Under a canopy in a bamboo forest in northern Myanmar, an anti-coup fighter following instructions from YouTube welded steel into raw mortars and shells to fire at junta forces.
Nearly two years after seizing power, the military has been unable to crush the local militias that sprang up to fight the coup with hit-and-run tactics.
In contrast, this PDF is still significantly superior to military artillery strikes, Chinese and Russian jet aircraft and Israeli guns.
Analysts say captured weapons and expensive black-market purchases provided patchy reinforcements to the PDF’s firepower, but many militias have turned to risky and error-prone operations to produce their own rockets, mines, and mortars.
“We only learn how to make weapons from the internet or YouTube,” said Nai Min, an anti-coup fighter from the northern Sagaing region.
“We are looking at how to cook potassium nitrate, how to collect it to make gunpowder, how to make guns. We haven’t had any training,” he told AFP.
He said that those with engineering or mechanical backgrounds, such as his comrade Nai Myo Win, experiment and come up with prototypes or copies of captured weapons.
In their hands, they sweat for hours in makeshift generator-powered workshops that are frequent targets of junta raids.
Nai Myo Win mixes rock salt to make the gunpowder needed to fire mortars filled with lead and scrap metal that are claimed to have a range of just over two kilometers (1.2 miles).
The mortars were laid on tarpaulins before a mission in October, and they are modest – little more than masonry tubes welded to bipods.
Projectiles require two blast charges – one to fire the projectile and one to detonate on impact – a method first used at the beginning of the 20th century.
But Nai Min said the damage is great — “about 15 feet from the target, people will get hit and die or get injured.”
One batch of the shells was made from a communications tower owned by a company close to the army, which was sabotaged by the PDF fighters a few months ago.
“We just wanted to destroy their business,” Nai Min added.
“But after we started making homemade weapons…we needed more stainless steel and thought about the turret.”
The Nai Min Group is one of dozens of Sajing PDF militias making their own weapons in an attempt to turn the tide of the fight.
Many upload footage of successful mortar, missile or mine tests to social media, with exhilarating shouts accompanying each loud noise.
But work can be deadly.
“It’s more than dangerous,” said Bo Chaung, an anti-coup fighter and missile maker from another group working in Sagaing.
“When we cook gunpowder, if we add too much rock salt, it’s dangerous. If we add too little, it’s dangerous too.”
A video obtained by AFP shows a test of a new mortar. The shell exploded in the barrel, killing the fighter who had just carried it.
Thu Ya, another anti-coup fighter, said he lost his sight six months ago when the device he was dealing with exploded too soon.
“I had injuries to my hands and my feet are now recovered but… I still have blurry vision,” he said.
In the absence of machinery such as lathes and voltage regulators, each casing is made by hand.
And despite all the risks that come with their production, homemade munitions are often more bark than bite.
Once a target is identified, Nai Min said, it can take up to 10 days to prepare ammunition for an attack.
His group relies on information from local residents to gauge the locations of the troops.
To direct their fire, they have little more than Google Maps to measure the distance from the target.
“We usually attack them in our areas and we all know the locations and the distance,” he said, stressing that most of the attacks were accurate.
Bangkok-based security analyst Anthony Davis said assessing the effectiveness of these weapons was “extremely difficult” in the absence of impartial reports from the field.
Analysts say both sides are regularly inflating or understating losses.
But Davis said the proliferation of home-made mortars and rockets “suggests that these systems are far from just decorating windows.”
“They take real casualties, but just as important is perhaps a constant drain on the morale of often isolated army units on the receiving end.”
The Military Council has designated all groups of the PDF as “terrorist”. It blames anti-coup fighters for the deaths of more than 4,000 civilians.
Nai Min sees his group’s fight as justified.
“We are satisfied with what we did,” he said.
But “we need everything. Especially because we need weapons.”
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