Dr. Sasa Visits a Bomb-Making Class

Marc LeQuieu giving a lecture to Myanmar activists and others

Editor’s note: A spokesperson for Myanmar’s National Unity Government threatened New Naratif with legal action if we did not comply with the organisation’s demands regarding this article. You can find their demands and New Naratif’s responses here.

On 14 June, a man wearing a white T-shirt, baseball cap and blonde goatee turns on his webcam, revealing a dimly lit room full of construction materials, safety equipment and a jumble of small containers, some of them labelled as gunpowder.

Speaking into the camera, he recounts spending several hours that day “putting some things together”: mortar casings, a selection of cannons and homemade firearms known as zip guns.

“I built a full-scale, 10-pound mortar today, and I’m going to show some of those things,” he tells his audience of around 40 people, who have gathered via Zoom to watch the demonstration.

For the next two hours, Marc Andre LeQuieu, an American hunter and self-described machinist, crouches over his work table, holding his materials up to the camera while explaining how to build a variety of weapons that can be used against the Myanmar military. The military, known as the Tatmadaw, overthrew the country’s elected civilian government in February and has since killed more than a thousand people suspected of opposing their rule.

Listing off supplies—coffee cans, PVC pipe, black powder and ammonium nitrate—he tells the group: “I’m going to show you how to make a large mortar shell.” 

The lecture was one of at least six Zoom meetings LeQuieu held with pro-democracy activists, guerilla fighters and, occasionally, international humanitarian service providers between March and August. In addition to teaching the attendees how to make guns and explosives, he offered tips on how to survive airstrikes by hiding in bathtubs, disable a car using a potato, and use “poop” and “salmonella food poisoning” to “make people sick”. 

He also shared e-books with attendees with titles like Ragnar’s Big Book of Homemade Weapons, CIA Lock Picking and How to Start and Train a Militia Unit.

“In order to prevail, the commitment to violence has to be made,” LeQuieu tells participants during a meeting on 5 April. “I don’t mean to be the white guy in the room preaching violence, but in order to end violence, it takes a more violent act to do it. That’s why, when we talk in the United States, what does it take to stop a bad person with a gun? A good person with a gun.” 

Protesters in Mandalay, Myanmar, raise the anti-coup three-finger salute while holding up Dr. Sasa face masks on 22 May 2021.
Protesters in Mandalay, Myanmar, raise the anti-coup three-finger salute while holding up Dr. Sasa face masks on 22 May 2021. Sai Han One/Shutterstock

About an hour into the 14 June meeting, while LeQuieu, 44, is listing the various uses of improvised firearms, an attendee abruptly interrupts the lecture: “I just wanted to welcome Dr. Sasa to the meeting.” 

For about 20 minutes, Dr. Sasa, the spokesperson and Minister of International Cooperation for the National Unity Government—the chief political rival to Myanmar’s military junta—showers thanks and praise on the attendees, declaring that he is “open to everyone” supporting efforts to defeat the military.

The presence of a senior NUG leader at a weapons-making webinar led by an American gun enthusiast—one who advocates for anti-coup activists to take up arms against one of the region’s largest militaries despite knowing little about Myanmar—raises questions about how the shadow government intends to balance its “people’s defensive war” against the junta with its ongoing struggle for democratic legitimacy.

No Bloodshed

Since the NUG’s earliest days, armed conflict has been part of its strategy for supplanting the military. The organisation was established in April, largely by deposed lawmakers from Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy. In May, the group set up an armed wing, the People’s Defence Force. 

According to regional security analyst Anthony Davis, PDF forces are now being trained by veteran armed groups such as the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front, Karen National Liberation Army and Kachin Independence Army, which have been fighting the Tatmadaw for decades.

Weeks after the formation of the PDF, the NUG released a code of conduct, which says resistance fighters “must not threaten, target or attack civilians” or target places where civilians might be located. In recent months, the NUG has also made multiple statements permitting the public to use violence in self-defence. 

On 7 September, after months of rumours about a coming “D-Day”, the NUG announced a “people’s defensive war against the military junta”, calling on civilians to “assist and protect the people’s defence forces” fighting the military.

