Northwest Myanmar: A quiet corner transformed by resistance
Despite strong ethnonational sentiment, Northwest Myanmar was relatively calm in decades past. The coup tipped the balance towards armed conflict. This theatre features a high tempo of activity by People’s Defence Force (PDF) units and a revitalised ethnic armed organisation (EAO).
Graphics by Brody Smith
Edited by Aaron Connelly
In recent decades, landslides had been a greater threat than combat in northwest Myanmar. While most of Myanmar’s other borderlands had been upended by conflict between ethnonational movements and brutal counter-insurgency campaigns, the northwest was quiescent before the February 2021 coup d’état. An EAO, the Chin National Front (CNF), had sought to represent the indigenous peoples of Chin State since 1988, but had not engaged in armed conflict since the mid-2000s.
The coup changed all of that, leading to some of the earliest and most intense battles between the junta and forces opposing the coup. In the northwest’s lowlands, villages suspected of harbouring insurgents have been razed, particularly along transport routes critical to the Tatmadaw’s counter-insurgency campaigns elsewhere. In the uplands, across verdant hills and rugged mountains, resistance forces have been experimenting with new forms of autonomous governance in league with the shadow National Unity Government (NUG).
In April 2021, some of the first anti-junta PDFs formed in Kale, a Sagaing township on the border with Chin State. Since then, all but two of northwest Myanmar’s 32 townships have seen armed conflict. The Chinland Defence Force (CDF), which emerged out of the PDFs formed in the first Kale battle, now coordinates its military activities with the older CNF, which has resumed fighting after decades of inactivity. In northern Sagaing, which shares much in common with the neighbouring Dry Zone, the number of PDFs has proliferated since the coup.
The Tatmadaw has retaliated against the inhabitants of northwest Myanmar with disproportionate force. As The Washington Post documented late last year, backed by leaked documents and satellite imagery, entire villages in the northwest have been reduced to ash. These tactics have resulted in widespread displacement and unmet humanitarian needs.
A periphery’s history
Northwest Myanmar comprises highland areas in Chin State and lowland areas in northern Sagaing and northern Magway. These areas were separately administered during British colonisation; the former corresponding to the ‘Frontier Areas’, where the Chin population was able to retain customary leaders; and the latter corresponding to Burma proper, where the British dismantled the Burmese monarchy and instituted a new colonial bureaucracy. In the lowlands of the northwest, the population was diverse; consisting of groups that were, in colonial times, classified as Bamar, Chin and other ethnic minorities.
The hills were overwhelmingly populated by Chin people, who comprised 98.8% of the local population, according to the 1947 Report of the Frontier Areas Committee of Enquiry. However, a consolidated Chin identity had been elusive before the twentieth century: the Chin consisted of numerous tribes and languages. In his book In Search of Chin Identity, Lian Hmung Sakhong – today a leader in both the NUG and CNF – argued that Chin identity in present-day Myanmar eventually crystallised because of two outside forces.
Firstly, many Chin people converted to Christianity in the early twentieth century. British colonial authorities had welcomed American missionaries, hoping that they might aid in ‘pacifying the hill tribes’. Christianity soon took root, shaping the structure of Chin society. Missionaries set up schools, which until the early twentieth century, taught in Burmese – effectively a foreign language – rather than in a Chin language. After that, the missionaries taught in three Chin languages: the Kamhau, Lai (Haka) and Laizo dialects. While this made schooling more attractive, it meant that unlike other minorities in Burma, the Chin still lacked a language to unite them. This was, Bertil Lintner argues, a key obstacle in the CNF’s subsequent efforts to launch an armed rebellion. Nonetheless, the church was a significant, if limited, force for unification. Today, 90% of Chins are Christians. Before setting off for battle against the State Administration Council (SAC) junta, Chin fighters gather to pray.
Secondly, the Chin began to organise as a distinct ethnonational community when they found their homeland (Chinram, or Chinland) subsumed by three separate countries: Burma, India, and Pakistan (later Bangladesh). In each, they became minorities ‘in the midst of multi-ethnic and multi-religious environments, which they did not welcome’. At the 1947 Panglong Conference, held to determine the future of Burma’s Frontier Areas, the Chin – as well as the Kachin and Shan – agreed to join an independent Burma, on the basis of internal autonomy. The constitution, negotiated later that year, enshrined a right to secede through a plebiscite after ten years. Lian Hmung Sakhong writes that the Panglong Agreement was meant to recognise ‘the pre-colonial independent status of the Chin people as well as their post-colonial status of nation-state-to-be’.
