Chin Residents Flee to India After Fighting by Myanmar Forces And Local Militias

More than 100 civilians are crossing the border seeking safety every day.
2021.09.27
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Residents of Thantlang in western Myanmar's Chin state flee the town to escape fighting between junta forces and local joint militia groups, Sept. 18, 2021.
Citizen journalist

 More than 100 residents of a town in Myanmar’s Chin state are across the border to India daily to escape ongoing offensives by the military junta in the western state, following clashes that erupted between national forces and local joint militia groups on Sept. 18, a civil society group and residents said.

The Chin National Front’s (CNF) armed wing — the Chin National Army (CNA) — and the Chin Defense Force (CDF) launched an assault on Myanmar troop positions in Thantlang town on Sept. 18, but withdrew when government soldiers fired heavy artillery in retaliation against local civilians, CNF/CNA spokesman Salai Htet Ni said in an earlier report.

Only 29 people out of the town’s population of nearly 10,000 remain in Thantlang, driven out by hostilities between the junta forces and the joint Chin combatants, according to locals and an NGO.

Some of the residents are living in nearby villages, forests, and mountains and many are fleeing to the Indian border, not far from the town, they said.

About 35,000 Chin state residents of Chin state have fled to the adjacent Indian border since the military coup on Feb. 1 that overthrew the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, according to the India-based Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO). Fighting in neighboring Rakhine state since spring where locals have been particularly engaged in military fighting since spring.

Salai Za Op Lian, deputy executive director of the CHRO, told RFA that about 100 Thantlang residents have sought refuge in India every day since Sept. 18.

“About 8,000 out of 10,000 people who fled the town have taken refuge in nearby villages without crossing the border,” he said. “Every day, there are many people crossing the border. We hear that more than 100 people cross the border every day.”

Most are sheltering in eight villages near the border, Salai Za Op Lian said, but neither he nor RFA could not confirm the details.

Those who are staying temporarily in India have received a warm welcome from local civil society groups which are housing them in schools and churches, he said.

The Mizoram state government in northeastern India is trying to provide much-needed assistance to the refugees, he added.

Homes in Thantlang in western Myanmar's Chin state burn after being hit by artillery fire by Myanmar junta forces amid clashes with local joint militia groups, Sept. 18, 2021. Credit: Citizen journalist
Homes in Thantlang in western Myanmar's Chin state burn after being hit by artillery fire by Myanmar junta forces amid clashes with local joint militia groups, Sept. 18, 2021. Credit: Citizen journalist
As quiet as a cemetery

One Thantlang resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity for safety reasons, said he was fleeing for his life.

“People are very terrified,” he said. “In fact, if there’s fighting in the city, the end result will be like this. All our lives were in danger. People are fleeing their homes toward Mizoram of their own will. Nobody wants to see fighting all over town.”

With nearly all residents deserting the town, there was no one who could bury the dead body of a local who died of the coronavirus on Sept. 18, and a youth charity from Chin state’s capital Hakha was called in to help, said a Thantlang resident who did not flee.

Another town resident, who also requested anonymity for safety reasons, said Thantlang was as quiet as a cemetery.

“I was walking alone in the town this morning, [and] I was very scared,” he told RFA, adding that the only other people there were in two houses and an orphanage.

“People mainly fled to various villages near Thantlang, [while] some fled to India and some to Hakha,” he added.

Some 20 houses and a three-story building belonging to the Department of Roads and Highways were destroyed during the clash between the military and local militias on Sept. 18, residents said.

The homes were destroyed by fire because of the shelling by junta forces, and a Baptist pastor was killed, they said.

However, junta spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun told journalists at a news conference earlier this week that the houses were burned down after armed groups took cover in them and that the death of the pastor and the disappearance of a ring and watch he was wearing were under investigation.

Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government (NUG), made up opposition figures who were part of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party and lost power in the military takeover, and the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), a group of lawmakers ousted in the coup, were trying to destabilize the entire country, issuing a statement on Sept. 7 to escalate the conflict, Zaw Min Tun said. The Myanmar junta declared in May that the NUG and CRPH defense forces were terrorist groups.

“Since then, there have been unrest and riots in some parts of Chin state,” he said.

‘We had a strategy’

Fighting in urban areas like Thantlang is necessary because the junta’s administrative mechanisms are located there, said Salai Htet Ni, adding that the joint militia force was trying to minimize the impact of any fighting on civilians. 

The CNF/CNA had been fighting to overthrow Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, leader of the junta government since before Sept. 7, he said. 

“The military junta’s mechanism is in town, and to be able to overthrow the dictatorship we have to fight them there,” Salai Htet Ni said. “There are no rules that say we can fight them only in the jungles or in rural areas or in towns. When we were fighting them in town, we did not blindly hit everything. We had a strategy.”

The CNF tried to minimize the number of civilian casualties during the Sept. 18 clash which took place near an unoccupied soccer stadium, he said.

Salai Htet Ni said the death of the pastor and the fire that destroyed the houses were the responsibility of the Myanmar military, which retaliated that day with heavy artillery fire.

Tom Andrews, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, said that the death of a Baptist leader in Thantlang and the fire were the work of the military. 

“The murder of a Baptist minister and bombing of homes in Thantlang, Chin state, are the latest examples of the living hell being delivered daily by junta forces against the people of Myanmar,” he tweeted on Sept. 18. “The world needs to pay closer attention. More importantly, the world needs to act.”

Local militias have been fighting against the military with traditional firearms since April to which junta forces have responded with heavy force. Many civilians have been shot dead or arrested on suspicion of having links to People’s Defense Force militias that have formed an alliance to take on the military.   

There were also reports of shootings in Chin’s Kanpetlet township on Thursday, with locals saying they heard small arms fire and gunfire.

Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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