“Our Chin state used to be peaceful, but this is a new experience for us,” said one of the resistance fighters, who would be identified only by his tribal forename, Salai, for safety reasons. “We are running and hiding in the middle of these bullets and bombs.”
Almost four months since Myanmar’s military ousted the civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, resistance to the coup is intensifying beyond street protests and civil disobedience. Though the cost of fighting back is high — more than 800 have been killed, mostly peaceful protesters and bystanders — militia groups are now taking up arms against the overextended military as the country speeds toward collapse and thousands of refugees pour into India, Thailand and China.
“It is very much an emotional response,” said Richard Horsey, senior adviser to the International Crisis Group. “People want to respond and fight back, whether or not the consequences are huge.”
Western governments and human rights groups have condemned the assault on Mindat, and the military’s coup more broadly. In a statement, the U.S. Embassy in Myanmar said the military’s use of “weapons of war against civilians, including this week in Myanmar, is a further demonstration of the depths the regime will sink to to hold onto power.” The United States this week also imposed sanctions on more entities and military officials, including ministers in the military-led government, for “violently repressing the pro-democracy movement.”
The Myanmar army said it was necessary to seize power in this way, in line with a constitution it drafted, because of irregularities in a November election that Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won in a landslide. On Friday, the military-appointed chair of the election commission, which promised it would prepare for new elections within a year, said it would dissolve Suu Kyi’s party.
The junta has characterized the militia members as terrorists, and offers a significantly smaller death toll since Feb. 1 than that tallied by human rights groups and the United Nations.
Myanmar’s military, also known as the Tatmadaw, has been fighting armed ethnic groups on its border regions for decades. Since the coup, many of these groups have condemned the military and declared any previous cease-fire agreements invalid. Clashes have erupted again between the military and groups like the Karen National Union and the Kachin Independence Army, destabilizing the region.
But militias such as the Chinland Defense Force, which attacked the military in Mindat, are a new phenomenon. When the military began to open fire on peaceful protesters — often aiming at the chest or head, and killing children — communities started organizing and arming themselves to protect their towns and neighborhoods. Horsey said there is a “big range” in capabilities between these new militias, some with not much more than a Facebook page and others with “real military capability.”
Salai said he and other residents formed the defense force after a body of elected lawmakers from the ousted National League for Democracy, which claims itself as a parallel government, declared the Myanmar military a “terrorist” organization. Skilled in using hunting rifles, he said, they believed they had an obligation to fight back, and began attacking military convoys stationed outside the town on April 24.
“We have a dream, and are brave enough to follow it,” he said. “The Tatmadaw is not a standard army. They only work to benefit a few people.”
The Chin fighters — Salai declined to say how many they numbered — initially had the advantages of community support and rugged, familiar terrain where the Myanmar military had not had a strong presence for years. But the military’s reinforcements and subsequent bombardment of the town sent fighters and other residents fleeing, allowing the Tatmadaw to seize Mindat and declare martial law.
As the unrest has spread, the United Nations estimates that 4,000 to 6,000 Myanmar refugees have fled to India, a figure that is expected to rise.
Salai said the displaced people hiding in the jungles are facing extreme hardship, including a lack of food. Some in the town who have traveled to nearby areas to pick up donations for the refugees have been arrested by the military, he added, and cuts to mobile Internet services make communication difficult.
A volunteer surgeon who works with Physicians for Human Rights in a different township, and who only wanted to be identified as Dr. Maung for safety concerns, said he has reached medical colleagues in Mindat who are reporting a “dire need” for medical aid.
“Several patients are in need of emergency surgery,” he said. “Surgeons are traveling from Mandalay to try and assist the wounded, but first they must be able to transfer the patients to a safe zone, as there is little they can do in the jungle.”
Still, Salai says his Chinland Defense Force has not given up the fight.
“We will come back once we are stronger,” he said. “We are preparing for it.”
Cape Diamond contributed to this report.