It was a long month. As Htay Mo trekked through rivers and across mountains thick with jungle, sleeping rough and relying on handouts, the word of a haven kept her going.
The 26-year-old – who navigated landmines, snakes and soldiers as she carried her disabled son to safety – was forced out of her village in eastern Myanmar amid the junta’s brutal post-coup crackdown.
“At home, we spent most of the time in a dug-out shelter, but the military would fine or arrest us even for that,” she said.
As neighbours were wounded in the explosions that shook Kayah state, Htay Mo decided that fleeing was her only option. Now, the family are concealed in a growing camp on the steep slopes near the Thai border.
They are just a fraction of some 74,000 people in Kayah, and one million nationwide, who have been displaced since the coup in February 2021. In the last 20 months, the Burmese military has bombed, burned and massacred villages as they attempt to squash pro-democracy resistance.
Telegraph journalists recently visited the rebel-held area, where roughly 2,400 people are living in the shadow of the military that they narrowly escaped.
Displaced people at the camp expect the war will drag on for years or even decades, as both sides, though trading jabs, seem far from dealing a finishing blow. Forced to leave their belongings, they are rebuilding their lives in relative safety.
But the fighter jets and drones that harassed their villages sometimes swoop over their huts when clashes escalate, forcing them to hide underground or run to the border, where the Thai authorities eventually push them back.
One resident pointed warily towards a nearby mountain where Burmese troops are based. “When there’s intense fighting, military aircraft flies over the camp in the nights,” he said. “Getting here doesn’t mean that you are 100 per cent safe.”
Bathing in rainwater
But they refuse to languish in the jungle. The community has built a clinic, a college, and a high school. Students assemble on a yard in the early morning mist, near a dormitory insulated with their scribbled notes. Buddhists, Christians, and animists have their own places of worship.
They drink and bathe using rainwater, thatch leaf roofs on bamboo huts, pickle bamboo shoots and carve roads from the mud. Some forage for wild greens to supplement a diet of rationed rice but hunting trips for bear and deer are rare because of the threat of dormant mines and roaming troops.
There is also a basic medical centre, where Shining Wah – a clinical assistant before the coup – helps care for 10 to 15 patients a day, mostly victims of malaria and influenza. About 20 malnourished children are also receiving treatment, and sometimes landmine victims are rushed in on makeshift stretchers. But there is little the clinic can do to help them without morphine, or even a qualified doctor.
The team has asked the Thai authorities if these cases can be transferred to a better-equipped clinic in a Karenni refugee camp on the other side of the border, which was formed after Myanmar’s last pro-democracy uprising in 1988. Sometimes, and unofficially, help is offered.
Thailand has reportedly turned away refugees since the coup and restricted travelling on a bumpy road linking the newly displaced to the refugees, but the old camp has become a vital food source for the Myanmar side.
A narrow path through the jungle connects the two. On foot, the journey takes about three hours, which people complete in the cloak of darkness to avoid detection. It’s an unofficial and sporadic supply route – if senior Thai authorities noticed, they could easily cut it off.
But inside the Myanmar displacement camp, September has brought a rare moment of cheer – a festival that celebrates unity among the ethnic Karenni, who comprise the camp’s majority. A traditional snack marks the event: sticky rice tucked into triangular parcels of three folded leaves, which symbolise solidarity.
Unity is no easy task in a country riven with division, where even armed groups of the same ethnicity are fighting each other in neighbouring Shan state. The resistance lacks a cohesive nationwide strategy, which plays into the hands of the military, who can then concentrate its sophisticated weaponry on crushing pockets of dissent.
Twenty months into the dictatorship, camp leader Carter Mya, 42, has lost hope of concrete support from abroad, but he says if the people come together, “following the example of the Karenni,” they can win.
Although toil and poverty mark the camp, Carter said that thousands more civilians were desperate for rebels to escort them here, but rescue efforts were paused because of torrential rains. “Now they have fled into the jungle, sheltering in caves and near streams,” he said.
Carter had organised food rations for new armed recruits and helped dissidents escape, becoming a wanted man himself. Knowing the junta often detains the children of those it hunts, his family scrambled their essentials and fled with him.
Soldiers ‘see the enemy’
He asked friends back home to bury his cherished qualification certificates in case soldiers destroyed them during a raid on his house.
“We must kill them, otherwise they’ll kill all of us,” he said, referring to the junta. “This time they are fighting not just with the ethnic armed groups. It’s against the public as well, and if the soldiers see civilians, they see the enemy.”
Cross-legged on his slatted floor, Poe Rey, 38, said that after he escaped, soldiers torched his house of 20 years in Loikaw township – an account, added to the satellite imagery and social media posts, that shows the military is reverting to scorched-earth tactics.
“The Burmese soldiers were randomly shelling and bombing our village,” he said. “If I go back, and I don’t have a house, what should I do? I will probably just stay here.”
A neighbour, Thaw Meh, 42, chimed in, saying her village would empty at the first sign of Burmese troops.
“Why do these oppress us?” she said. “Over the last two months, people still there have phoned us saying that soldiers are raping Karenni women. We know what these soldiers have done, and we hate them.”
At a rebel post near the camp, a former waitress vowed to supplant the dictatorship with “a society run by the people”. Traditional ground bark paste swirled around her crimson lipstick like war paint as she scanned the horizon.
“Very soon we will win,” said the 21-year-old.
Like thousands of other Generation Z, her anger over the coup was inflamed by a bloody crackdown on peaceful protests, and then harnessed under the tutelage of ethnic militia.
The uprising has brought about motley insurgents – many poorly armed and stunted by disunity – warring against one of Southeast Asia’s biggest armies.
But the junta has failed to contain the resistance. Its economic blundering has dragged millions back into poverty and some of its own defecting soldiers have joined the struggle against it.
The generals have responded with brutality – yet rebels still persist in their fight for freedom. The Karenni, in particular, have long sought autonomy from the central power. Though many share Paw’s confidence in victory, not all believe it will come soon.
Bu Reh*, an official of a frontline township, was building a home for his family at the camp before returning to the conflict, where he was involved in the emergence of a Karenni-run administration supported by defecting police officers.
He said he was fighting “not just for the Karenni,” adding that “everyone must come together”.
“Resting is not possible,” he said, wearily. “A week at the most, depending on the movement of Burmese soldiers, and then we fight again.”
Draping an arm over a wooden bannister, he spat out a jet of betel juice and spoke quietly. “Many people around my village have gone missing – killed or arrested by the military,” he said. “We must keep moving forward until we reach our goal. Now is the time to finally overthrow them.”
*Some names have been changed for security reasons.