The promises of the Panglong Conference never materialised for the Chin. Aung San – who presided over it – was assassinated five months later. His successor, U Nu, passed legislation making Buddhism the state religion in 1961. The following year, General Ne Win seized power on the pretence that the U Nu government’s talks regarding ethnic states’ autonomy might lead to secession. But unlike the Kachin and Shan, whose affiliated EAOs began their struggle in the 1950s and 1960s, there was no sustained Chin rebellion until 1988, when the CNF was formed in Mizoram, across the Indian border. After the Tatmadaw’s crackdown on the 8888 Uprising later that year, some Chin students fled across the border. These students and others eventually filled the CNF’s ranks, and received training from the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) in northeast Myanmar. In subsequent decades, like other non-Bamar groups, Chin people experienced forced labour, arbitrary arrests, and religious repression as part of the Tatmadaw’s counter-insurgency campaigns. Many fled to Mizoram, or further afield to Malaysia or elsewhere in India, as a result.
Nonetheless, before the coup the CNF had never been a formidable force. A former CNF member estimated its maximum total strength to be 500 troops, while – unlike other EAOs like the Karen National Union and KIO – the CNF never had liberated areas. Although it established a camp in southern Mizoram with unofficial support from the Indian government, the camp was deserted in 2005. In 2011, when Myanmar transitioned into a semi-democracy, Thein Sein, ex-Tatmadaw general and incumbent Burmese president, claimed to settle many of Myanmar’s protracted insurgencies, culminating in the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). The CNF was one of eight EAOs to sign the NCA but ‘this was largely a farce’, Lintner writes; the CNF was ‘so small and insignificant’ that the central government awarded it an area of Chin State to establish its headquarters – Camp Victoria – so that the CNF could appear as a legitimate NCA signatory.
The history of insurgency in lowland areas of northwest Myanmar is akin to that of the neighbouring Dry Zone: EAOs had been scarcely active in these areas, populated by a mixture of Chin and Bamar peoples. Nonetheless, locals had been persistently frustrated with the colonial administration and successive Burmese governments. In a rare study of Burmese farmers in the early 2000s, Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung shows that peasants across the Dry Zone, northwest Myanmar and lower Myanmar had long mistrusted centrally appointed officials, who perceived the population as backward and unenlightened. While farmers were at first pleased with the officials’ efforts to listen to their grievances after the 1962 coup, repressive state policies and the officials’ failure to improve farmers’ livelihoods ultimately eroded the hopes they had vested in junta rule. During the National League for Democracy’s (NLD’s) term in power, farmers continued to be frustrated by the non-transparent manner in which resource extraction had expanded into the northwest and its environmental impacts.
Since 2021, armed clashes have ranged across northwest Myanmar, where before the coup, prevalent ethnonational sentiment and frustrations with the central government never quite tipped into organised conflict.
Since 2021, armed clashes have ranged across northwest Myanmar, where before the coup prevalent ethnonational identification and frustrations with the central government never quite tipped into organised conflict. These clashes are driven by distinct but interrelated dynamics in Chin State and the Yaw Valley (or Shwebo Valley), which spans western Sagaing and northern Magway.
A conflict corridor in the Yaw Valley
Northwest Myanmar’s population met the coup with widespread resistance. Dominated by NLD supporters in both the 2015 and 2020 elections, the area’s towns and cities were soon awash with protests. By March 2021, more than 70% of Chin State’s civil servants had gone on strike as part of the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM). In the same month, the first police defectors fled into Mizoram via Myanmar’s northwest. By end 2021, Mizoram authorities estimated that nearly 13,000 people, including 30 ousted lawmakers, had sought refuge in the Indian state. While the number of defectors across the Indian border is lower than those escaping to Thailand – the Thai government estimates 17,000, but this is likely a vast underestimation – the unregulated India–Myanmar border is critical to conflict in northwest Myanmar, not least because resistance forces receive supplies via this route.
The Naga Self-administered Zone (SAZ)
Since the coup, the Naga SAZ has been a notable exception to the protests and clashes occurring across northwest Myanmar. The 2008 Constitution designates three townships – Lahe, Lay Shi and Nanyun – in northern Sagaing State as the Naga SAZ. The Naga SAZ is one of six self-administered areas of Myanmar delineated in the constitution; all of the others are in Shan State.
