Thousands of feet above sea level in the rugged hills of one of Myanmar’s poorest regions, hunters are using wooden rifles against the superior firepower of the military, which is struggling to stamp out an increasingly violent resistance some four months after seizing power in a coup.
Myanmar’s armed forces have battled ethnic insurgents in border areas for decades in some of the world’s longest-running conflicts. But the Feb. 1 coup, which overthrew civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, has inspired civilian protesters to head for rebel territory, train for warfare, and take up arms as members of a new People’s Defense Force.
Opponents of the coup argue that a lethal crackdown on peaceful protests that has killed more than 800 people left them with no choice but to defend themselves with any weapons at hand, including homemade bombs, knives, and whatever guns are available.
A collection of rifles in Myanmar's western Chin State. Photo courtesy of CDF
Firearms licenses are not easy to come by in Myanmar, but there are exceptions for traditional communities near the border with India in western Chin State, where some weapons are cobbled together from different parts and where hunting is part of life in an area neglected by authorities. Now, residents there say they need the rifles to survive the military.
“If we fight against another person, we don’t use guns, we fight bare handed. But this military is like a wild animal, so we use our rifles,” said Salai Tu Mee, a spokesperson for the newly formed Chinland Defence Force (CDF), which is affiliated with the armed civilian opposition.
“If we fight against another person, we don’t use guns, we fight bare handed. But this military is like a wild animal, so we use our rifles.”
They have clashed with troops on and off for weeks in and around hilly Mindat township and claims to have inflicted heavy casualties over the last month, including killing at least 36 soldiers and capturing 20. Media reports said the local civilian force also had access to shotguns and homemade explosives. At least 10 members of the Chinland Defense Force were killed, according to the spokesperson.
Casualty figures could not be independently verified and the military does not provide updated tallies of soldiers killed in action. But the rounds of fighting resulted from breakdowns in negotiations over prisoner exchanges and the army’s occupation of local buildings.
A home destroyed in Chin State fighting with military. Photo courtesy of CDF
The confrontation started in late April, when the Chinland Defense Force attacked a police post in Mindat township after the junta did not release protesters as promised.
“We started attacking their police station since they broke their promise twice,” Tu Mee said.
Over the next few weeks, Mindat emerged as one of the fiercest front lines of resistance, with the military declaring martial law in the town, cutting water supplies, calling in reinforcements and sending in helicopters, forcing local fighters to retreat.
The opposition National Unity Government called on the international community to take action. In mid-May, the U.S. embassy said the military’s use of weapons of war “is a further demonstration of the depths the regime will sink to to hold onto power.” The junta, by contrast, called the local fighters “terrorists” and accused them of ambushing troops.
While the fighting subsided for the moment, flare-ups like these are becoming increasingly common all over the country, posing a threat to an already overstretched military. In recent days photos believed to be from eastern Myanmar spread on social media of various makeshift rifles and pistols being used to fight the junta.
Thousands of people from Mindat have now fled to the forest outside of the city to escape the escalating conflict. A 30-year-old Mindat resident who joined the exodus said last week that it wasn’t safe to keep living there as the military fired on any residents and had taken up positions in hospitals and schools.
“They are shooting anyone who is outside of their homes,” he told VICE World News.
Tu Mee asked for help from the United Nations.
“We have medicine, but we can’t provide any treatment since nurses and doctors can’t leave their houses.”