Villagers-turned-pro-democracy fighters rely on ‘brothers and sisters’ in India for guns and food
With a loaded cartridge holder strapped to her back and a shotgun gripped tightly in her hands, Rose Lalhmanhaih looks far older than her 17 years. Just two years ago, she was studying at school; now she is a rebel soldier on the frontlineof Myanmar’s revolutionary war. Only her nails, flecked with a bright purple polish, hint at the girl she once was.
Crouching behind sandbags and holding binoculars, Lalhmanhaih scans the dense scrub of the surrounding valley, then speaks decisively into her walkie talkie. “Clear … clear,” she says. A garrison of the Myanmar military lies only five miles away and an exchange of fire rings out now and then. But for today at least, the soldiers of the brutal junta regime will leave the tiny village of Haimual in Chin state in peace.
In February 2021 Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, seized power in a coup d’etat, overthrowing the civilian government and imprisoning its leader, Nobel peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. As the Tatmadaw began ruthlessly consolidating power, cracking down on political opponents and killing protesters, an armed insurgency, the People’s Defence Force (PDF), rose up fighting for democracy to be restored. There are about 60,000 PDF soldiers across the country, often fighting alongside other ethnic armies, and they are said to control around half the territory.
The battles being fought across the country by this guerrilla army have been dirty and bloody. Since the coup, more than 2,600 civilians have been killed and 16,500 have been arrested, as junta soldiers have raped and murdered civilians and bombed towns and cities. Protesters, activists and journalists have been tortured.
Zay-Lin-Oo, 32, who was a bomb engineer with the Tatmadaw before he deserted the army and fled to India last year, tells how he was ordered by senior officers to shoot at unarmed protesters and plant landmines that would kill civilians.
“When we would launch an operation against the rebels, as a trap we would plant bombs but I was ordered not to defuse them until after we had left the site,” he says. “The explosives would go off after we departed, and so many innocent civilians died because of this.”
In Haimual, Lalhmanhaih is the youngest fighter of the Mountain Eagle Defence Force (MEDF), a rebel group that is part of the PDF and consists of about three dozen men and two women from Haimual village.
The battle is deeply personal for this teenager. In August, her best friend and a fellow rebel soldier, 17-year-old Lalnuniuii, and Lalnuniuii’s 14-year-old brother, Lalruatmawia, were taken hostage by junta soldiers.
Lalhmanhaih had been with them during the ambush but was not armed, and could do nothing as her friends were dragged away by soldiers. Screams were heard through the night as the two were tortured. The next afternoon, villagers heard gunshots and saw flames rising from several houses as the junta soldiers finally abandoned the village. They found the bodies of the siblings partially buried in a pit.
A doctor over the border in India who later examined the bodies said Lalruatmawia had torture marks all over his body, while his sister had been raped several times and shot three times in the head at close range, injuries concurrent with widespread accounts of rape and sexual violence by junta soldiers.
“They must have been subjected to a lot of pain,” says their mother, Lalthantluangi, with a shudder. “Her body had bite marks all over. Her genitals were mutilated by those beasts.”
Lalnuniuii believed passionately in fighting the junta and would often post Instagram videos of herself dancing in her rebel uniform. In her diary, one of the last messages reads: “My future is People’s Defence Force … I will never surrender.”
Lalhmanhaih thinks of her best friend every morning when she wakes up in their makeshift bunker, puts on her uniform and loads her shotgun. “It still haunts me, that moment when she was separated from us,” she says. “I want to liberate my people and country from the barbaric military and take revenge for what they did to my best friend. She is always in my thoughts and it keeps me here defending my place.”
Almost a year ago, on the afternoon of 9 January, word spread in Haimual that government soldiers were on the way to raid the village. Almost all 180 households, mostly farmers and traders, began to flee in panic.
“People could not get any of their belongings, except the clothes we were wearing,” recalls Lalrin Dika, a villager. “We knew the military was going to kill us because the villagers have been against military rule.”
Later that day, smoke could be seen rising from the village as junta soldiers stormed in and burned down many of their houses. With the village only three miles west of the border with India, the villagers all crossed over the Tiau River into the Indian state of Mizoram, joining tens of thousands of Myanmar refugees who have escaped to India since the coup and are living in makeshift camps.
Although the India-Myanmar border is officially closed, the Mizo people of Mizoram share the same ethnic background as the Chin people of Myanmar and there is much sympathy for their plight and a willingness to help. Local authorities and border police have largely turned a blind eye to the waves of refugees and local people in Mizoram have welcomed them into their communities and schools. According to one local MP, more than 40,000 Myanmar refugees are now living across 60 camps in the Indian state.
“They are our brothers and sisters from the Chin province and that is why we give them food and shelter,” Zoramthanga, the chief minister of Mizoram, told the Observer.
But many in the village returned to Haimual to fight, having collected old hunting rifles from supportive people in Mizoram. Their old family homes, which now stand eerie and deserted, are surrounded by outposts manned by this rag-tag army and the silence is punctured only by the fighters on motorbike patrols.
Yet it is more than just their property they are protecting. This tiny village holds strategic importance, not just for the locals but for the entire pro-democracy insurgency of Myanmar. It secures a key supply line from India, through which food, medicine and weapons are smuggled illegally over the border and are keeping the insurgency alive.
One exiled Myanmar politician now living in the Mizoram state capital of Aizawl, who requested anonymity for security reasons, said he was among a group living in India who were strategising for the insurgency and sending weapons to help the rebel fighters.
A commander of the rebel group in Haimual, who goes by the nom de guerre Maria, said they were “completely dependent on the Indian side for everything. If the contact with the Indian side is broken, it will mean a big blow to the defence fighters”. As a precaution, they have laid explosives around the periphery of the village, ready to detonate at any sign of the junta.
The rebels also collect what they call “donations” from truckers carrying goods to and from India. “We take whatever they are willing to give us and most of them are generous,” he says. Most of the fighters in Haimual cross over to Mizoram to visit their families for one night a month.
However, as attention on the anti-junta fight in Myanmar has waned, supplies are beginning to dry up. Rebels have begun making their own guns and explosives with materials such as gelatine but many are fearful about sustaining their resistance in the future.
“We are fighting with these outdated shotguns against an army that has modern automated guns and other sophisticated weapons,” says 63-year-old Sunglingthanhg, the oldest fighter in the group, showing the rusted barrel of his gun.
Fewer than half the rebels have received a month of training on how to fight and only half have rifles. They also complain about the lack of coordination within the rebel groups, which has left them unclear as to how much territory is under PDF control.
In their rare moments of light relief, the rebel fighters play volleyball or card games and some can be found strumming a guitar, but nothing truly distracts them from their purpose. “We are fighting for democracy,” says Maria. “We will fight with whatever we have.”