The National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K) is headquartered in the Naga SAZ. An armed group founded in 1980 to represent Naga people spread across the India–Myanmar border area, the NSCN split into two factions in 1988. The NSCN-K is based in Myanmar, whereas the NSCN’s other faction is based in northeast India. Indian Armed Forces targeted the NSCN-K in 2015 in an audacious, unilateral strike across the border. The Tatmadaw followed up with its own operation in the Naga SAZ in 2019, ostensibly in response to NSCN-K operations in India. But Tatmadaw commanders in the area have otherwise allowed the NSCN-K to remain in the Naga SAZ unharassed. The Tatmadaw may believe this gives them leverage over New Delhi and local Tatmadaw commanders have been accused of sharing a cut of the revenues from illicit cross-border trade in which the NSCN‑K engages.
Northwest Myanmar was the scene of the first armed clash between the SAC and protesters who had no previous combat experience. On 28 March 2021, after nearly two months of SAC crackdowns on non-violent demonstrations, protesters using homemade hunting rifles successfully halted the Tatmadaw’s assault on the Tarhan protest camp in Kale town. Nonetheless, the SAC killed four civilians that day and successfully stormed the camp ten days later. Twelve people – including protesters and bystanders – died in the second attack.
Since then, Kale and the nearby Yaw Valley have experienced some of the most intense fighting in Myanmar. This is in part due to the valley’s location, which is critical to the SAC’s strategic thinking. The Yaw Valley maps loosely onto three townships south of Kale – Gangaw, Saw and Tilin – which are bookended by mountains to the west and east. A key road connects Monywa in Myanmar’s Dry Zone, where the Tatmadaw’s Northwest Command is located, to Kale, which houses an airport from which the Tatmadaw hoped to ‘pacify the entire northwest’. Other townships near the Yaw Valley, namely Kani, Mingin and Tamu, have also experienced significant violence since the coup.
In these areas, the main force battling the SAC are PDFs allied with both the NUG and the CNF. In April, in response to the Tarhan crackdown, civilians sought military training from the CNF. They formed PDFs – which have grown, upgraded their weaponry and become increasingly organised as the conflict has progressed. One such PDF is the Kalay PDF, which operates under the NUG’s Western Command and consists of nine battalions of 250–300 soldiers. The Kalay PDF was established as the Kalay Civil Army on 7 April 2021 – the same day as the Tatmadaw’s second assault on Tarhan and a month before the NUG declared the formation of PDFs. Peaceful ‘flash mob’ protests, which rapidly assemble and disperse, and fighting between PDFs and the Tatmadaw in the Yaw Valley have continued apace, notwithstanding the rainy season’s onset in May 2022. These have undermined the SAC’s authority in the area and likely amount to the first consistent challenge to the central government’s rule in the Yaw Valley since Myanmar’s independence in 1948.
Ethnonationalism revived in Chin State
The CNF has also played a key role in Chin State due to close cooperation between the CNF and various CDFs – the banner under which most PDFs in Chin State organise. CDFs have been established in every township of Chin State except Paletwa, where the Arakan Army operates. At least a dozen CDFs are currently active, each of which is individually named after the area they operate in (e.g., ‘CDF-Hakha’ or ‘CDF-Thantlang’) although they all operate under the command of the Chinland Joint Defense Committee (CJDC). The CJDC was formed to coordinate the armed resistance in Chin State and comprises the CNF, CDFs and the Chin National Defence Force (CNDF) – another NUG-allied PDF. As with PDFs elsewhere in the northwest and across Myanmar, the CDF’s ranks are filled by young people who had quit their jobs to take up arms against the SAC. The 28-year old commander-in-chief of the CDF – Thantlang, who had been working for an agricultural NGO before the coup, described his fellow fighters as students, farmers and ‘anything but soldiers’.
Camp Victoria – the CNF headquarters – has become an epicentre for resistance activities in Chin State. As of September 2021, approximately 4,000 young men and women had completed the CNF’s basic military training there before being deployed on frontlines elsewhere in the northwest, comprising a significant proportion of Chin State’s 10,000 resistance fighters. In contrast, the SAC has deployed approximately 1,300 military personnel in Chin State, who have retreated into towns and cities as the CDF and CNF’s influence has expanded across rural areas. These resistance fighters claim to have wrested approximately 80% of Chin State from the SAC, including most hard-to-reach areas.
