Nearly 30 junta troops were killed Thursday in Myanmar’s Chin state as fighting between militia groups and the military escalated in the country’s remote regions, prompting the United Nations rights czar to warn of a “human rights catastrophe.”
Members of the Chinland Defense Force (CDF) in Chin’s Thantlang township said they attacked a column of soldiers traveling around 25 miles outside of the town center, killing as many as 17 in the ensuing firefight and suffering no casualties.
“More than 100 junta soldiers were marching towards the Khuahring Thang mountain range,” said a fighter with the Thantlang CDF, who spoke to RFA’s Myanmar Service on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
“We’re a little worried about the situation. There are more troops than ever pressing on us. The fighting is expected to become more intense.”
The CDF fighter said his group attacked the column “because the military has been intimidating local residents.”
The clash marked the first in Thantlang township and caused around 600 residents of three villages in the area to flee to the mountains, he said.
“Most people fled because they were scared about the presence of the soldiers,” he said.
“A lot of people in Thantlang had already fled their homes earlier [when troops began to deploy to the area].”
A similar clash broke out in an area between the townships of Hakha and Gangaw, the Hakha CDF announced Thursday, saying it had killed 10 junta soldiers. The group did not report any casualties of its own in the fighting.
In a statement, the CDF said it will “continue to fight fiercely in all parts of Chin state” to protect the people.
RFA was unable to independently verify CDF claims about the number of soldiers killed in Thursday’s clashes and calls to Myanmar’s Deputy Information Minister Zaw Min Tun went unanswered Friday.
‘Human rights catastrophe’
On Friday, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet warned that any escalation in violence in Myanmar must be halted to prevent even greater loss of life and a deepening humanitarian emergency.
“As I had feared, armed conflict and other violence are intensifying in many parts of Myanmar, including Kayah State, Chin State and Kachin State, with the violence particularly intense in areas with significant ethnic and religious minority groups,” Bachelet said in a statement, noting that the military has continued to use heavy weaponry, including airstrikes, against armed groups and against civilians.
“In just over four months, Myanmar has gone from being a fragile democracy to a human rights catastrophe,” she said.
“In addition to the loss of life, people are suffering from severe impacts on the social and economic rights. The military leadership is singularly responsible for this crisis, and must be held to account.”
The junta deposed Myanmar’s democratically elected government on Feb. 1, claiming that the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party had won the country’s November 2020 elections due to widespread voter fraud, despite a lack of evidence. The move prompted widespread protests that the military has responded to with violent crackdowns, killing some 860 people over the past four months.
The CDF is a network of volunteers that formed in April to protect the people of Chin and has enjoyed relative success facing the military—the second largest in Southeast Asia—with slingshots and the same crude flintlock “Tumee” rifles their forefathers used to fight off British colonizers in the 1880s. The CDF said it had killed some 100 junta troops between March and May.
Fighters of the CDF were engaged in daily battles from May 12 until May 15, when the junta occupied Mindat with 1,000 fully armed troops who used civilians as human shields and sprayed gunfire indiscriminately, the CHRO said recently.
The CDF pulled out May 16 to protect civilians from further artillery attacks and fire from helicopter gunships, Chin fighters have said, but fighting resumed on June 3 and both sides have suffered casualties.
The Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) estimates that some 40,000 civilians have fled their homes throughout Chin state since May.
Outbreak compounds challenges
As more residents flee intensifying fighting in Chin, the region is also facing an outbreak of COVID-19 that medical workers reported had killed 10 people as of Friday. Over the past three weeks, around 320 cases have been reported in the townships of Tunzan and Kyeehar, near Myanmar’s border with India.
Myanmar’s least developed state had already been dealing with a shortage of health workers prior to the coronavirus pandemic, but sources told RFA that following the military coup, many of the medical personnel in the state joined the nationwide Civil Disobedience Movement, leaving few behind to control the spread of the virus and treat those infected with COVID-19, the disease it causes.
“Nobody who is infected wants to go to the hospital because there are no doctors there,” said an official with the COVID-19 Relief Team in Kyeekhar, where medical students are assisting three hospital staffers attend to 195 infected patients.
“They are just being treated at home … We have tried to help them. If their condition becomes serious, they call us for help, and we take them by car to the hospital so that they can be given oxygen.”
The administrator of Kyeekhar township confirmed to RFA that there are no longer any doctors at the local hospital.
“We are treating patients with the help of volunteer doctors and nurses,” he said.
On May 28, the local government issued a Stay At Home order in Kyeekhar and Tunzang townships and similar restrictions have since been implemented in the nearby townships of Tedim, Falam, Hakha and Thantlang.
According to the junta’s Ministry of Health, a total of 144,876 confirmed infections and 3,237 deaths from COVID-19 have been recorded in Myanmar beginning in March 2020.
Earlier this week, the United Nations in Myanmar voiced concern about what it called “the rapidly deteriorating security and humanitarian situation” the country’s remote conflict areas.
The U.N. stressed the urgent need for food, water, shelter, fuel, and access to healthcare for people fleeing the fighting, saying that the aid it has distributed is insufficient—particularly for those in remote locations, where insecurity, travel restrictions, and poor road conditions are delaying the delivery of supplies.
Aid groups estimate that more than a quarter of a million civilians in seven regions of Myanmar have been displaced by clashes between the military and militias or fighting between ethnic armies in the four months since the junta coup.
The 226,000 displaced in 2021 join more than 500,000 refugees from decades of military conflict between the government military and ethnic armies who were already counted as internally displaced persons at the end of 2020, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, a Norwegian NGO.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.