As a 17-year-old, Mai Zacer Mawi* was used to being pushed around. An avid and talented martial artist, she had been selected to move from her rural home town of Falam, in north-western Myanmar, to one of the country’s major cities, Yangon. There she had been invited to practise martial arts at a national training camp. But despite her prowess, Mawi faced taunts and bullying from her peers because of her background.
Her home town lies in Chin state, one of 15 territories within Myanmar.
“It’s the least developed state in Myanmar. It’s the poorest in Myanmar. We grew up very poor. During the rainy season we had only three umbrellas to share between me and my five siblings. If we had only one egg it would be divided between the whole family,” Mawi says.
Chin National Defence Force (CNDF) soldiers practise drills at a training facility under the direction of a soldier recently defected from the Tatmadaw in Falam township.
Myanmar’s states are not merely geographical divisions, they also demarcate the distinct ethnic differences found across the country. As somebody from Chin state, it means that Mawi is also ethnically Chin. In contrast, the girls at her new training camp were mostly Bamar, the majority ethnicity in Myanmar, who are typically from the central and more affluent cities. The differences in their economic and ethnic backgrounds made Mawi the target of the bullying.
“I became so frustrated that I promised myself I was going to beat them. So I began to train much harder than them.”
Instead of taking her martial arts classes with the other women in the group, Mawi decided to train with the men at her camp instead. “They’re faster, stronger. I chose to train with men because I wanted to beat the girls easily.”
As she recounted her story she began to chuckle to herself. “I’m mean, right? It was very tough. I was beaten, I was often bleeding, I often had a swollen face and black eyes. By the time I reached 20 no girl was ever able to beat me again.”
The struggle that Mawi put herself through to overcome ethnic discrimination is a microcosm of life in Myanmar since the military, the Tatmadaw, overthrew the democratically elected government in a coup on 1 February 2021.
Villagers rest to eat during the construction of a memorial to a fallen soldier in Hriang Khan, Chin state. Ram Lian Peng, 16, was killed in Thantlang while trying to put out a house fire started by Tatmadaw soldiers.
Military snipers look out over a Tatmadaw base from a vantage point in Thantlang, Chin state. Thantlang, one of the main towns in Chin state and now completely abandoned by its civilian population, has become a frontline of combat between the Tatmadaw and CNA (Chin National Army) forces, who control most of the town as well as the roads leading to it from the Indian border.
Since Myanmar’s independence from British colonial rule in 1947, the differences between the country’s ethnic groups and the Tatmadaw have been the source of endless violence and unrest. Most recently, this has played out in the Tatmadaw’s latest campaign of violence, not only in Myanmar’s cities, where daily protests against the coup have been met with a brutal military crackdown, but also in the regional states, where the Tatmadaw has been staging a range of air and ground operations against multiple military wings formed by the country’s ethnic groups, as well as against the civilians of those ethnic groups.
Since August, Chin has become one of the key focal points of the Tatmadaw’s military strategy, with a buildup of forces in and around the state that the UN is concerned mirrors the buildup that took place before the Rohingya genocide four years ago.
Top: Schoolboys in Sopum play cane ball, a highly popular sport in Myanmar.
Internally displaced people in Sopum prepare flour.
In response to the threat posed by the Tatmadaw, and to the coup more broadly, two military groups formed in Chin last year, the Chinland Defence Force (CDF) and the Chin National Defence Force (CNDF), to bolster the protection offered to the state by the more well-established military force that has been present in Chin since 1988, the Chin National Army (CNA).
Mawi, after spending sleepless nights deliberating whether she should involve herself in any kind of resistance to the coup, eventually became one of the founding members of the CNDF. By mid-May they had set up their first base in the Chin jungle where she was in charge of training its new recruits in hand-to-hand combat.
“I never expected anything like this to happen to me. Before I hadn’t realised how things really were politically in Myanmar. I didn’t really take much notice about how we were being denied our basic human rights.”
Now, however, the abuses the Tatmadaw have been committing throughout the country for decades have arrived at Mawi’s doorstep.
Thantlang in October 2021. More than 160 buildings were destroyed in attacks by the military junta, according to local media
Thantlang, a Chin town just a few hours’ motorcycle ride from Mawi’s home town, has been deserted by its roughly 10,000 residents. Since August the area has been subject to wave after wave of mortar strikes from the Tatmadaw soldiers who hold a small base there, as well as the systematic arson of homes and businesses, which is slowly reducing the town to ashes. As of early December, CDF figures tallied about 530 Thantlang homes that had been destroyed by fire.
