In a remote part of Myanmar’s far west, where narrow roads zigzag through treacherous mountain passes and villages nestle on precipitous slopes and ridges, lives a centuries-old community of hunters.
Traditionally, the Chin people used their intimate knowledge of this hilly, jungle terrain and homemade hunting rifles, called Tumi, to kill wild boar, goat and deer for food.
But lately their skills have been deployed to hunt a far more vicious prey: the Myanmar military.
When security forces started shooting unarmed peaceful protesters in the streets and arresting people by the thousands after a February military coup, Chin villagers picked up their guns to protect their towns and villages from similar attacks.
Forming people’s defense forces, these local militia groups made up of mainly young men have become a deadly thorn in the side of the military, known as the Tatmadaw, as it struggles to assert control over the whole country.
A member of the Chinland Defense Force (CDF), who wanted to remain anonymous for security reasons, said its fighters are “ordinary citizens” including “farmers, university students, hunters and some high school students.”
“The Tumi guns that we use are part of our culture as we are hunters and farmers, every house has it,” he said.
Their homemade rifles and explosives were put to the test against the military’s heavy weaponry of artillery, automatic guns and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) last month, when the Tatmadaw launched an all-out offensive on the Chin town of Mindat, according to multiple humanitarian groups and the CDF.
As bombs and bullets rained down on the town, thousands of people fled. They remain stranded in the nearby jungle hills with little food or medical aid. Water supplies were cut off to Mindat, which is now occupied by junta forces who have reportedly looted and burnt houses and installed snipers on roads into the town.
In the weeks since, fighting between the military and the Chin resistance fighters has spread to other areas of the state, with reports of whole villages forced to abandon their homes.
Mindat is a town of between 15,000 to 20,000 people perched on a mountain ridge 1,000 meters (4,000 feet) high in the Chin Hills, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the Indian border.
Like in most regions across Myanmar, Mindat residents took to the streets to protest the coup. The Chin, often called one of Myanmar’s most-persecuted minority groups, suffered decades of oppression and abuse at the hands of the Tatmadaw, including killings, rape and other forms of sexual violence, torture, forced labor and displacement. They did not want to see the armed forces back in power.
Seeing the bloodshed inflicted against protesters in towns and cities across the country, which left at least 840 people dead, Chin people formed the CDF on April 25.
By then, Mindat was already a center of defiance. The Mindat People’s Administration Team, formed in February by officials aligned with civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her ousted National League for Democracy government, had declared they – not the junta – were in charge of the town, according to local media.
Then in April, clashes broke out between the CDF and the military, with resistance fighters launching ambush attacks on military convoys and shoot-outs between the two sides.
The military said in state media that “armed terrorists” had attacked a police station and a bank in Mindat and assailed security forces, destroying vehicles and killing soldiers, so it imposed martial law on the town.
But the Chin fighters said the clashes started after the military arrested protesters, who put up anti-coup posters in the town, and people gathered to demand their release.
Tensions boiled over on May 15 when the military launched an air and ground offensive on Mindat, using machine guns, RPGs, artillery fire, mortars and helicopters in an effort to quash the Chin resistance. Houses and public buildings were destroyed and about half the town’s residents fled into the jungles or nearby villages. Others unable to leave dug bunkers in their yards to try to protect themselves from the incoming fire, local humanitarian group the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) said.
CHRO accused the military of human rights violations and “grave breaches of the Geneva Convention,” saying war crimes may have occurred in Mindat.
“They’ve used human shields during the battle, indiscriminately bombed and destroyed civilian properties, they target civilians – they don’t differentiate – they occupy schools and hospitals,” said CHRO’s deputy director Salai Za Uk Ling. “If those are not war crimes, I don’t know what is.”
CNN cannot independently verify reports of the incidents. Myanmar’s military did not respond to CNN’s requests for comment.
As the assault on Mindat intensified, the CDF decided to retreat. “If we fight back there will be a lot of loss for the civilians, there will be more shooting with heavy weapons on houses and buildings, we couldn’t sacrifice the civilians and we had to avoid the clash,” the CDF member said.
