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Myanmar's Chin battle military with muskets

Ethnic Minority Has Played Key Role In Country's History Of Conflicts

A Chinland Defense Force fighter poses for a photograph at an undisclosed location near the India-Myanmar border on Nov. 23, 2021.    © Reuters

CHIANG MAI, Thailand -- It might have seemed improbable when Myanmar's poorest ethnic minority seized their antique hunting rifles to battle -- and to bloody -- a Myanmar military that has unleashed artillery and helicopter gunships against them.

But following the overthrow of the country's elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi on Feb. 1 last year, the Chin were among the first to take up arms against the military regime, inspiring other opposition groups across the country to escalate their protests and armed rebellion.

Despite the army's blistering attacks, the burning of towns and alleged atrocities against civilians, a growing network of guerrillas is digging in for what Za Uk Ling of the Chin Human Rights Organization calls a "do or die, or now or never" resistance against the military, which has ruled over Myanmar and the Chin people for decades.

In a society where parents, elders and tribal chiefs have been the traditional decision-makers, this resistance is driven by the youth of Generation Z who briefly savored democracy and are connected to the world through the internet. But the uprising's roots also lie in centuries of Chin history, culture and a compulsion to protect their rugged, remote hills from hostile outsiders.

The Chin resisted the incursion of the British at the end of the 19th century, served on the Allied side in World War I, fought bravely against the Japanese in World War II and over the last 30 years have waged a low-level insurgency against a central government dominated by the military and the country's Bamar majority.


Top: In this aerial photo taken on Oct. 29, 2021, smoke rises from fires in the Chin State town of Thantlang, where more than 160 buildings were destroyed by shelling from government troops, according to local media. (AFP/Jiji) Bottom: This photo, received from an anonymous source via Facebook on March 29, 2021, shows protesters using mobile phone lights in a dawn demonstration against the military takeover in the Chin State township of Hakha. (Handout /Facebook/AFP/Jiji

Struggle against the Bamar has been a recurring motif in Chin history. One myth relates how Bamar guardians, appointed over the Chin when the world was created, cheated them of their elephants. Then they showed them the blank side of a writing slate, thus rendering the Chin illiterate. Another story -- discounted by some experts but widely circulated in Chin State -- is that the once widespread tattooing of women's faces was designed to make them unappealing to marauders from the Bamar lowlands.

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In WWII, the Chin and other tribes of the northeastern hills proved invaluable in stopping the powerful Japanese army from sweeping into India. The British commander of the Chin Levies, Lt. Col. H.N.C. Stevenson, wrote: "At a time when the whole might of the Commonwealth was collapsing about their heads they stood firm by our side, facing the mortars and machine guns of Japan with shotguns and ancient flintlocks."

In April, the descendants of these Chin soldiers took to the jungles 80 years later with their slingshots and "tumee" -- flintlocks little changed from the Napoleonic wars and passed down from generation to generation for stalking deer, wild boar and gaur in what remains a strong hunting culture. In earlier times, when a boy was given his first rifle, a prayer was said before his first hunt: "Let this gun work properly and be successful. Let it kill the animals on the land and the animals under the water."


Top: This photo from 1915 shows a Chin tribal chief, along with his family, who donated money to the British war fund. (Getty images) Bottom: Chin women are renowned for their distinctive facial tattoos.   © AP

The tumee is handicapped by its short range and the time it takes to reload by filling the barrel with gunpowder. Nonetheless, one Chin fighter was recently quoted as saying that killing Myanmar soldiers was like "shooting running animals in the forest."

Since the early days of the uprising, the Chin have acquired some modern weaponry, either supplied by other ethnic groups fighting the regime, purchased on the black market or captured from regime forces. In an April ambush, one insurgent group -- the Chinland Defense Force-Mindat -- seized a stack of weapons, including two sniper rifles. In an interview with the Chinland News Agency, a unit commander, Naing Tam, claimed to have killed 70 soldiers with one of the rifles.

"It is in our nature to like to fight -- and sometimes even with each other," said Van Cung Lian, a researcher in Chin history and politics, noting this can contribute to disunity, the Chin's weak point.

The mountainous terrain of the Chin homeland has served as protection against incursions but also has separated villages and tribal subgroups -- more than 50 have been identified. Intertribal raids, including the taking of heads, were not uncommon in the past.