However, throughout the majority of the post-coup period, the commitment to preemptive violence has been a minority position within Myanmar’s broader pro-democracy movement, which has overwhelmingly been characterised by peaceful demonstrations and labour strikes staged by the Civil Disobedience Movement. With only small military victories to date and little likelihood of defeating the Tatmadaw without international aid and the ability to procure military equipment, the NUG has concentrated its efforts on courting international support, an endeavor largely led by its charismatic spokesperson, Dr. Sasa.

In the wake of the coup, Sasa has been campaigning relentlessly for diplomatic recognition as Myanmar’s legitimate government, giving dozens of interviews about the NUG’s commitments to diversity and human rights, and its self-proclaimed popular mandate. His efforts have yielded some results. In June, the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly for a nonbinding resolution calling on the Myanmar military to respect the results of the November 2020 general election, which Sasa’s party, the NLD, won in a landslide.

 “I don’t mean to be the white guy in the room preaching violence, but in order to end violence, it takes a more violent act to do it. That’s why, when we talk in the United States, what does it take to stop a bad person with a gun? A good person with a gun.”

The next test will come on 14 September, when a UN committee and the General Assembly are expected to deliberate on whether the NUG or the Tatmadaw should represent Myanmar at the UN, or possibly delay making a decision

In a 30 August speech, Sasa called on lawmakers in New Zealand to “help us with everything in your power to ensure that the UNGA abides by its mandate to uphold the well-being of the people of Myanmar” by accepting the NUG as the “sole representative of the people and country of Myanmar”.

In the run-up to the vote, Sasa has cultivated a folksy image for an international audience, recounting to journalists his narrow escape from Myanmar by disguising himself as a taxi driver; his humble upbringing in mountainous Chin State, where he never learned his exact date of birth; and his success in setting up a medical humanitarian organisation in his village with support from Prince Charles.

In one profile, Sasa entreats US president Joe Biden to recognise the NUG and stresses: “We want to win without fighting, no bloodshed.”

The NUG’s vocal commitment to protecting civilian lives is a key selling point for the organisation. The Special Advisory Council for Myanmar, a group of independent human rights experts, cites the NUG’s efforts to become a party to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court—something the Tatmadaw has not done—as a key indicator that the NUG deserves official recognition by other governments.

But on 8 September, the day after the NUG’s declaration of war against the Tatmadaw, one of the same rights experts noted that violence was the cause of Myanmar people’s suffering, not the solution. “We empathise with the NUG, but we fear for what will happen as a result of this decision,” the expert said in a statement.

Anti-coup protesters in Taunggyi, Shan State hold protest signs and makeshift shields on 10 March 2021.
Anti-coup protesters in Taunggyi, Shan State hold protest signs and makeshift shields on 10 March 2021. R. Bociaga/Shutterstock

In LeQuieu’s meetings with Myanmar activists and fighters, he acknowledges that if attendees heed his call for violence, they could threaten the progress others have made on the diplomatic front.

“You have to be very careful in guerrilla warfare and terror campaigns,” he tells his audience on 31 May. “There will be civilian casualties—it should be expected. But every effort should be made to avoid that, because that will also turn public opinion—international public opinion as well.”

Nonetheless, he proceeds to teach them how to create weapons that are, by nature, indiscriminate. On 14 June, he suggests using a steel pipe to make a “shrapneling device”. He explains how to create a “miniature cannon”, saying “anything you put down that barrel is going to come out at high velocity”, such as “nails wrapped in a bundle”.

Around 20 minutes later, during the same meeting, Sasa joins the call. He addresses the participants, telling them: “Thank you all for doing everything you can to defeat this military junta. I hope that you guys will keep it up.”

One meeting attendee, who asked not to be named, tells New Naratif that he was “glad to see Dr. Sasa at the meeting because it means that the NUG is on the side of the people”.

Who Is Marc LeQuieu?

LeQuieu’s demonstrations are frenetic yet thorough. At one point, he explains that he cannot drive a final screw into a device for “legal reasons”, so he completes his demonstration verbally. 

