Full-throated they belt out songs of victory, their boots adding the drumbeat as ranks of new recruits jog in formation through their jungle training camp.
They pour into Camp Victoria, the headquarters of the long-standing ethnic army of the Chin National Front (CNF) in western Myanmar, close to India’s border. The Chin National Front was founded on 20 March 1988. This organization seeks a Federal Union based on self-determination, ethnic equality and democracy.
Many volunteers come from within the surrounding mountainous territory. But many others make the dangerous journey across Myanmar in search of military skills.
On the cusp of adulthood, these volunteers say they demonstrated against the military coup that took power in February. And as the junta’s response has grown increasingly bloody, so they have taken up arms. The soldiers defy attempts by the camp’s leadership to suspend training because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Now it’s a kind of an urban guerrilla-type (conflict) but within months it will transform into a conventional civil war,” Suikhar, vice chairman of the CNF.
Suikhar explained that his movement and the Chinland Defence Force, which are also being trained at Camp Victoria, were led by Myanmar’s National Unity Government, which is a loose alliance of anti-junta forces and has no command or control authority over the armed groups inside Myanmar itself.
One young fighter explained that he was the commander of what started out as a 10-person group specially trained in urban guerrilla warfare.
The junta army is striking back ruthlessly. The Tatmadaw is using its long-established ‘four cuts’ counter-insurgency strategy in these areas, a cruel approach that deliberately targets civilians in an effort to deprive insurgents of food, funds, recruits and intelligence on troop movements (hence the four cuts). Attacks on populated areas are an integral part of this strategy, along with the looting of food stores and denial of relief supplies.
Near Camp Victoria, many people are leaving outlying villages for small refugee encampments, or safety in Indian communities across the Tiau River. Most of the refugees are women, children and the old. They all left their villages for the same reasons.
“I am really afraid of the Myanmar military because they’re very nasty and they are a brutal military. Twenty years ago the military tortured my son in my own house. They hit him on the head. There was blood all over his head and that’s why I am really afraid of them,” said Tial Song, an elderly woman who was sitting under the orange plastic sheeting of a newly erected shelter.
Beyond the outer defenses of Camp Victoria, the mountains of Chin State leap in near-vertical waves of thick jungle. Travel is on precipitous mountain passes along tiny mud tracks.
Locals, many of them experienced hunters, have the edge over invading armies. They also have the mass intelligence network of their own communities, with fighters receiving live updates of enemy troops movements from village agents all over the state.
Getting in, or out, of the Chin-controlled zone is a grueling test of endurance. It often involves entire days of back-breaking bouncing along the mud-slickened tracks on the back of small motorbikes. These little 125cc bikes carry fighters, ammunition and food to far-flung camps run by the Chinland Defence Force.
John Ling gave up his history studies at the University of Yangon to join the insurgency. Swapping the classroom for a hilltop camp, he’s the administrator, or quartermaster, for about 150 other volunteers.
“Are you afraid of being killed?”
“No, because I stand for my country,” he replies – adding that his parents are not worried about him, but proud of the stand that he’s taken.
The armory is an A-framed tent of plastic sheeting and tree trunks. Its precious contents, dozens of shotguns designed for shooting birds, are lined up along each wall. On the floor, a log fire burns to keep the damp out, and rust off the guns.
Suikhar, the Chin National Front vice chairman, is adamant that these fighters will soon be supplied with automatic firearms, such as AK-47s.
“There are international smugglers. … You can get weapons anywhere,” he insists, but is opaque about how those weapons would be paid for.
“People donate, raise the funds. So I don’t think that money will be a problem.”
The CNF is one of 16 ethnic armies, and hopes for cooperation among them against a common enemy – all in the name of “federalism.”