Ethnic Chin soldiers claim to have taken control of nearly all of Thantlang township in Chin state, in western Myanmar near India, despite the junta’s recent declaration of martial law in the area, but residents who fled fighting say they cannot return home amid the risk of military airstrikes.
Last week, the junta declared martial law in 37 townships across the country and authorized military tribunals to hand down life sentences and the death penalty for a wide range of offenses.
The move came a day after military leaders extended their emergency rule over the country for six more months on the second anniversary of the Feb. 1, 2021, coup that ousted the democratically elected government.
Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government dismissed the announcement as a bid to “save face,” telling RFA Burmese that all the towns where martial law was declared are actually under control of anti-junta forces.
On Friday, Chin National Front spokesperson Salai Htet Ni confirmed to RFA that one such township – Thantlang in Chin state – is actually under the control of local defense forces, aside from an area called “Tat Kone,” or military hill, where the junta’s Light Infantry Battalion 269 is stationed.
“Except for that area, the local defense forces have dominated the rest of the region,” he said.
However, Salai Htet Ni acknowledged that residents of Thantlang who fled fighting in the township are unwilling to return as junta troops remain at Tat Kone.
“It’s possible that the military would send their fighter jets to launch airstrikes after … the civilians return home, so it’s very risky for them,” he said.
The spokesman said that as recently as Wednesday, a joint force of Chin National Front fighters and members of Thantlang’s anti-junta Chin Defense Force paramilitary group raided the township’s police station, capturing more than 40 rifles and ammunition.
Calls to Thant Zin, the junta’s Chin state spokesperson and social affairs minister, went unanswered Friday. But on Thursday, pro-junta media reported that an “overwhelming number” of CDF forces had raided the Thantlang Police Station, leading to a large number of injuries to police personnel as they fled the station under assisted strikes by the Air Force.
Risk of airstrikes remains
Thantlang township was the site of intense battles between the military and anti-junta armed forces in September 2021, resulting in several homes being razed and causing more than 10,000 residents to flee the area.
A displaced person from Thantlang, who declined to be named for security reasons, said that even with the CNF in near-total control of the township, it is currently impossible for civilians to return home.
“If the local defense forces are able to control the town, the junta might attack again in response,” he said. “For me, I am too afraid to stay in town. The town is not livable as the fighting has damaged the infrastructure, so there is no electricity or running water. Repairing the roads could take months.”
The military launched airstrikes on the head office of the Chin Defense Force in Thantlang on Jan. 10-11, killing five resistance soldiers and damaging a medical clinic and other buildings.
Another resident of Thantlang, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, told RFA that people are “very nervous,” despite having dug bomb shelters and prepared for possible airstrikes.
“Recently, they dropped bombs on two villages,” he said. “There were no casualties, but we will have to flee into the forest if the fighter jets return.”
“We have dug bomb shelters in case there is no time [to run]. We are still worried that the bomb they drop might hit right on the bomb shelter. Our lives are in danger now.”
Statistics from Chin human rights groups show that since the coup, junta troops have burned down more than 1,300 homes in Thantlang, including churches.
Salai Man Hin Lian, the administration officer of the Chin Human Rights Organization, told RFA that the military’s use of airstrikes against civilians is “a grave human rights violation.”
“The military has been relying on the Air Force since it has no capacity to launch ground operations,” he said, noting that bombing runs and other airstrikes have caused “massive damage” to civilian infrastructure.
According to the Chin Human Rights Organization, there are more than 100,000 displaced persons in Chin state since the coup.
Eight townships in Chin state are currently under martial law, including Mindat since 2021 and Thantlang, Hakha, Kanpetlet, Matupi, Tedim, Tonzang, and Falam since Feb. 2.
Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.