During some of his lectures, he shares colourful anecdotes from his past, describing competitions where he and his friends launched bowling balls at targets with homemade mortars, and using zip guns to “kill black mambas”—snakes that are native to Sub-Saharan Africa.

Referring to another weapon, he says: “I’ve seen guys mount these in a rotary system, so that they can literally sit and go ‘Bam!’ and then rotate it and go ‘Bam!’ and then rotate it and go ‘Bam!’” 

Although LeQuieu admits during one webinar that he knows little about Myanmar, its history or its ethnic dynamics, he stresses the necessity of violence in confronting the Tatmadaw. On 5 April, he posits that the fight against the military might claim the lives of up to 3,000 rebels, but “in the grand scale of warfare, those deaths are very small”. 

Imagining himself as a resistance leader in the mountains of “Min-mar” with an army of a few hundred men, he disparages the mass protests, saying: “I would be very reluctant to take those [men] against the military fighting force if the people I was going to assist were just holding cardboard signs and not showing any real progress toward a goal.”

Later, after warning attendees about the possibility of a Chinese invasion of Myanmar and subsequent “bloodbath”, LeQuieu stresses: “You have to be willing to inflict the same damages that are being inflicted upon you, and it almost has to be an embrace of that mentality. You have to get it through your head that when you see a soldier, that soldier is the enemy, and that soldier needs to die.”

Myanmar security forces line up in formation during anti-coup protests in Taunggyi, Shan State on 10 March 2021.
Myanmar security forces line up in formation during anti-coup protests in Taunggyi, Shan State on 10 March 2021. R. Bociaga/Shutterstock

During his appearance on 14 June, Sasa expresses similar sentiments, while also vowing to “provide political leadership” to the pro-democracy movement. 

“Dear friends, let us not have any confusion that these people are bad, bad people, and we need to take them out,” he says. “This military institution known as the Tatmadaw has become like a cancer within the body of Myanmar…that will kill all of our people.”

Responding to a question from New Naratif about his relationship with LeQuieu, Sasa says during the same meeting: “I am open to talk to everyone who is not [on] the side of the military junta. The question is: are you with us or not?”

Others familiar with LeQuieu’s webinars have been more discerning. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the head of a human rights group tells New Naratif that he joined one of the Zoom meetings by invitation, but left quickly.

“We’re a human rights organisation. We don’t advocate violence,” he says. “If non-state actors pick up arms, they need to abide by the laws of war, but regardless of that, the idea that outsiders would essentially be advocating for young Myanmar people to use violence and risk their lives struck me as ill-advised and seriously problematic.”

A spokesperson for Sasa tells New Naratif via email that the NUG minister “had some minor level of familiarity with Mr. LeQuieu”, but “Marc is not, nor has he ever been, an advisor to either Dr. Sasa or NUG, official or unofficial”.

“Dear friends, let us not have any confusion that these people are bad, bad people, and we need to take them out.”

A search for the name “Marc LeQuieu” on social media turns up a YouTube profile showing LeQuieu giving a shooting lesson; a Facebook profile showing him standing over a recently slain African buffalo, with two rifles propped up against the animal’s carcase; and a Twitter account with a header photo containing the logo of the Three Percenters, an American anti-government militia. 

In an email to New Naratif, LeQuieu says the Twitter account is not his, and he did not know the meaning of the logo until asking someone else about it.

“I am not, nor would I ever be associated with this group or any of its kind,” he says.

He also denies having set up a LinkedIn account that contains a detailed work history, including more than six years at the US Bureau of Land Management and stints as a firefighter for the US National Park Service and as a volunteer reserve sheriff’s deputy in Oregon. New Naratif was able to reach LeQuieu through the contact information listed on the LinkedIn account, and two officials in Oregon—a sheriff and a BLM supervisor—confirmed that LeQuieu had worked for them in the past.

LeQuieu tells New Naratif he was not paid for the meetings, during which he was “trying to answer questions for people who were desperate to protect themselves and defend their lives”.

