On May 15, Biak Thang hastily said goodbye to his wife and two children, grabbed a few days’ worth of food and supplies and ran to the forest.
“We heard that [military forces] are arresting men, so most of the men are escaping and only women and children are left,” said Biak Thang, who asked to use a pseudonym for security reasons.
“I don’t feel safe. I only heard about war-displaced people in the media, but we are war-displaced people now,” he said from the wooded hills on the outskirts of Mindat, a town in Myanmar’s Chin State.
The Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) has warned that the military, which seized power in a February 1 coup, may have committed war crimes and “grave breaches of the Geneva Convention” in Mindat, a town of 46,000 people located 100 kilometres (62 miles) from the border with India.
Since imposing martial law there on May 13, the military has used local youth as human shields, occupied schools and hospitals, destroyed property and conducted heavy-weapon attacks by air and land, according to the CHRO and local media reports.
The military, also known as the Tatmadaw, has described the violence in Mindat as a response to “armed terrorists,” referring to civilian defence forces, which have taken up arms in recent weeks, and said its forces returned fire after coming under attack.. While the military has reportedly used artillery fire, rocket-propelled grenades and automatic machine guns, the civilian forces are armed largely with homemade hunting rifles and makeshift explosives.
Worn down by bloody crackdowns and arbitrary arrests, Mindat’s fighters are among growing numbers of people across the country turning to armed resistance to overthrow military rule.
Since the coup, millions have taken to the streets in peaceful protest, while a Civil Disobedience Movement has shut down infrastructure and public services. The military, meanwhile, has killed more than 800 civilians and more than 4,000 people remain in custody, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), which is tracking arrests throughout the country.
‘Big machine weapons’
Chin, a rural and mountainous state in Myanmar’s northwest which is among the country’s least developed, has become among the fiercest battlegrounds of resistance, along with Sagaing region to its north.
Beginning in late March, a group of civilians armed with hunting rifles and homemade weapons maintained a protest camp for more than 10 days in Sagaing’s town of Kalay, where it successfully negotiated a prisoner swap before the military attacked the camp with grenades and machine guns on April 7, killing 11 people.
In Mindat, fighting erupted on April 24, after the military refused to release seven detained youth. Two days later, civilian defence forces ambushed six military trucks carrying reinforcement troops and weapons; the military responded by firing rocket launchers and artillery into the town.
“The attacks started from the outskirts of Mindat. A few days later, they entered the town using big machine weapons. The situation intensified because they attacked indiscriminately, even in residential areas,” a local volunteer medic told Al Jazeera. She requested her name be withheld for her security.
By April 27, Mindat’s civilian defence forces claimed to have killed more than 30 military soldiers.
After the military released the seven detainees, the fighting paused for 10 days but resumed on May 12 when the military refused to release five more detainees. The next day, the military declared martial law over the town, after which it brought in troops and arms by land and air and attacked with heavy weapons during a three-day siege.
On the morning of May 15, soldiers stormed Mindat, firing into streets and arresting young men from their homes. According to the CHRO, soldiers used at least 15 of the young people they had arrested as human shields.
“These are ordinary youths who were trying to get outside of Mindat to avoid indiscriminate bombardment,” the CHRO’s Deputy Director Salai Za Uk Ling told Al Jazeera. “We are extremely concerned about their wellbeing as they are most likely to be mistreated and tortured under custody.”
Since the coup, the bodies of numerous detainees across the country have been returned to families bearing signs of torture.
Community in fear
The Tatmadaw’s power grab, which brought to an end a hesitant transition to democracy, has rekindled unresolved armed conflicts between the military and several ethnic armed organisations, which have been fighting for political autonomy in the country’s borderlands for decades. City dwellers have also begun travelling to the territories held by ethnic armed groups to seek training to fight against the military government, while grassroots civilian defence forces have sprung up in areas that had not previously seen fighting.
In March, a group of overthrown legislators and ethnic leaders serving as a parallel government in exile endorsed the public’s right to self-defence.