A Chin National Front military camp is seen on the Myanmar side of the India-Myanmar border near the Indian village of Farkawn on March 13, 2021.   © Reuters

There is no single standard Chin language among an array of distinctly different languages and dialects. Differences between north and south Chin State persist. While half a million live in the state, there are more Chin living elsewhere in Myanmar and as many as 2 million Chin are native to the northeast Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur.

But two pivotal unifying forces have emerged. Lian H. Sakhong, in his seminal "In Search of Chin Identity," writes that the struggle against the British made the Chin more aware of being an ethnic community and paved the way for another consolidator among the then-animist tribals -- Christianity.

The missionaries -- the first were American Baptists arriving in 1899 -- promoted education and rendered into written form the three standard dialect languages. They were so successful in conversions that today about 90% of the Chin in Myanmar profess Christianity, and the church has become a central pillar of Chin society.

This Baptist church in Mindat, shown here in 2013, is one of around 1,000 churches in the predominantly Christian Chin State. (Denis D. Gray)

"Chin identity and Christianity are fully blended. We have only one institution which is not controlled by the government -- our religion," said Lian H. Sakhong. "When you sing a hymn on a Sunday morning, you know others are doing the same in villages across Chin State. That makes for a kind of unity."

Since Christianity is so central to the Chin and pastors are often community leaders, the military has targeted churches and clerics, according to Benedict Rogers of the U.K.-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide. Arousing outrage was the military's killing of Baptist pastor Cung Biak Hum on Sept. 18 while he was trying to extinguish a blaze caused by artillery fire. One soldier hacked off his finger to take his wedding ring.

There are signs that tribal and regional-based allegiances still divide the Chin in the wake of the military takeover, with the Chin National Defense Force, the Chinland Defense Force-Mindat, the CDF-Kanpetlet and other groups springing up. But most operate under the umbrella of the Chinland Joint Defense Committee. There are plans to merge all armed groups into one Chin force, said William Chin, commander of the CNDF, in an interview from his jungle base.

People displaced by fighting between government troops and rebel forces are seen in Chin State on May 31, 2021. (Reuters) 

Cooperation is also occurring between the Chin and Bamar opposition groups in the adjacent areas of Sagaing and Magwe, where many Chin live and which are known as hotbeds of armed opposition to the military regime.

"A collective hatred toward the military and the thought of living under military dictatorship is uniting people to the extent never possible," says Za Uk Ling. "There is a newfound unity in purpose and goal."

While some are concerned that fragmentation may recur in the future, Van Cung Lian said the Chin now possess a cohesion "the likes of which we have not seen since the British invasion."

Nobody expects the Chin alone to bring down the regime, but analysts say their attacks are helping force the regime to spread its forces thinly while it also fights armed Bamar groups as well as the ethnic armies in the Kachin, Karen and Rakhine areas. Chin State could become a fortress as in WWII.

A Chinland Defense Force fighter shows a photo of a fellow soldier at an undisclosed location near the India-Myanmar border on Nov. 17, 2021.   © Reuters

"Being familiar with Chin State history, especially from World War II, I was not surprised that this remote and impoverished area has fought hard," said Edith Mirante, founder of Project Maje, which has documented developments in Myanmar since the 1980s.

William Chin, the CNDF commander, said the guerrillas know the terrain, can survive in the jungle and obtain food and intelligence from villagers, allowing them to ambush military convoys and gain control of the countryside, if not the towns. "Our biggest advantage is our mindset, our belief that we are fighting against evil with luck and God on our side," he said.

But he added he still lacks weapons, forcing him to turn away would-be fighters. The CNDF fields about 1,000 guerrillas, including female fighters and nurses, but less than half are armed.

"The resistance has developed despite Chin State being impoverished and isolated. Disadvantages of economics, politics and geography may have actually turned into advantages for an indigenous guerrilla movement," explained Mirante.

Dire poverty and military repression have driven more than 200,000 Chin into exile in some 20 countries, including over 63,000 in the U.S. in recent decades. But the diaspora is now financing the Chin's armed struggle, including through an array of individuals, Chin organizations and churches, said Van Cung Lian. "The success of this fight will be greatly dependent on the sustained support of the Chin diaspora."

As for the tenacity of young Chin: "It was not a surprise at all that the youths decided to take up arms, especially after the junta resorted to crushing their peaceful protests. This generation of youth wasn't going to take that," said Za Uk Ling. "People realize that they can't afford to let the junta be in charge of their lives again."