The CNF and CDF were also some of the first forces to throw their weight behind the NUG. According to a CNF spokesperson, the CNF has an ongoing agreement with the NUG that the CNF will take charge of the armed resistance in Chin State. The CNF’s vice-chairman, Lian Hmung Sakhong, also serves as the NUG’s minister for federal affairs. Another prominent Chin in the shadow government is Dr Sasa, the NUG’s minister for international cooperation and an ousted NLD lawmaker. Besides operating as the command centre of the CJDC and CNF, Camp Victoria also houses the NUG’s Northern Command, through which Chin resistance fighters receive supplies and weaponry. Nonetheless, acquiring adequate weaponry continues to be a challenge for resistance forces across northwest Myanmar. This shortage has caused some groups to turn away would-be fighters.
Chin resistance forces have also established autonomous governance structures in Chin State and adjacent areas, which they claim as part of ‘Chinland’ – an area more expansive than Myanmar government-designated Chin State, while nesting these within the NUG’s wider project of instating federal democracy countrywide. This project began in March 2021, prior to the NUG’s formation, when protest leaders, the CNF and ousted Chin lawmakers met with NLD representatives in exile. They declared the formation of the Interim Chin National Consultative Council (ICNCC), a political bloc with representatives from ousted NLD lawmakers, other Chin political parties, the CNF and civil society. When the NUG was formed, the ICNCC sent representatives to the National Unity Consultative Council; a platform for coordinating between the NUG and its allies. The ICNCC is currently drafting a Chin National Charter, which is an interim constitution for Chinland.
Besides creating a template for Chinland’s inclusion in a future federal Myanmar, various Chin actors have implemented autonomous governance on the ground. Chin State’s Mindat was the first embattled township in which resistance forces reopened schools. By October 2021, over 300 striking civil servants and teachers were volunteering in Mindat’s schools, allowing 2,800 primary students to learn from the NUG’s curriculum. These schools were run by the Mindat People’s Administration, one of several NUG-linked bodies seeking to implement local governance in ‘liberated’ areas. Since then, nearly 330 schools have been established in Mindat and Kanpetlet townships, Chin State and in Kani township in northern Sagaing.
Compared to elsewhere in Myanmar, as researchers have observed, administration systems in Chin State are advanced. They chalk this up to three factors: the determination of young Chin leaders, the support of the worldwide Chin diaspora and the importance of customary governance in Chin society. Even before the coup, the state had limited reach in parts of Chinland, therefore allowing customary governance systems to persist at a sub-township level.
The humanitarian cost of burning villages
Despite being outmatched in terms of weapons technology and combat experience, resistance fighters across northwest Myanmar have thus far outmanoeuvred the SAC. Moreover, northwest Myanmar has been a forerunner to the wider anti-SAC movement: local populations formed PDFs, envisioned local governance structures and put these into practice before the NUG made inroads into these projects. Conflict has also revitalised the CNF, which, while militarily dormant before the coup, now supports CDFs in Chin State and PDFs elsewhere in the northwest. A shared desire to oust the SAC has been the final unifying force Chin populations needed to tip ethnonational sentiment into an armed uprising.
The CDFs’ and the PDFs’ vehement resistance has resulted in a brutal backlash. Post-coup, northwest Myanmar has received international attention due to the Tatmadaw’s indiscriminate assaults on civilian targets. In May 2021 in Mindat town, SAC forces fired into streets, causing 90% of the town’s 25,000 inhabitants to flee. But the most poignant symbols of the SAC’s attempts to pacify the northwest are its charred villages and homes. These result from scorched-earth campaigns that have been documented in local and international media, accompanied by satellite images, leaked SAC documents and the testimonies of defecting soldiers.
The research group Data For Myanmar has documented more than 28,000 houses having been burnt down by the SAC in the 19 months since the coup, of which over 20,000 were in Sagaing. Nonetheless, the best documented instance of arson has been in Thantlang, Chin State, which the SAC destroyed in September 2021, displacing nearly all of the town’s 12,000 residents. The Washington Post found that the onslaught had been planned as early as June 2021, when leaked documents indicated that soldiers were authorised to ‘clear’ the area; an ominous echo of the Tatmadaw’s ‘clearance operations’ against the Rohingya in 2017. Then in August 2021, the SAC warned town elders that Thantlang would be burnt down unless its inhabitants cooperated with SAC rule. SAC forces did so a month later, shelling it and setting fire to the town. They then looted the remaining homes before conducting additional rounds of arson. The Post’s analysis of satellite imagery indicated that the SAC had destroyed 30% of Thantlang’s 2,000 buildings.
