Armed groups in Chin state are outgunned and underfunded, but they are defiantly standing their ground against the junta.
Eight months after last year’s military coup in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in the country, warnedthe U.N. General Assembly that tens of thousands of soldiers were massing in the country’s north and northwest. Andrews said the tactics bore a grim resemblance to those used by Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, in the months before the Rohingya genocide in Rakhine state in 2016 and 2017.
The target of the latest buildup is Chin state, full of winding hills and home to 500,000 residents. Most belong to the Chin ethnic group, who are largely Christians and have long faced persecution from the central government. Lacking lucrative natural resources such as oil, teak, gold, and precious stones, Chin state is one of Myanmar’s poorest, with a population of hunters, farmers, and lumberers. In recent months, more than 10,000 residents have fled Thantlang, one of the state’s larger towns, amid near-constant shelling by the military, reducing hundreds of homes and buildings in the town to ashes. Similar violence has displaced nearly 50,000 people across the state.
In response to the Feb. 1, 2021, coup, two grassroots armed forces sprouted up in Chin state, comprising local students, civil society members, and professionals: the Chinland Defense Force (CDF) and the Chin National Defense Force (CNDF). Both groups have allied themselves with the long-established Chin National Army (CNA), one of the many armed organizations in Myanmar formed in response to decades of ethnic discrimination by the central government.
Since the shadow National Unity Government, which is composed of elected officials deposed last year and counts the CNA among its allies, officially declared a national uprising against the Tatmadaw last September, Chin state has come into the military’s crosshairs.
Together with other armed organizations across the country, the groups in Chin state aim to remove the military dictatorship and replace it with a federal democracy. As the military cracked down on largely peaceful anti-coup demonstrations last year, protest leaders in Chin state realized they needed a new strategy against such a violent adversary. Factions of soldiers began forming around the state, seeking to protect their own townships; some unified under the umbrella of the CDF or the CNDF. Others chose to enlist in the service of the CNA, which relies on donor support from the Chin diaspora.
Whether these groups can keep the Tatmadaw at bay remains to be seen. They are heavily outgunned and out-funded. However, the Chin forces’ strength lies in the alignment of their goals with other groups across the country, their own connection to the land, and their defiant refusal to cede control.
Left: A Chinland Defense Force (CDF) sniper gets access to a vantage point via the rear window of a building in Thantlang on Nov. 30, 2021. Thantlang, one of Chin state’s main towns and now completely abandoned by its civilian population, has become a front line of combat between the Tatmadaw and CNA forces. Right: A CDF soldier looks out from an abandoned building in Thantlang on Nov. 30, 2021.
The CNDF headquarters lies in a dell behind a sun-bleached hamlet. Throughout the day, the voices of soldiers singing traditional folk songs and modern local hits echo in the crisp mountain air. At dawn, the blasts of a whistle snap the fighters out of their sleeping quarters, followed by hours of drills, combat training, and military theory. After a resounding chorus of the Chin state anthem, they receive their marching orders.
Giving these orders is Lian No, a 31-year-old Chin state native who defected from the Tatmadaw in October and now oversees the CNDF soldiers’ military training.
Enlisting in Myanmar’s military requires a soldier to serve for at least 10 years. However, after Lian No began to suffer the inhumane treatment ubiquitous among its ranks—having his rice mixed with sand, receiving beatings, and having his water rationed by the cup—he quickly realized that he had made a miscalculation. If he tried to flee, the army could put out a warrant for his arrest. He said that during the beginning of his service, “even something as simple as using the toilet meant stripping down naked and having an escort of six guards watching over us so that we would not use the opportunity to escape.”
Tatmadaw camps are an ecosystem wholly separate from civilian life. Soldiers and their families live inside the camps and require authorization to leave. Businesses inside the camps—from tea shops to farming operations—are staffed by soldiers, but any profits go straight into military coffers. After more than a decade of service, Lian No’s salary had only risen to 200,000 kyat ($115) per month. He still saw no other option but to stay.
But in the weeks after the coup last year, Lian No saw that the protests showed no signs of subsiding and that fighting had even broken out between armed groups and the Tatmadaw in pockets of the country. He heard about the grassroots armed forces forming in Chin state and decided that remaining within the Tatmadaw was untenable; he wanted to join the resistance. By then, Lian No was entitled to give the military his notice, but officials ignored it. He fled with a friend who also wanted to defect on a motorbike they had stashed outside of the Chin state capital, Hakha.
“Early one morning, we wheeled the bike out along the road, silently passing the camp and its checkpoints,” Lian No said. “It was only after we were well clear of them that we started the engine and rode out of Hakha.”
Left: Chin National Defense Force (CNDF) soldiers participate in combat exercises at a CNDF training facility in Falam township, Chin state, Myanmar. Right: Wooden training rifles sit in a CNDF training camp in Falam township, Chin state, Myanmar. The central rifle is crafted out of a sign written in the Burmese language. The sign, which would originally have been displayed at school, shows Myanmar government propaganda announcing the right for every citizen to study.
