studied at some of Myanmar’s most prestigious schools of medicine. The field hospital at the base is currently staffed with a general surgeon, a neurosurgeon, a trauma surgeon, and an OB/GYN, but it lacks critical medical equipment.
To those who know him, Ko Tint is an inspiration and a beacon of hope in the struggle against tyranny and oppression. In the last two years, he has launched Federal FM, a radio station that disseminates crucial news to villagers living in rebel-controlled areas of Myanmar. He also co-founded an educational institute for internally displaced people (IDPs), of which Karenni State alone has approximately 100,000. Today, Ko Tint and his colleagues are working tirelessly to establish an organization called Nwe Oo Guru Lay Myar (“Masters of the Spring Revolution”) that educates and trains youth about democracy and civic engagement so that they may one day help steward Myanmar’s future.