Now, the only remaining signs of life in the town come from the ring of sniper fire echoing through the abandoned streets, the darting footsteps of the CNA and CDF soldiers holding the frontline and the occasional wandering farm animal left to fend for itself by its absent owners.
Zai Rem Mawi (second from left), an IDP from Thantlang, trying out clothes donated by Myanmar Christian Council, along with other IDPs in Vaan Zaang village, Chin state. Van Zaang is one of numerous villages offering homes to internally displaced people from towns and villages that have endured Tatmadaw attacks in recent months.
Zai Rem Mawi, 26, is a shopkeeper who until September had lived in the town all her life. “The first gunfights happened right outside my house because it is close to the police station. That was between the police and the CDF. I was at home at the time. The Tatmadaw fired a mortar that exploded right outside my house – it completely destroyed my motorbike. Then a second one shattered all the glass in the windows of my house.”
It was two long weeks before Rem Mawi finally found a moment of safety amid the daily strikes in which to flee on foot from Thantlang along with her family. Up until that point Covid-19 restrictions had barred villages in the township from allowing outsiders to enter.
“We were terrified by the sounds of the gunfire and the explosions. I felt OK about myself but I was really worried for my elderly parents and for my children.”
She, along with 14 other members of her family, arrived in Van Zaang, just two villages away, where they were taken in by a host family of six for two weeks. After that they were moved to a vacant home where they have been living ever since.
Rem Mawi’s story has become a common one across Chin state. According to CDF figures, Thantlang township alone (one of nine townships across Chin state, which includes Thantlang as well as the villages and hamlets that orbit it), is sheltering more than 13,000 IDPs. Through the efforts and hospitality of local communities, as well as the CDF, who also provides humanitarian support, IDPs have been able to find refuge from the threat of violence, rape and arbitrary arrest posed by the Tatmadaw.
“It’s very painful for us because we have put so much into our house and our shops in Thantlang. Losing everything so quickly has been really difficult to cope with.”
Darsiam Dhang, 35, sits in his family’s new shelter at a school that has been repurposed as an IDP camp in Thlan Rawn village, Chin state.
Chin state’s military response to the Tatmadaw’s recent operations is coordinated under the Chin Joint Defence Committee (CJDC), the alliance of the three military groups in the area. It is chaired by Salai Thla Hei, who is also the general secretary of the CNA, the oldest and largest of the three forces.
The aim of the CJDC is not only to quell the Tatmadaw’s recent onslaught but to help put an end to the regime’s decades of violence across the whole of Myanmar, and to replace it with a federal democracy in which Chin, along with the country’s other territories, would enjoy the freedoms of self-governance similar to that practised in the 50 states of the US.
While this has been an aim for the CNA since 1988, in which the military staged an earlier coup, Hei explained how it was not until last year’s coup that the urgency and desire to achieve this goal came to the fore for the majority of the Chin population, or even became likely.
CNDF soldiers receiving new fatigues at a training facility in Falam township, Chin state.
Improvised explosive devices outside a CNDF outpost in Falam township, Chin state. Owing to poor access to military-grade weapons in Chin, the state’s armed forces must resort to developing and manufacturing many of their own weapons in the fight against the military junta. Right: A girl prepares betel nuts to sell at her family’s shop in Falam. The mild stimulant, which is enjoyed across Myanmar, permanently stains the teeth black if chewed regularly.
“Since 1988 it had been difficult to engage the Chin people in joining the movement. The difference now is that this has become a real people’s revolution. Even the people who are training with the CNA have come from different parts of Chinland and Myanmar.”
However, it is not only the support of the Chin people that Hei sees as necessary for victory, but also that which is now coming from the majority ethnic Bamar within Myanmar’s central cities who, after experiencing the brutality of Tatmadaw’s violence for the first time in more than a generation, have formed their own grassroots military group, the People’s Defence Force, members of which are being trained by the CNA.
But even with the Bamar’s support, the road to victory will not be an easy one. On top of having a substantial disadvantage in terms of firepower, resources and personnel, Hei sees potential for failure within the fault lines between not only the various ethnic groups but also the many tribes that make up, and often divide, the people of Chin.
“The key obstacles to achieving victory and federal democracy is lack of unity and coordination among the ethnic armed organisations and the PDF, as well as within Chin. So we are trying hard to unite all the Chin people and ethnic armed organisations.”
* Name has been changed to protect the identity of the interviewee.