The pair headed straight for the CNA headquarters, where they proved their intentions by sharing as much as they knew about the Tatmadaw’s planned military operations in Chin state. It wasn’t long before the CNDF recruited the pair to provide advanced training to the force’s soldiers.
Stories like Lian No’s are increasingly common. Before the coup, the Tatmadaw enjoyed the passive support of the Bamar Buddhist ethnic majority, many of whom remained largely apathetic to military violence against other ethnic groups. This began to change when the junta cracked down on anti-coup protests with excessive force. As the whole country turned against the Tatmadaw, many within its ranks started to reassess their positions.
The ethnic armed organizations in Chin state have taken advantage of this morality crisis. All three of the groups have discreetly reached out to Tatmadaw soldiers, offering prospective defectors large cash rewards and safe passage out of the country in exchange for automatic rifles for their ill-equipped soldiers. The CNDF told Foreign Policy that it has helped around 120 Tatmadaw soldiers defect this way.
But it is not a decision taken lightly. Lian No’s mother, two sisters, and two nieces were all arrested after he went missing. He saw that they could face imprisonment or death if he didn’t hand himself in. “I contacted three soldiers who I knew would be involved in my family’s arrest. I phoned them and reminded them, ‘You also have your own families, I know where they are, and I cannot guarantee their lives under these circumstances,’” Lian No said. His family was released the next day and fled to India.
Left: Harvest offerings are displayed at the front of a church in Hriang Khan on Dec. 5, 2021. The offerings have been donated by the local population to the people now living in the village from other parts of Chin state. Right: Worshippers attend Sunday Mass in Hriang Khan on Dec. 5, 2021.
Although Chin’s armed organizations are doing their best to drive out the Tatmadaw, most major towns remain under its control. Residents have become subject to arbitrary arrests, kidnappings, and harassment. Cung Cung, 31, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, is a videographer who lived in Hakha until October. Military officials arrested him in March after a street protest passed a restaurant where he was filming a graduation party. He was loaded into a truck and taken to the local base. “When we arrived at the base, they still hadn’t given me a reason for why I had been arrested,” Cung Cung said.
Instead, the soldiers forced Cung Cung and seven others to crouch on the ground and to march through the base for an hour and a half, staging a mock demonstration in support of Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the leader of the junta government. Cung Cung spent the next three nights in a freezing cell. “During the days, the soldiers didn’t bother us too much but … from around 8 in the evening, we were taken to a separate room where we were interrogated until 2 in the morning,” he said. “If I gave them an answer they didn’t like, then they’d twist my ears and hit me on the back of my head.”
The soldiers tried to force Cung Cung to confess to being a journalist, even though he is not. They handed him over to the police, who held him for three months; in custody, he faced almost daily death threats from visiting soldiers. Once released, Cung Cung tried to continue life with his wife in Hakha, but once he saw that his friends were again facing arbitrary arrest, the couple fled to Hriang Khan, a small CDF-held village. He and his wife are now among the estimated 406,000 people displaced within Myanmar since the coup.
Left: A suitcase containing the photo of a couple sits abandoned in a home in Thantlang on Nov. 30, 2021. Right: Rachel Ngun Sui Tial, a 23-year-old from elsewhere in Chin state, lies injured in a CNA hospital in Thantlang township on Dec. 4, 2021, after being hit by an unidentified projectile while trying to retrieve her belongings from her home in Thantlang.
“There is no work here for me. We rely upon donations from the CDF and from my relatives. I’ve become sick from my time spent in prison,” Cung Cung said. “My wife also miscarried since we came here, which has caused further complications for her own health.”
Now more than ever, mainstream society in Myanmar is the target of levels of violence that the country’s marginalized ethnic groups have faced for decades. That has led to unprecedented solidarity between the mostly Bamar-majority opposition and some of the ethnic armed groups. The structure of abuse intended to maintain the Tatmadaw’s control has backfired. But it remains unclear if Myanmar’s numerous ethnic armed groups can mount a unified effort against the regime or the Tatmadaw will exploit old fault lines to break apart a potential uprising.
Lian No ascribes the Tatmadaw’s cruelty against Myanmar’s citizens in part to the inhumane treatment that begins within the army’s ranks. “It’s part of the culture. An officer will beat the sergeant, the sergeant will beat the soldier, and the soldier doesn’t have anyone else except the people,” he said.
Although the future is uncertain for Lian No and his family, he has no regrets about leaving the Tatmadaw. “Right after joining the CNDF, I got my life back,” he said. “I never planned on actually fighting the Tatmadaw before—I just wanted a clean break. But that has since changed. If I don’t fight back against this military, then myself and my family will never enjoy a life of freedom.”
(c) 2022, Foreign Policy