Many who have been displaced or joined PDFs no longer have a home to return to. In August 2022, the United Nations reported that more than 600,000 people had been internally displaced in Chin State, Sagaing and Magway, with a further 42,000 people seeking shelter across the Indian border. The SAC’s phone and internet cuts in Sagaing – which target areas outside major towns – coupled with runaway inflation, the rising price of commodities and the depreciating kyat mean that peacetime livelihoods are increasingly unviable.
Aid at an impasse
Despite pledges of aid from the ASEAN and bilateral donors, access has been difficult. Internet cuts and the ground-security situation have made a birds-eye view of where and why aid deliveries have been disrupted or made unattainable. But journalists have offered accounts of aid not reaching the populations they were intended for, of aid workers’ fears of transporting supplies past SAC checkpoints and of the destruction of aid infrastructure in episodes of arson. The assault on Thantlang, for instance, set ablaze a local Save the Children office. But more worrying are instances when humanitarian aid has been blocked by the Tatmadaw. After the battle in Mindat in May 2021, the SAC blocked all routes to and from the town, preventing its remaining population and 5,000 nearby internally displaced people from receiving aid. These incidents point to why, in the words of a representative from Chin Human Rights Organization, aid deliveries in northwest Myanmar have stopped ‘almost completely’.
The humanitarian situation further illustrates the importance of alternative governance structures to the day-to-day lives of embattled people, but also the impasse they face. The schools reopened in the northwest provide a crucial element of stability to populations rendered precarious by war. Mindat’s students had not been to school for three years, their education having been disrupted by COVID-19 and the coup. CDM teachers thus saw schooling as providing socialisation and enabling students to cope with the traumas they had experienced. The advocacy and research organisation Progressive Voice states that alongside grassroots administration efforts and the CNF, civil society organisations exist that can deliver aid to the northwest and the Dry Zone. For security reasons, many of these organisations’ names are not in the public domain.
But grassroots efforts are limited by the amount of funding they receive and the conflict itself. Bilateral and multilateral aid pledges to Myanmar often hinge on government consent, leaving them caught in the paralysing politics of whether the NUG or SAC should represent Myanmar on the international stage. Meanwhile, local aid organisations and resistance-linked administrative organisations rely largely on private donors, including diaspora groups. Still, these are the only aid organisations present in the Dry Zone and northwest Myanmar, as international aid actors have vacated the area. By buying from local farmers, such aid efforts also keep the rural economy minimally afloat.
Violence is only one dimension of the ongoing conflict. Humanitarian aid, autonomous governance and the alliances built between actors to support them are also critical to understanding how the coup has reshaped Myanmar. The northwest, once depicted as remote and quiescent, is pivotal to these countrywide changes.
Myanmar’s land borders are also critical to the humanitarian situation. Local humanitarian efforts are the most well-developed in the southeast, where cross-border organisations served embattled populations near the Thailand–Myanmar border for decades. As such, some have called for the free passage of aid between India and Myanmar, so as to emulate the success of these efforts. Moreover, the movement of aid across the Thai border – if sufficiently funded and able to bypass the SAC – can reach well beyond the immediate border area, according to the Karen Human Rights Group. This is the juncture at which the direction of the conflict and the delivery of aid are bound together: should resistance groups wrest key transport corridors and contiguous territories from the SAC, aid may also circumvent the SAC’s blockades.
Such a scenario looks more likely than in months past, although a decisive victory for either side remains out of reach. For young people who had had little combat experience prior to the coup, the current situation already represents a turning point. A year ago, ‘the survivability of still fledgling PDFs in the face of overwhelming army firepower was in real doubt’ Anthony Davis writes; in the northwest, the Dry Zone and elsewhere in Myanmar where PDFs are prominent, this is no longer the case. Yet violence is only one dimension of the ongoing conflict. Humanitarian aid, autonomous governance and the alliances built between actors to support them are also critical to understanding how the coup has reshaped Myanmar. The northwest, once depicted as remote and quiescent, is pivotal to these countrywide changes.
Dr Shona Loong is a senior scientist in political geography at the University of Zurich, and a non-resident Associate Fellow for Southeast Asian Politics and Foreign Policy at the IISS. Her research focuses on conflict, peacebuilding, and the politics of development in Myanmar and its borderlands.