Screenshots of social media pages that appear in search results for the name "Marc LeQuieu".
Screenshots of social media pages that appear in search results for the name “Marc LeQuieu”.

Five people tell New Naratif that they joined the webinars under the impression that LeQuieu had worked for the CIA. The head of the human rights organisation says: “My understanding was that many of these young people were led to believe they were being advised by US military personnel.”

During a phone interview in May, LeQuieu tells New Naratif that he was “recruited again by Central Intelligence and the Department of State” and “had a handler” after having been hired by the US State Department to help with a search-and-rescue operation involving a US citizen “when Zimbabwe fell apart”.

“I’ve never been a military person. I’ve never gone to boot camp,” he continues. “I’ve never held a job with intelligence agencies. I’ve just been requested.”

Later, in an email, LeQuieu adds: “Obviously I cannot answer for impressions of me by others.”

Neither the CIA nor US State Department responded to questions from New Naratif about LeQuieu.

Cowboys in Myanmar 

LeQuieu follows in a long tradition of Western men inserting themselves into the Myanmar people’s fight against the Tatmadaw, which has ruled the country for almost all of the last 60 years. 

In 2009, an American named John Yettaw illegally swam to the lakeside home where NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi had been held under house arrest since 2003 (she was imprisoned again on the day of the most recent coup). Yettaw claimed his actions prevented the military from assassinating Aung San Suu Kyi by bringing international attention to her plight, but his unsolicited visit violated the terms of her house arrest, resulting in the extension of her imprisonment by 18 months.

In the early 1990s, an Australian veteran named David Everett committed a series of kidnappings and robberies in order to raise funds to buy arms for the Karen National Liberation Army, which has been fighting for autonomy in Myanmar’s eastern Karen State for more than 70 years. He became one of Australia’s most wanted criminals and served 10 years in prison.

“There’s quite a lot of cowboys” in the history of Myanmar, says Kim Jolliffe, an independent researcher who focuses on Myanmar. These cowboys, he says, range from traumatised soldiers who no longer know how to live outside a war zone, to journalists who want a thrill or an easy story, to legitimate experts who sincerely want to help. 

People in Myanmar “find it difficult to know who’s who—to know who the harmful people are”, Joliffe says.

“These are untrained kids who are going up against a military that is experienced in quelling rebellions for the past 70 years.”

“I knew one guy, a US veteran called Lance Motley, who fought with the mujahideen against the Russians in Herat, Afghanistan, and was later killed fighting with the KNLA against the Tatmadaw,” says Davis, the security analyst.

“Every conflict attracts a certain number of foreign camp-followers eager to participate in or promote the cause,” Davis says. “Some are driven by ideological or political or religious motives. Others by simple adrenaline rush. ​​Today, some of these characters don’t need to risk their necks. They can operate and offer ‘training’ online.”

The Last Fight

The early days of Myanmar’s anti-coup movement were characterised by record-breaking numbers of peaceful protesters occupying the streets throughout the country. The military had been shooting protesters since the first weeks of the coup, but the violence was sporadic. LeQuieu hosted his first few Zoom meetings around this time, and participants were mainly interested in learning how to make bulletproof shields and body armour.

But by late March, Tatmadaw forces were committing massacres regularly, and some once-peaceful activists turned toward offensive tactics.

During a Zoom lesson with LeQuieu on 5 April, one attendee asked in the chat box: “Marc, Please teach us to built a Pipe Bomb?”

A few weeks later, he acceded, offering a lengthy verbal explanation of how to fill a steel pipe with nuts, bolts and explosives.

“Does that make any sense, or do I need to actually go and get a pipe and build a bomb?” LeQuieu quips. “Just kidding, I’m going to do that.”

Kyaw*, a former government consultant who joined the peaceful street protests in the aftermath of the coup, says he tried to use his professional connections to convince police officers to defect to the pro-democracy camp. However, he eventually lost hope that he could dislodge the military junta that way, and he decided to join an urban guerilla group that orchestrates attacks against military officials and those perceived to be their allies. 

