The dirt road branches off from the roadway in a maze of curves down to the Tiau River, which marks the border between the Indian state of Mizoram and Myanmar. It’s not marked on the maps, but it’s one of dozens of access roads where you can cross the border, at points where the water is low and the flow slows down – before the river swells for the upcoming rainy season.
The Tiau crosses through the steep valleys of a region which, before the Anglo-Burmese wars and before the British Raj became India, was a place run by small independent principalities. The same ethnicity lives on either side of the Tiau, called Chin in Myanmar and Mizo in Mizoram. The same people with different names, speaking dialects that all belong to the Tibetan-Burmese language family.
This is one of the reasons why the border is permeable: it allows those fleeing the bombings in Myanmar to find safe haven with their cousins in Mizoram. The state government turns a blind eye and has a very different outlook from that of the Delhi central government, which not only supports the Burmese military junta that seized power in February 2021, but is selling to Naypyidaw the weapons they need to fight the armed resistance opposing the coup.
Across the border, we see the first pillboxes from which Chin National Army soldiers are keeping an eye on the river. A few kilometers further, after passing through the first village, we arrive at the CNA checkpoint, where, in the pitch black of night, a very young military man examines our passes. This is the mandatory check to enter Camp Victoria, perhaps the largest of the five bases of the Chin Army.
Camp Victoria was bombed in January and there is no shortage of air alerts. It is built like a large barracks, with training areas for recruits, both men and women, canteens, tailoring, and a sort of support village, a short distance away from the purely military area, where some of the soldiers’ families live. This area was also bombed and practically destroyed. What’s left is the remains of half the village and a dilapidated medical facility. This is a foretaste of what we will see later as we go deeper into liberated territory.
Less than a dozen kilometers from Camp Victoria there is the village of Tlanglo – or, rather, was. In the center of the village, large craters show the effect of two 250-pound bombs dropped by the army loyal to the junta – they were once called Tatmadaw, a respectful term, but are now being referred to disdainfully as “the Greens.” The Chin have a long history of resistance to the central state, and while Yangon did have a presence through state structures (schools, hospitals, public administration), the Chin National Front – and its armed wing, the NAC, formed in 1988 – have been standing up to the Tatmadaw, continuing a resistance to the undemocratic centralism of the Bamar majority since the late 1940s.
Now things have changed. The Burmese state, i.e., the current junta in power, has virtually no territorial control. It is only present in the large urban centers, such as Hakha, the regional capital, or Thantlang, both east of Camp Victoria, within a 100 km radius. After heavy shelling, the cities were burned down, quite literally: only scorched earth is left behind after fires consumed now-abandoned houses, and places like Thantlang are now described as “ghost towns.” The Tatmadaw can reinforce the troops there but can’t get out of them. Its columns keep falling victim to ambushes that drive the soldiers back to urban bases that are themselves not safe from attacks.
Tlanglo was a small village deemed guilty of supporting the “rebel” army, like many other Chin villages. The two bombs, dropped on the village square and the main street, shattered the wooden houses within the blast range, smashing the windows and walls of a Christian church as well. The village has been abandoned, now reduced to a small replica of Thantlang: a ghost town. The displaced people live in the forest a few kilometers away, in makeshift plastic tents with outdoor kitchens. There is no one left in the village. A few chickens are wandering around among the debris, trying to peck among the smoke-blackened rubble.
“They took refuge here because the village, bombed in April, is at risk of more attacks. Its crime was standing with the CNA” says Mung, the soldier accompanying us. The CNA is one of the so-called EAOs (Ethnic Army Organization), or EROs, as they are now called: Ethnic Revolutionary Organization. They are apparently on good terms with the underground government – the National Unity Government. This tangle of relationships is the most complex aspects of the Burmese war.
The NUG was born out of the ashes of the old parliament whose term ended in 2020, after elections in November of that year that saw Aung San Suu Kyi’s party win out once again. It now seeks to be the alternative to the military junta and has its own armed organization: the People’s Defense Force, young civilians who have taken up arms. But the NUG knows well that it can’t win this war without the patchwork of “ethnic” armies. It is currently allied with Chin, Karen, Kachin, Karenny and part of Shan, but many other communities are still on the fence, while some are siding with the junta.
In Chin, there seems to be stable cooperation with the NUG, even though the CNF and CNA hold the actual power. The NUG has just published a national curriculum that has been accepted in Chin: it includes the teaching of Burmese, as the national language, but also local dialects and a foreign language. There is a constituent committee working on a new shared constitution, and “the NUG is tasked with developing the strategic goals developed by the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC), the federal council, and the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH),” a kind of interim parliament, as Ma Myo, a NUG minister, explained to us. There are inevitable compromises, arising from the historical difficulty of reconciling the ethnic peripheries with the center of the country, which is Bamar, “Burmese,” both ethnically and linguistically. Managing this difficulty and complexity is what’s really at stake for the prospect of a military victory. It’s not an impossible task.
After we decide to head out into the liberated area without a military escort, we try first of all to understand how far the control of the NUG, the Chin and the Tatmadaw extends. A report by the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar (SAC-M), an international research group, gives a clearer picture: according to data from last September, the NUG and EROs had effective control over 52 percent of Myanmar’s territory, while the junta’s control was actively contested in an additional 23 percent and it only had stable control over 17 percent of the territory: 72 of Burma’s 330 municipalities (townships).
In the periphery, the resistance controlled no less than 94 percent of the territory. This is where we currently are. Now our mission is to go see how people are living in the villages that the resistance has wrested from the Tatmadaw and where the junta can’t set foot – however, at worst, it can bomb. (Part 1 – to be continued)
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