Myanmar’s military now has full control of the town, he said. The once bustling marketplace is deserted, as those who remain are afraid to step out of their homes. The people left are mostly women, children and the elderly who were unable to flee the bombardments.
Salai Za Uk Ling believes the assault on Mindat was intended as a message from the junta to the militia groups that have formed across Myanmar: If you resist, you’ll be crushed.
“It shows to me the extent to which they are prepared to go in trying to put the population under their control,” he said. “They were trying to make Mindat an example, and the fact they have been engaged in these kind of violent methods means they are willing to do anything. It’s a flagrant violation of international humanitarian law and human rights laws.”
As the CDF’s activities gain momentum in other areas, Salai Za Uk Ling said he’s “very concerned about the possibility of a situation like Mindat repeating in other towns.”
A ‘humanitarian disaster’
An estimated 10,000 people – about half Mindat’s population – are hiding in the jungle, staying in informal camps or nearby villages. Food and medical supplies are scant and the monsoon rains are setting in – with the potential for flooding and mudslides to inundate the hilly forests.
Unverified images on social media show groups of people huddling together under rocks and lying on rattan mats. Some villagers have bandaged arms and legs, while others have IV drips hooked up to bamboo poles.
It is unclear how many civilians died in the assault on the town. At the time, CHRO said at least 50 people had been wounded by shrapnel and were being treated in the jungle, and that some of the injuries sustained were serious.
Salai Ben, 24, was in Mindat during the attack and said his brother-in-law was severely wounded.
“He is barely alive now as he’s got severe injures on his whole body and on his face. He cannot speak nor eat properly, he couldn’t drink properly either and we have to use a straw to drop water on his mouth,” he said.
Salai Ben, who worked in Mindat, said the town was completely surrounded by the military. He was one of a group of people able to leave in the days after the attack.
“The military asked the civilians who want to get out from town to fly a white flag. When we left the town the military checked our phones, IDs, luggage, and our motorcycles. There were around five checkpoints,” he said.
Unlike others who could only flee by foot, carrying their possessions on their backs, Salai Ben was lucky enough to escape on his motorcycle, which he now uses to help distribute supplies and medical support to the displaced people.
“The IDPs (displaced peopled) are in need of food and medical support as it is difficult to buy them in towns. The number of the IDPs is getting bigger,” he said. “The main thing they need is medical support.”
Salai Ben said some people in the camps died from their injuries. He fears the approaching rainy season will make it even harder to get food to those in need. One of the main roads, he said, is blocked by military snipers.
“The military is still arresting people even if we use the white flag. They checked our phones and they will arrest us if they find pictures of the protests, and I am worried that they will harm us and we will have to flee again,” he said.
Fears are also growing for the welfare of people trapped in Mindat town.
“Nobody dares to go out because it is simply too risky. They risk being shot by the soldiers,” Salai Za Uk Ling said.
Locals report no supply trucks have entered the town since the assault, he said.
If the fighting continues and more people are forced to flee, Salai Za Uk Ling warned of a “humanitarian disaster.” Already, 15,000 people have fled across the border of Chin state to neighboring India’s Mizoram, H. Rammawi, vice chairman of Mizoram’s State Planning Board, told Reuters.
“The escalation of violence, the weather, the fact India has shut its border, and Covid on other side worsening, and the Burma army in control, are the perfect ingredients for a disaster,” Salai Za Uk Ling said, adding: “We need urgent help and intervention.”
Death in the jungle
After the Mindat assault, the military’s crackdown continued on nearby villages where many of the town’s displaced residents had fled.
It was raining heavily on the morning of May 21 when one village near to Mindat got word soldiers were advancing.
“We heard that these soldiers kill everybody, even women and children, and rape women. So I said to my wife to leave. I and other men – young guys – stayed to defend the village,” a 23-year-old villager said.
His wife fled with their 6-day-old baby into the jungle with the other women and children, while he and the other men picked up their hunting rifles to confront the advancing troops.
The young man said the military attacked them with automatic guns and RPGs.
