BANGKOK — As they flee across the mountainous terrain along Myanmar’s northwestern border into India, refugees from the Chin ethnic minority bring stories of shelled towns and torched houses, the result of the Myanmar military’s growing onslaught.
The accounts from Thantlang, one of the main towns in Myanmar’s Chin State, are more searing than the rest. It was there that Cung Biak Hum, a 31-year-old Baptist pastor, was reportedly shot in September by advancing government troops as he had attempted to douse the flames in a shelled neighborhood. Soldiers then proceeded to “cut off his finger and steal his wedding ring,” according to the Chin Human Rights Organization.
“His death really shocked the entire Chin community, and [was] a big factor in people deciding to finally evacuate the town,” said Za Uk Ling, deputy director of the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO), of the September attack, which continues to reverberate across the sparsely populated state. Located on a mountain ridge, Thantlang is now bereft of its 10,000 residents, all of whom have fled after 254 houses were torched as troops moved through its streets. The fires, blamed on the military’s shelling, took place over two months, beginning in early September.
The offensive, designed to bring some 500,000 ethnic Chin to heel, has raised fears of a humanitarian crisis in the region. It is adding to the misery in Myanmar, which was already chafing under military rulers who seized power in February.
India’s northeastern state of Mizoram has taken the brunt of the unfolding crisis: More than 30,000 Chin refugees have already fled there, according to local and international human rights and humanitarian monitors. Another 40,000 men, women and children are internally displaced, many of them hiding on forested mountain slopes after government troops rampaged through. Others have sought shelter in nearby villages.
“Humanitarian access to [internally displaced] groups is currently not possible as roads are cut off and the military doesn’t allow humanitarian deliveries, not only by international agencies but also by their [civil society organization] partners,” according to mid-November report by a Myanmar-based humanitarian expert. “The most urgent need is feeding the [internally displaced]. … [F]ood supplies are running out and very little external support is getting through.”
The disruption in Chin State, according to U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths, has worsened an already grim picture across Myanmar, which now has an estimated 223,000 displaced people. The situation in the northwest has become “extremely concerning,” he said in early November, pointing to the 37,000 newly displaced, and the homes, churches and offices of humanitarian organizations that have been burned.
Myanmar’s military is trying to snuff out a growing rebellion. Protests have been led by a swath of pro-democracy campaigners following the military’s power grab. The violence worsened after an armed resistance appeared.
In the northwest, the generals have been gunning for the Chin National Army, the armed wing of the Chin National Front (CNF), and the Chinland Defense Force, ethnic armed groups that are part of a growing armed resistance. The ethnic militias are mounting strikes against Myanmar’s military and are cooperating with newly trained armed groups drawn from Myanmar’s majority Burman community.
“A bigger military operation has been mounted in Chin State because this is where the resistance against the military regime has been strong,” Sui Khar, vice chairman of the CNF, told Nikkei Asia from Camp Victoria, the group’s headquarters close to the Myanmar-India border. “The military is trying to control the towns and there have been places along the routes where fighting broke out.”
Asian military intelligence sources concur, noting the movement of rapid-deployment troops of the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s military is known, in Chin State. “This offensive is going to accelerate and will be a targeted campaign,” an intelligence source tracking the conflict in northwestern Myanmar told Nikkei. “The Tatmadaw’s strategy is to go after the CNF because they see it as easy pickings.”
A Myanmar military spokesperson disputes that view, fingering the CNF for the fear that has been sown in predominantly Christian Chin State. More troops have been deployed in the area due to “clashes,” Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun told Nikkei. “The main problem is that the CNF is now involved in the situation.”
That is little comfort to the Indian government, as it takes stock of the crisis along its border. It has taken a dual approach: tolerating the Chin refugees fleeing into Mizoram, but refusing to set up refugee camps or open the door for international humanitarian aid. “India is watching, waiting and hoping that the crisis will be somehow contained,” said Gautam Mukhapadhaya, a former Indian ambassador to Myanmar.
“There is overwhelming sympathy for the Chins in Mizoram and other northeastern states of India,” he added. “[But] the central government seems disinclined to adopt a more liberal policy towards asylum-seekers and temporary refugees — out of concern that it might attract more refugees — or to adopt a sterner policy towards the Tatmadaw that might annoy the latter.”
The daily trickle of Chin refugees across the porous border with India suggests the refugee flow is unlikely to dry up, as Chin State becomes more militarized with the deployment of Myanmar’s light infantry divisions. “Chin State has always been heavily militarized, but not to the extent it has witnessed today,” said Za Uk Ling of CHRO. “People live in fear every day. They feel trapped, so they will find ways to cross into Mizoram.”
MARWAAN MACAN-MARKAR, Asia regional correspondent
December 1, 2021 16:26 JST