On May 5, the shadow government announced the formation of a People’s Defence Force to protect the public’s “safety, property and wellbeing” and fight for the establishment of a federal democratic union. The People’s Defence Force is considered a step towards the creation of a federal army that could unite the country’s ethnic armed organisations and civilian defence forces under a single cause.
Biak Thang, the Mindat resident who fled the town on May 15, told Al Jazeera that the community has been living in fear since the Tatmadaw imposed martial law there.
“Civilians cannot move around freely,” he said. “We cannot go out to buy food or supplies. We are just depending on what we have stored.”
He estimates about 70 percent of local people are hiding in small groups in the forest, and there is a risk of food shortages. Local media have also reported an urgent need for food and medical supplies for those who fled.
The volunteer medic told Al Jazeera that she and her team are shifting to different locations in the forest to avoid arrest, while still attempting to care for the wounded.
“When we are moving from place to place, even we uninjured people get really exhausted,” she said. “The patients should be resting, but instead, they have to run … It added so much time for their injuries to heal.”
She is concerned that a lack of nutritious food will further hinder their recovery.
By the time civilian defence forces retreated on May 15, allegedly to prevent further harm to civilians, seven members had been killed, according to local media reports. The military-run TV channel reported that some of its own troops had been killed and were missing but did not give a number.
The US and UK embassies have condemned the military’s violence against civilians in Mindat, as has the National Unity Government, Myanmar’s government-in-exile.
The National Unity Government also expressed its support for the people’s right to self-defence and called for a no-fly zone over Myanmar as well as international action to end the violence and protect the people.
Women left vulnerable
With most men having fled Mindat, rights groups now warn the women and children left behind are increasingly vulnerable.
Soldiers have been looting property and burning down homes since taking over the town, while some residents have been unable to get medical assistance after being shot, a Mindat resident told Reuters news agency.
In the wake of the attacks, the National Unity Government’s Ministry of Women, Youths and Children Affairs said in a statement that it had received verified claims of sexual violence in Mindat. Al Jazeera was unable to reach the Deputy Minister for comment.
The secretary of the Chin Women Organization, who requested her name be withheld as she is currently in hiding, told Al Jazeera that she was “worried that the military could use sexual assault and rape as weapons as they have that history … As the military has occupied Mindat, the lives of Chin women and young girls, and all women in Mindat, are not safe anymore,” she said.
In August 2019, a UN Fact-Finding Mission reported that Myanmar military soldiers “routinely and systematically” employed rape and sexual violence and that sexual violence perpetrated by the military was “part of a deliberate, well-planned strategy to intimidate, terrorise and punish a civilian population.”
During a campaign of violence in Rakhine State in 2017, sexual violence was a factor indicating the military’s “genocidal intent to destroy the Rohingya population,” according to the UN report.
Salai Za Uk Ling of the CHRO told Al Jazeera that due to the stigma and sensitivity of the issue, his organisation was not releasing detailed information about alleged sexual violence in Mindat, but he shared concerns that incidents of sexual violence could happen.
He also warned that patterns of violence seen in Mindat could spread to other parts of the country, leading to more displacement as the rainy season approaches. With neighbouring India so far refusing to offer asylum to those crossing the border, Salai Za Uk Ling worries that the displaced will be left with no safe place to go.
Although the civilian defence forces have retreated in Mindat, fighting is already spreading to other parts of the state.
The civilian defence forces claim to have killed five military soldiers in Hakha township, where a member of civilian defence forces was also killed on May 16. Clashes in Tedim township left four military soldiers and two unarmed civilians dead, according to local media reports. Al Jazeera was unable to independently verify the information.
“The junta’s actions in Mindat demonstrate how far they are willing to go in trying to put the population under control. Mindat is only the beginning,” said Salai Za Uk Ling. “We are now basically witnessing a humanitarian disaster in the making.”
Deborah contributed to this report from Chin State, Myanmar