Myanmar mountain camp where rebels train to fight the junta

They are pouring into Camp Victoria, the headquarters of the longtime ethnic Chin National Front (CNF) army in western Myanmar near the Indian border. They defy attempts by camp management to suspend training due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

At the dawn of adulthood, these volunteers say they demonstrated against the military coup that swept through their civilian government in February. And as the junta’s response grew bloodier and bloodier, they took up arms.

But any hope of singing songs of real victory anytime soon is distant. Their leadership warns of a long struggle.

“Now it’s a kind of urban guerrilla (conflict) but within a few months it will turn into a conventional civil war,” CNF vice-chairman Suikhar told CNN.

This grim truth raises the prospect, if not the likelihood, that Myanmar will slide into protracted conflict where no victor emerges and the country crumbles.

In a report on the emergence of civil war in Myanmar released in late June, the International Crisis Group (ICG), a transnational think tank, accused the military of using a strategy targeting civilians to undermine support for militias.

But the experts’ prognosis for the civilian population was also bleak. “The coming period of national economic collapse, widespread poverty and deprivation will further encourage them to secure sources of income, either directly from the local population or at their own expense. These factors point to the likely emergence of new, enduring armed groups in these areas, the following dynamic has been observed repeatedly during decades of insurgency in various parts of Myanmar, ”the report said.

Suikhar insisted that his movement and the Chinland Defense Force, which are also trained at Camp Victoria, were led by Myanmar’s government of national unity.

This administration in exile, which for the time being largely exists only in name, is a loose alliance of anti-junta forces and has no command or control authority over armed groups within itself. from Myanmar.

And for the new graduates of the Jungle Boot Camp, there may be a bitter end to the romantic vision of a fight for freedom.

Eager to hear how outsiders saw the conflict unfold, a young fighter, former journalist, and Yangon University graduate explained that he was the commander of what began as a group of 10 people specially trained to urban guerrilla warfare.

“At least I ordered 10 people. Now there are only seven. I lost three last week while they were carrying a homemade bomb to be used against the junta. It exploded in their hands. They all died instantly, “he said. said.

His Chinland Defense Force superiors ordered him to return to Camp Victoria for a break from the bloodshed. Within days he was wearing a new black uniform and undergoing more specialized training. His eyes were now shining with cold determination, no hope.

Dead end is not victory

But the junta army is retaliating ruthlessly, analysts say.

“The Tatmadaw uses its long-standing counterinsurgency strategy of ‘four cuts’ in these areas, a cruel approach that deliberately targets civilians in an attempt to deprive insurgents of food, funds, recruits and movement intelligence troops (hence the attacks on populated areas are an integral part of this strategy, as well as the looting of food stores and the refusal of aid, in flagrant violation of international humanitarian law, “alleges the ICG.

An official from the National Chin Front interviews refugees from the state who recently arrived after fleeing their villages before the dreaded army attacks.

The strategy is fairly well known around Camp Victoria, where civilians leave outlying villages for small refugee camps, or safety in Indian communities across the Tiau River. Most of the refugees are women, children and the elderly. They all left their villages for the same reasons.

“I am really scared of the Myanmar military because they are very mean and brutal soldiers. Twenty years ago, the military tortured my son in my own house. They hit him in the back. There was blood all over her head and that’s why I’m really scared of them, ”said Tial Song, an elderly woman who sat under the orange plastic tarp of a newly constructed shelter.

“How long will you be a refugee? CNN asked Chanlal, Song’s neighbor on that muddy hill.

“As long as the army rules over us,” he replies.

The mountains of Chin State, covered with thick jungle, surround Camp Victoria.

Beyond Camp Victoria’s outer defenses, the mountains of Chin State leap in almost vertical waves of thick jungle. The journey takes place over steep mountain passes along tiny mud tracks.

The inhabitants, many of whom are experienced hunters, have the advantage over the invading armies. They also have the mass intelligence network of their own communities, with fighters receiving live updates of enemy troop movements from agents in villages across the state.

But these advantages alone will not help anti-junta forces survive. The dead end is not the victory.

An unlikely jungle guerrilla

Entering or exiting the Chin-controlled area is a grueling endurance test. This often involves days of grueling twists and turns along the slippery mud tracks on the backs of small Chinese-made motorcycles. These small 125cc draft horses are the mules of the modern era, transporting fighters, ammunition and food to remote camps run by the Chinland Defense Force.

One of these camps visited by CNN is near a jungle trail, with a small network of bunkers and dormitory tents for volunteers. It may be their home and battle base for many months to come.

Refugee children from villages in Chin State emptied for fear of an attack by the Myanmar army spend their time playing handcrafted checkers.

John Ling dropped out of history studies at Yangon University to join the insurgency. Trading the classroom for a hilltop camp, he is the administrator or quartermaster of around 150 other volunteers. A slightly built 22-year-old man, Ling is an unlikely jungle guerrilla.

“Aren’t you afraid of being killed?” CNN asks him. “No, because I am defending my country,” he replies, adding that his parents are not worried about him, but proud of the position he has taken.

It may be noble, but it is also open.

The Armory is an A-shaped tent made of plastic sheeting and tree trunks. Its precious contents, dozens of guns designed to shoot birds, are lined up along each wall. On the ground, a wood fire burns to keep moisture out and guns rust.

Suikhar, vice chairman of the National Chin Front, is adamant that these fighters will soon be equipped with automatic firearms, such as AK-47s.

“There are international smugglers … You can get weapons anywhere,” he insists, but he is opaque about how these weapons would be paid for.

“People donate, fundraise. So I don’t think money will be a problem.”

Many armed groups in Myanmar have relied for decades on smuggling, especially drugs like heroin and methamphetamines, to finance their insurgencies. And the more they depend on local populations, the more likely it is that civilians will be overwhelmed by corruption, protection rackets or the simple taxation of rebel armies.

The CNF says it believes it is one of the 16 ethnic armies and hopes for cooperation between them against a common enemy, all in the name of “democracy and federalism.”

Young citizens have flocked to this ideal; it is the failure of a democratic future that has driven so many young people into the forests with guns. But the future length of their war, whether they win or lose, will perhaps depend less on the youth of the opposition than on the young soldiers and officers sent to fight them from the national army.

The quickest end to the fighting was a “young officer coup” against the brutality and corruption of the generals who returned to power in February. Chin management knows that.

“We’re working on it,” Suikhar says.

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