“We are not extremists. We are not terrorists. I was just a normal civilian before the coup. I was just a businessman. I was not willing to kill even my enemies,” Kyaw says. “[But] they squeezed the space for nonviolent methods.”

Kyaw says the skills he has learned from LeQuieu—how to make improvised weapons, slash tires on personnel transport vehicles and destroy military airport runways to disrupt supply lines—have made him more optimistic about the prospect of removing the military from power.

“My friends and I are determined that this will be the last fight,” Kyaw says.

“We are not extremists. We are not terrorists. …[But] they squeezed the space for nonviolent methods.”

Davis, the analyst, believes that in an all-out offensive against the Tatmadaw, “hundreds of young [People’s Defence Force] members will die needlessly, and it would likely set back opposition to military rule for years. It would be a huge strategic disaster”.

Aung*, another frequent attendee of LeQuieu’s meetings, says he also grew disillusioned by the inefficacy of street protests. However, rather than joining a guerilla group, the Yangon resident joined a group that seeks to demoralise junta loyalists and encourage soldiers to defect. He is concerned that LeQuieu’s sessions are leading people down the wrong path.

“We want to form a coalition to get everybody to commit to the same set of values and the same set of demands, and we want to push people toward a more political and nonviolent route,” he says. “We want to get people to focus on things like defections and things like sustaining the movement, as opposed to planning for a violent assault.” 

Aung also wants to see fewer of his comrades die.

“Nonviolence might just be better tactically,” he says. “These are untrained kids who are going up against a military that is experienced in quelling rebellions for the past 70 years.” 

According to an NUG report released on 9 August, these “untrained kids” have now killed more than 1,100 soldiers in over 700 clashes in June and July. Meanwhile, more than 2,500 soldiers and police are estimated to have defected and joined the Civil Disobedience Movement as of late August, according to People’s Embrace, a group that helps military personnel join the pro-democracy movement.

Targeted assassinations, believed to be carried out by anti-coup fighters, also run the risk of harming civilians. In one assassination attempt in May, a parcel bomb went off at the wedding of a known military supporter, but instead of killing him, it killed his bride and two relatives. The attack also injured a 6-year-old girl.

“The idea that outsiders would essentially be advocating for young Myanmar people to use violence and risk their lives struck me as ill-advised and seriously problematic.”

Jolliffe, the researcher, says the NUG needs to hold anti-coup fighters accountable for violations of its code of conduct, regardless of whether the perpetrators are affiliated with the NUG. Otherwise, the military will blame every attack in the country on the NUG. After all, the military junta has already declared the NUG to be a terrorist organisation.

“Liars and dictators claim there are no bad apples in their stock, but genuine and legitimate representative governments don’t claim that, because it’s nonsense,” Joliffe says. “Instead, they have a process to demonstrate that while there have been bad actors and mistakes, they are dealing with them.”

Sasa did not respond to questions about how the NUG holds its armed groups accountable for conduct violations, or if it has investigated any of the hundreds of bombings and assassinations that have occurred in recent months, including ones that killed civilians.

When asked on 14 June about LeQuieu’s warfare tactics, some of which may violate international law and the NUG’s directive to avoid harming civilians, Sasa replies via email: “Nobody wants to see war crimes, if [there is] anything that contributes to crimes against humanity that’s something that we would never do. …[What] we are trying to do is to save the [lives] of the brave people of Myanmar who are facing [this] murderous regime and who are being forced to defend themselves with no other option left.”

The same day, during the Zoom meeting attended by Sasa, LeQuieu recounts how what started off as a series of question-and-answer sessions between him and the gathered activists and fighters has taken on new significance following an earlier conversation with the NUG spokesperson.

“I want to support Dr. Sasa [and] the NUG,” he says. “Our heart goes out to that man for what he has been trying to do. He really is an honourable man.” 

He adds: “We really are trying to spread love. I say that, and people laugh because I’m showing people how to make, obviously, things that could be used in a destructive way toward another human being. But I’m also showing people how to defend themselves in the event that they have no choice.”

*A pseudonym has been used due to the person’s fear of reprisals.

Additional reporting by Jacob Goldberg

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