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Thantlang – the hardest hit town in Myanmar after the military coup in February

Melbourne (Chindwin): The western town is the first town in Myanmar that has suffered the full extent of the junta’s atrocities after the military coup, forcing its residents to flee their homes on 18 September after constant bombardment and the burning down of 20 houses. 

Myanmar has been in a full-blown civil war following the coup in February, with more than 1200 killed and thousands arbitrarily arrested and detained in a crackdown on dissent and resistance groups. 

In the latest horrific attack, the military junta used rocket-propelled shelling against residential properties that created fires that razed 164 houses on 29 October starting from the commercial centre of Thantlang – Market block, also destroying Christian churches, leaving the town severely damaged and nothing to salvage.

Thantlang is a small-town home to more than 10,000 residents with more than 2000 residential houses and is located in the northwest of Chin State, bordering with  Mizoram State in India. Located on a hilltop plateau between two large mountains at the east and west, the town has been the centre of fierce fighting between the military and a local militia group – Chinland Defense Force – Thantlang. 

The junta built an army base overlooking the town from which the junta could observe the entire town easily and fire artillery shells from the safety of their base to hit targets as reported by witnesses to Chindwin. 

Like many local self-defence forces and groups across Myanmar, the Chinland Defense Force has sprung up in Chin State to take on the junta. 

The renewed attack against civilians in Thantlang is the result of the so-called “Operation Anawrahta” in which the military junta has deployed light infantry battalions, artillery units and armoured vehicles on the ground. 

According to Chin Human Rights Organization, the key perpetrators responsible for the attack against civilian livelihoods in Thantlang are said to be the junta’s major Nay Myo Oo and major Okka Phe from Light Infantry Battalion (222) led by Lieutenant Colonel Thaung Hlaing of LIB 269. 

The build-up of large troops in Chin State with the arrival of more than 80 trucks in Matupi town and 50 trucks in Hakha city last week indicates that the military has begun  its counter-onslaught in Chin state against the national resistance. They are targeting the long established and well trained Chin National Army (CNA), which provides military training to the anti-junta resistance forces in Chin State, also known as Chinland Defense Force. 

Similar military build-ups have been reported across the country from Sagaing region to Karenni State in the east, with the junta aiming at areas that have been strongholds of the anti-junta resistance force – People Defense Force (PDF). 

After the killing of two civilians on 27 August, the security situation in the town deteriorated further with the junta bombing and shelling many rounds of artillery at night. 

On 09 September, fighting between the military junta and Chinland Defense Forces – Thantlang (CDF-Thantlang) started, which gradually escalated to a full-blown conflict in the town, forcing all residents to flee their homes. 

A Christian pastor was shot dead on 18 September while rushing to help put out the fire that destroyed 20 residential houses. The fire was said to have started because of the shelling of rocket-propelled grenades on residential properties. 

The military junta forces, estimated to be around 60 in the Thantlang army base, continue looting properties and ransacking shops on 26 October. 

One junta soldier who was looting shops was shot dead by CDF-Thantlang. In response, the military junta indiscriminately fired many rounds using rocket-propelled grenades targeting residential properties and starting the fire that spread across the town on 29 October. 

The livelihood of thousands of people in town depends on the commercial heart where shops and stores full of rice and clothes, all sorts of utilities and materials were completely destroyed by the blaze. 

The fire has completely destroyed 164 houses on 29 October, and the total number of houses burned to the ground in the town now stands at 184. The total damage caused is estimated to be more than USD 10 – 15million. But none of these statistics come close to the human suffering of the residents who have been forcibly displaced and have had their livelihoods destroyed. 

Thantlang – remote and small compared to the urban centres of Myanmar – has become the ground zero for the military’s response to the popular national uprising. Its callousness and indiscriminate nature of the counter-attack is reminiscent of tactics used in Rakhine state against the Rohingya and Arakan army resistance. This leads to two readings of the Myanmar military tactics.

One, they believe themselves to be so impervious to international outcry and international legal norms of warfare that they will respond in any way they please. The lack of international action against the junta’s ongoing violence against its own people remains worrying. 

However, a second reading is that I have witnessed in Rakhine myself. It is one where the military fighting units often lack discipline and training and are in fact afraid of more impassioned and committed militias and popular defence forces that are defending their homelands. In this second reading the resistance and its guerrilla warfare may prove capable and instrumental in rebuffing the junta, especially in remote and smaller areas of the country.

Writing by Simon Sang Hre and Gehard Hoffstaedter

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