“We were shooting back with our hunting guns, but we can only shoot one time before we need to reload the gun powder. As it was raining heavily, our guns were not very good to shoot back,” the young villager said. “They kept shooting us with the automatic guns, snipers and RPGs and a lot of our people were injured.”
The villager said he was hit in the back with shrapnel from an RPG – he has a puncture wound on his upper back. As evening fell, he said the villagers were forced to retreat, with about eight of their number wounded. One of his friends was killed by a sniper, he said. The boy was just 15 years old.
But the young villager’s ordeal was far from over. His wife, still recovering from giving birth, had fled into the jungle and endured a night in the heavy rain with no shelter or food. That night, he said, their baby started having difficulty breathing and died the following morning.
The distraught parents were unable to give the child a proper burial, he said, because the soldiers were occupying their village.
“This child is our first child. Until today, my wife could not eat, I myself could not eat,” he said. “I can’t even express how I feel.”
They remain in the jungle with about 500 others who fled. They are in desperate need of shelter, food and medical supplies, he said. Most fled with no possessions.
“It keeps raining, we get bitten by the bugs and insects in the jungle. We are full of fear,” he said. They dare not go back to retrieve blankets, food and other supplies as the military have blocked the roads. They cannot tend their farms or harvest their crops.
He believes soldiers targeted his village because many people fled there from Mindat during the offensive.
“The military helicopters, the fighter jets keep coming above our village. They keep dropping soldiers in our village areas. There is no safe area. We need protection, we need help. We need someone to protect us from this military junta,” he said.
Across Myanmar, defense forces fight back
Similar stories of displacement and death are playing out across Myanmar.
In the resistance stronghold of neighboring Sagaing region, in eastern Shan state, and in small Kayah state, fierce battles are being waged almost on a daily basis as the military tries to quell uprisings.
In Kayah state, also known as Karenni, that borders Thailand, the military has cracked down hard on the resistance, reportedly using helicopter gunships and artillery, with about a dozen civilians killed and 50,000 residents forced to flee the anti-insurgent operations, according to local media Myanmar Now.
There are reports of arrests, killings, homes being looted, and churches sheltering displaced people being destroyed or damaged by the military. And of resistance fighters ambushing military trucks, seizing police outposts and clashing in shootouts with regime soldiers, using guerillas tactics to hold off the junta troops, with losses on both sides.
The uptick in fighting comes as the National Unity Government – set up by ousted lawmakers and opponents of the coup and seeking to be the legitimate government in Myanmar – announced on May 5 the formation of a “people’s defense force” to protect civilians from the military’s violence. The NUG said the provisional force is a precursor to a planned federal army.
According to the UN special envoy to Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, the NUG is trying to bring the local resistance groups under “a single command structure.” The group recently issued a code of conduct under which people’s defense force fighters must abide.
The military says the people’s defense forces and the NUG are “terrorist groups” that have “perpetrated bombing, arson, manslaughter, and intimidation to disrupt the state administrative machinery.”
Almost daily in state media there are reports of “armed insurgents” attacking security forces, destroying bridges, roads, and killing administrative or junta officials, and of security forces seizing weapons including homemade bombs, guns and bullets. In state media, the military frames the security forces’ response as “joining hands in controlling the terrorist acts under the law.”
Following Mindat, the junta said a military tribunal will be convened to try “perpetrators of the terrorist attacks and those who encouraged the violence and crimes” in the town.
“Protesters have started to shift from defensive to the offensive, with sometimes homemade weapons or receiving military training from certain ethnic armed organizations,” Schraner Burgener said during a recent news briefing. “We have to understand, the people are really frustrated and fearing attacks. And they just told me that they need to have self-defense.”
Resistance against the coup appears to be evolving and it’s raising fears of a deepening civil war in the country. Though it is unclear to what extent the civilian-turned-resistance fighters could threaten Myanmar’s battle-hardened military, many, like the Mindat CDF member, say their fight is not over.
“We will regroup, re-operate and fight them back. We believe completely that we will defeat the dictatorship and the revolution must win. We will fight patiently until we get our victory,” he said.
Salai TZ and CNN’s Kocha Olarn contributed reporting.