In Myanmar -- where opposition to the military junta that overthrew the elected government has raged from the Himalayan foothills to the tropical Andaman Sea coast – people in the poor landlocked state of Chin stand out for the fierceness of their fight against regime troops.
The volunteer militiamen of Chin, the poorest of Myanmar’s 14 states and regions, have reported killing 100 junta soldiers in clashes since late April in response to brutal military repression of peaceful protests that erupted soon after the Feb. 1 coup d’état that toppled national leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government.
What is most striking about the Chinland Defense Force (CDF), a network of volunteers formed in April, is that they are taking on Myanmar’s army – the second largest in Southeast Asia -- with slingshots and the same crude flintlock “Tumee” rifles their forefathers used to fight off British colonizers in the 1880s.
"The Tumee rifle is a gun like the ones before World War I, or the ones of the Napoleonic era,” a CDF member told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “Almost every house in the villages has one to hunt for food in the fields and forests.”
"There are a lot of hunters in Chin State, and they know the terrain of the dense forests and mountains well,” said Shan Tun, a Chin researcher and a central executive member of Chin National League for Democracy.
“They can even shoot a running wild animal. Shooting has always been one of their skills, though they do not have proper military training,” he added.
Hunting wild animals like jungle fowl, deer, boar, and goats is not a sport but a necessity in largely rural Chin, where people make only about 2,000 kyats (US $1.20) a day, two-thirds of the World Bank’s international poverty line and less than half of Myanmar’s minimum wage.
"It's a very difficult area to live in,” said a resident of Chin, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation.
“We have to save three or four days to put a decent dish on the table … and it’s very difficult for families with five or six children,” the villager said.
"We in Chin State are underdeveloped and a mostly peaceful people, but it is not possible for us to continue our peaceful protests against those who are killing us. Frankly speaking, if we are fired at, we will have to shoot back,” he added.
‘Significant trouble’ for British occupiers
Following the Feb. 1 coup, most Chins joined compatriots across Myanmar in daily street protests, only to be met by deadly military violence that has killed 820 civilians nationwide. In the three months to May 1, 28 civilians in Chin state were killed and more than 200 were arrested, according to the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO).
Fighters of the CDF were engaged in daily battles from May 12 until May 15, when the junta occupied the town of Mindat with 1,000 fully-armed troops who used civilians as human shields and sprayed gunfire indiscriminately, the CHRO said last weekend. The CDF pulled out May 16 to protect civilians from further artillery attacks and fire from helicopter gunships, one Chin fighter said.
Za Op Ling, deputy executive director of the CHRO, told RFA that more than 35,000 civilians from Chin state have fled their homes—15,000 of whom have crossed Myanmar’s border into India’s Mizoram state.
The CDF killed at least 10 military junta troops this week around Hakha, the state capital, militia sources said. The military made a terse announcement on state TV on May 15 that it had lost several men, but has not commented on the reported casualty count in the recent fighting.
Political analyst Than Soe Naing said the CDF’s performance against regime forces is rooted in geography and history. Chin, which borders present-day Bangladesh and the northeastern Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur, was the last part of the country to come under British colonial rule.
"If you look back in history, Chin State was where the colonial forces faced the biggest opposition,” he said.
“Although our groups had only hunting rifles and some old double-barreled guns, the British troops couldn’t defeat us easily. We gave the colonialists the most significant trouble in the mountainous terrain,” added Than Soe Naing
70 years of struggle
Factors that helped Chin fighters in the 1880s are working in the CDF’s favor now, he said.
“We have mountains 4,000 feet above sea level. The roads do not have many bends or curves, and most of them have only one-lane traffic,” said Than Soe Naing.
What galvanized the Chins – a collection of Tibeto-Burman tribes and clans with distinct languages such as the Asho, Cho, Khumi, Kuki, Laimi, Lushai and Zomi -- to rise up against the superior firepower of the junta goes back many decades to the independence of Burma – as the country was then known -- from Britain in 1948, said researcher Shan Tun.
"Chin State has long been under pressure politically, economically and educationally. If you look at the education sector, there are not enough school teachers in Chin State, and teachers in Yangon cannot work here,” he said.
“We have lived like this for 70 years and have become bitter. Young people of today realize that the political system needs to change,” added Shan Tun.
The Chin, one of eight major ethnic groups in Myanmar, had a seat at the table in the 1947 Panglong Conference, where the majority Bamars (Burmese) and Shan and Kachin leaders discussed an independent Union of Burma.
But the Chins didn’t get state status until 1974, and like nearly everyone in the country, were abused by the military governments that ruled from 1962 until 2011, and joined the 1988 pro-democracy protests that launched the political career of Aung San Suu Kyi.
“While initially not among the main ethnic groups in rebellion against central authorities, a Chin insurgency did emerge after the 1988 crackdown on the democratic movement. The brief hope offered during the 1990 elections, which saw a number of Chins elected, was quickly smashed,” said a report by the NGO Minority Rights Group International. As it did for 2020 elections, the military did not honor the result of the 1990 vote.
A rapid junta military buildup in Chin after 1990 was “accompanied by massive loss of traditional lands and the fleeing of many Chin to India and other countries to escape slave labor and other violations of their rights at the hands of the military,” the report said.
Scattered across Myanmar and Asia
Some 85 percent of Chin state's 480,000 people are Christian, the product of American missionaries in the late 19th century, and their faith made them a target of church closures, physical attacks on pastors, and forced labor “specifically targeted against Christian Chin in order to coerce them to convert to Buddhism,” said the Minority Rights Group International report.
Repression, war and a lack of job opportunities have driven many Chin young people to more developed parts of Myanmar or overseas.
In addition to the 480,000 people that a 2014 government census counted in Chin state, exile groups estimate that there are 200,000 Chin in Rakhine state; 280,000 in Sagaing region; 200,000 in Magway Region; and 120,000 in parts of the country.
The 35,000 Chins that fled fighting between CDF and the military in Mindat and other besieged mountain towns are only the latest addition to a huge pool of refugees.
The latest 15,000 Chins to cross the border this month to India’s Mizoram join an estimated 100,000 Chin refugees from 1990s conflicts and from the military attacks in Rakhine state on ethnic Muslim Rohingya in 2016-18 and the war with the Arakan Army that began in late 2018, relief groups say. Another 56,000 are living in Malaysia, most not registered with the UN refugee agency.
A Chin political activist told RFA that what his people want is equality under a federal system – as do other ethnic groups in the country of 54 million people.
"We just want a federal system. If we can unite in federalism and build an equal political system, I think we will all have a system we want."
Reported by Soe San Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Paul Eckert.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by Radio Free Asia.