A photo essay by Alessandro De Pascale and Theo Guzman
In a maze of bends, a steep dirt road leads down to the Tiau River, which marks the border between the Indian state of Mizoram and Myanmar. It is not a road marked on maps, but one of dozens of access roads that allow cars to cross the border at points where the river, before it swells in the coming rainy season, allows cars to pass where the water is low and the flow slower. Tiau is wedged into the steep valleys of a region that, before the Anglo-Burmese wars and before the British Raj became India, was administered by small independent principalities. So the same people live on both sides of the Tiau: the Chin in Myanmar and the Mizo in Mizoram. The same people with different names, speaking dialects that all belong to the Tibetan-Burmese language family. This is why the border is porous: it allows those fleeing the bombings in Myanmar to find safe haven with their cousins in Mizoram. The state government turns a blind eye and does not have to think like the Union government in Delhi, which not only supports the Burmese military junta that took power in February 2021, but also sells Naypyidaw the weapons it needs to fight the armed resistance to the coup.
After crossing the border, the first pillboxes appear, where Chin National Army soldiers keep an eye on the river. A few kilometres further on, and after passing through the first village, we arrive at the CNA checkpoint, where a very young military man scans the laissez-passers in the pitch-black night. It is the mandatory check to enter Camp Victoria, one of the five bases of the Chin army. Perhaps the largest. Camp Victoria was bombed in January and there is no shortage of air-raid sirens. It is structured like a large barracks, with training areas for recruits – men and women – canteens, a tailoring shop and a sort of support village, separated from the purely military area, where some of the soldiers’ families live. This area was also bombed and virtually destroyed. There are the remains of half the village and a ruined medical centre. It is a foretaste of what we will see later when we enter the liberated area.
Less than a dozen kilometres from Camp Victoria lies the village of Tlanglo. Indeed, it did. In the centre of the village are craters left by two 250-pound bombs dropped by the junta’s loyal army: Tatmadaw, as it was once reverently known. ‘The Greens’, as people now refer to it with contempt. The Chin have a long history of resistance to the central state, and while Rangoon had a presence in state structures (schools, hospitals, public administration), the Chin National Front – and its armed wing, the CNA, formed in 1988 – have always stood up to the Tatmadaw, continuing a resistance to the undemocratic centralism of the Bamar majority since the late 1940s. Now things have changed. The Burmese state, the current junta, has virtually no territorial control here. It is present only in the major urban centres, such as Hakha – the Chin capital – or Thantlang, both within a 100-kilometre radius east of Camp Victoria: after heavy bombing, the cities were swiped out. The scorched earth is the result of fires set to abandoned houses, and places like Thantlang are now called ‘ghost towns’. The Tatmadaw guards them but cannot get out. Its columns fall victim to ambushes that drive the soldiers back to their urban bases, which are not immune to attack.
The village, like many others in Chin, is believed to have supported the ‘rebel’ army. The two bombs hit the village square and the main road, shattering the wooden houses within bomb range, as well as the windows and structures of a Christian church. The village has emptied out and is now a small Thantlang: a ‘ghost town’. The displaced live in the forest a few kilometres away, in makeshift plastic tents and outdoor kitchens. There is no one left in the village. A few chickens wander through the debris, trying to peck at the smoke-blackened rubble.
Relations between the Chin and the underground government – the National Unity Government – appear to be good. This is the most complex aspect of the Burmese war.
The Nug emerged from the ashes of the old parliament, which expired in 2020 after Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won a landslide victory in the November elections. It now seeks to act as a counterweight to the military junta and has its own armed organisation: the People’s Defence Force, young civilians drafted into the conflict. But the Nug knows that the war cannot be won without the apparatus of the ‘ethnic’ armies. It is currently allied with the Chin, Karen, Kachin, Karenny and part of the Shan, but many other communities are on the side-lines when not siding with the junta. In Chin state, coexistence with the Nug seems stable, although the CNF and CNA dictate the law. However, the Nug has just shared a national curriculum that has been accepted by Chins. It includes the teaching of Burmese as the national language, as well as local dialects and a foreign language. There is a constitutional committee working on a new common constitution, and “the Nug is tasked with developing the strategic goals drawn up by the National Unity Consultative Council (Nucc), the Federal Council and the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (Crph)”, a kind of provisional parliament, as Ma Myo, the Nug minister, explained. The inevitable compromises suffer from the historical difficulty of reconciling the ethnic peripheries with the centre of the country, which is ethnically and linguistically Bamar, ‘Burmese’. A difficulty and a complexity that are the real stakes of a military victory, not an unattainable one.
As we decide to enter the liberated area without military escort, we try to understand how far the Nug, the Chin and the Tatmadaw go. A report by the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar (SAC-M), an international research group, in September last year found that the Nug and Ero had effective control over 52% of Myanmar’s territory, while the junta had contested control over a further 23% and stable control over only 17%, or 72 of the country’s 330 municipalities or townships. In the bordering states, the Resistance reportedly controls 94% of the territory. We are right here. Now we have to see how people live in the villages that the resistance has wrested from the Tatmadaw, where the junta cannot set foot, but can only bomb.
The story of the essay
Photos were taken in Chin State, Myanmar, in June 2023
To learn more, read our Myanmar conflict factsheet