Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, is cracking down on militia groups in the country’s western Chin state, bordering India and Bangladesh, especially Christians, according to ethnic armed groups, religious and community leaders and local residents.
As the ruling junta, or State Administrative Council, targets civilians and religious buildings in an attempt to defeat local armed groups, local residents are living in panic and many have abandoned their villages, community and religious leaders say.
More than 90% of Chin state’s population is Christian.
Since early October, the SAC has been sending large numbers of troops into Chin through neighboring Magway and Sagaing regions to defeat local armed groups. The major group is the Chin National Front, founded in 1988. Others, which emerged after February’s coup, are the Chinland Defense Force, Chin National Defense Force and local units of the anti-junta People’s Defense Forces.
Chin National Front officials and resistance fighters from the other groups told VOA large numbers of junta troops are now stationed in Hakha, Chin’s capital, and in the neighboring Mindat, Kanpetlet, Falam and Thantlang townships for military operations.
Tatmadaw troops battled local armed groups on the way to these townships. Junta forces shelled the villages and conducted a campaign of killings, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and illegal confiscation of property, according to witnesses and Chin-based media reports.
Substantial fighting broke out in recent days in Falam as military convoys passed on their way to Hakha, according to Chin National Front and Chin National Defense Force spokesmen.
“The worst was the shelling of villages and the destruction of religious buildings. Because of this unlawful behavior, villagers abandoned their homes as soon as military troops approached the villages,” said Eun Khaw Tee, who recently fled Mindat after her house was destroyed by Tatmadaw artillery strikes.
“I don’t know how to describe trouble faced in Mindat. It’s so serious,” she told VOA from Magway.
On October 19, junta troops camped at Ramhatlo village in Falam township ransacked valuables from more than 100 homes, villagers told VOA.
“We fled into the jungle as they arrived in the village. When we returned to the village, our property was destroyed and 30 bags of rice from the church were stolen,” said a villager, who asked not to be named.
Villagers and Chin Baptist Association leaders told VOA the military repeated its actions during these days. A Baptist church was destroyed in Thlanrawn village in Falam on October 19, and a collection of hymn books and furniture was set on fire. On October 14, a Baptist church and 12 houses in Riel Thee village in Falam were set on fire, said the villagers, who witnessed these incidents.
In August and September, at least seven churches were damaged or destroyed by military shelling and small arms fire, the U.S.-based Chin Human Rights Organization said in an October 19 report titled Reign of Terror: SAC Junta Attacks on Lives and Properties in Chin State and Northwestern Burma/Myanmar. The organization said it had documented the arrest and detention of 612 Chin people across Myanmar and 17 deaths in Chin during the two months.
Junta spokesman General Zaw Min Tun told local media outlets that homes may have been destroyed during the fighting, but no intentional attacks were reported. The military has not commented on the expansion of military troops in Chin, and Zaw Min Tun did not respond to VOA attempts to reach him.
However the Chin Human Rights Organization report and a spokesman for the Falam-based Chin Baptist Association said the military regime is not only destroying churches, but also killing, arresting and detaining pastors. One pastor was killed and three pastors have been detained, according to information from the report.
Religious leaders in Chin expressed concern over the arrest of pastors and criticized the attack on religious buildings as “an insult to religion and religious community.” Rev. Law Ha Ling, general secretary of the Chin Baptist Association, said the actions “could lead to religious and ethnic clashes in the country.”
The Chin Baptist Association strongly denounced indiscriminate targeting, looting and occupation of religious infrastructure. “Targeted attacks on religious buildings are an insult to religion as well as an insult to those who worship it,” Law Ha Ling told VOA on October 20.
Although the SAC released over 5,000 people who had been charged in connection with anti-junta protests October 19, the pastors have not been released yet, Law Ha Ling said. The association has not been able to meet with pastors and it is unknown where and why they are being held.
“Regardless of who they are, the authorities who govern the country have responsibilities to protect the people. Now, It is very frustrating and devastating that the military makes the people live in fear,” Law Ha Ling added.
Local resistance fighters say Tatmadaw forces have been deployed in churches in an attempt to gain advantage during the military offensive.
“Local armed groups are mostly Christians. They know we do not attack the church. They took advantage of this and took up positions in churches to defeat us and civilians,” said a Chinland Defense Force spokesman. He added that junta forces do not hesitate to destroy churches if they think anti-junta People’s Defense Force troops are there.
Questions over massive attack
The point of targeting the Chin National Front, front spokesman Salai Htet Ni said, is that was the first of the armed ethnic groups to establish an official alliance with the opposition National Unity Government and provide military training to the People’s Defense Force.
“In collaboration with the NUG, we provide military training for NUG and PDF and suggestions on military tactics. Because of these reasons, the CNF became the major target of junta,” Salai Htet Ni told VOA October 20.
The Tatmadaw has advanced weapons but local defense forces have the upper hand in the offensive because of their local knowledge, including knowledge of the inhospitable conditions in Chin – roads are rough and landslides are common during monsoon season, for example. So far, 70% of the police and around 200 soldiers in Chin have defected and allied with the combined forces of Chin National Front and resistance groups, Salai Htet Ni said.
However, local defense groups say they face difficulties obtaining arms and access to information as the junta seeks to cut off food, funding, intelligence and recruits to the resistance groups. All townships except Hakha have been cut off from the internet since September 23 and mobile phone service is unstable.
Given the current situation, fighting could intensify in coming weeks, increasing the risk of harm to civilians, local armed groups warned. Aung Lwan Har, who works with groups helping displaced people, expressed concern over increasing numbers of refugees due to further fighting.
“Thousands of refugees are still struggling to seek refuge in makeshift camps along the border. Food is also running out,” Aung Lwan Har said, adding that the camps “will face overcapacity in housing, shelter and food if more people take refuge.”
Amid these concerns, the CNF recently formed the Chinland Defense Operation Committee with local resistance groups which are active across Chin State to coordinate attacks on regime troops.
"The fighting is going to get stronger. We will do our best to avoid harm to the local people," said Salai Htet Ni.