Mindat, a small town in a remote and mountainous region of southern Chin State, is more isolated than ever these days.
A full month has passed since martial law was imposed on the town and the surrounding area, and it now lies virtually empty, according to some of its few remaining residents.
“There are no open shops, no hawkers—just dogs and pigs on the streets,” said one person who spoke to Myanmar Now on condition of anonymity.
“People even left their pets behind when they fled. The pigs broke their fences and now they’re roaming the streets looking for food,” he added.
Martial law was imposed on Mindat a day after talks between the military and local resistance forces collapsed on May 12.
Since then, more than 90% of the town’s roughly 11,000 inhabitants have fled as the military continues to tighten its grip, according to residents.
At least 10,000 people have been displaced, with most seeking shelter in neighbouring villages or in the forest, according to the Mindat People’s Administration Team, which negotiated with the military to end the fighting.
A town in terror
Mindat’s resistance movement was among the first in the country to take up arms against regime forces cracking down on anti-coup protesters.
The Chinland Defence Force (CDF), formed in early April, claimed multiple casualties in its clashes with junta troops, but suspended fighting later in the month as it called for the release of detained protesters.
However, it wasn’t until the military suffered even greater losses after fighting resumed a few days later that it agreed to negotiate.
This led to 10 days of relative peace that ended abruptly on May 12. The resistance forces initially defied the imposition of martial law, but were forced to retreat when the military sent reinforcements to occupy the town two days later.
Anyone who was still in Mindat after troops took control of the town on May 15 has been forced to stay there due to the heavy military presence, according to residents.
Soldiers have taken over all major roads and public areas, making most fearful of encounters that could end in arrest or worse, they said.
“They interrogate everyone very strictly, so no one dares to go out. They’re suspicious of young people, so it’s even worse for them. They want to know if you’re a local and tell you to show them your ID and phones,” said one man still living in Mindat.
Another danger is stray artillery shells, which sometimes hit residential neighbourhoods. The junta has blamed such incidents on local resistance forces, despite the fact that they are not believed to possess any heavy weaponry.
On May 26, the regime released a statement claiming that its troops were under orders to act only in self-defence. However, with soldiers taking over houses and public buildings, including churches and other places of worship, few believe that they are in the town simply to keep the peace.
Meanwhile, the regime has portrayed the resistance forces variously as “rioters” and “terrorists”, citing ambushes targeting military columns and other guerrilla tactics.
Armed only with hunting rifles and improvised weapons, the CDF has been accused by the military of “terrorising” its heavily armed troops.
The regime has made no mention, however, of the thousands of civilians who have fled in terror of the troops that have taken over their town.
While there has been no fighting in the town since it was placed under martial law, the surrounding area continues to see clashes.
Since the third week of May, villages housing internally displaced persons (IDPs) have increasingly come under fire, according to relief workers.
On May 21, the CDF attacked some soldiers in plain clothes who had entered the village of Pukun, where a number of IDPs had been hiding, amid fears that regime forces were trying to infiltrate camps for the displaced.
In another incident that took place on May 30, troops opened fire on an IDP camp in the village of Asakan, despite the fact that a white flag had been raised at the site to indicate that its inhabitants were not engaged in the conflict.
“The moment they hear that IDPs are arriving in a village, it becomes a target. It’s pretty obvious. They are clearly intent on cracking down on civilians, even when the CDF hasn’t made the first move,” an IDP camp administrator told Myanmar Now.
The IDPs live in a constant state of insecurity, as the military steadily widens its area of control to include more and more villages in the area.
“They always have to be ready to run. The moment they hear the word ‘Tatmadaw’, they start getting nervous,” said the secretary of one IDP camp committee, referring to the Myanmar military.
In addition to direct attacks, the military has also moved to block shipments of food and other supplies to the IDPs.
Since June 7, when clashes broke out along the main road from Kyaukhtu, the town in Magway Region that has been the chief source of supplies, most villages located near the road have come under military control, according to relief workers.
“The rations mostly come from Kyaukhtu. Since the military is blocking the road from there, there’s no other way to transport rations. It’s the only route,” said one IDP camp official.
Besides food and clothing, many of the IDPs, including children, pregnant women, and the elderly, are in need of medicine support, he added.
On May 29, military officials announced that Mindat residents who registered with the authorities would be free to return to their homes or stay in one of eight churches or two monasteries designated as shelters.
Few, however, have taken them up on their offer.
“Some who can’t stay in the forests have gone back, but the vast majority haven’t. They just don’t trust the military,” said a member of the Mindat People’s Administration Team.
Some who were unable to leave in the first place have entered the military-sanctioned shelters, but only because the alternative seemed too dangerous.
“We stayed at home before, but we kept hearing all these shots, so we didn’t dare go outside. [Soldiers] would just start shooting if they heard a sound or saw someone, so we moved here because we were told it would be safe,” said a member of one family now living in an official shelter.
“We can go around town now, but only if we’re holding a white flag,” he added, noting that, to avoid taking unnecessary risks, he only goes to his home once a week.
Other residents also expressed similar concerns about the efficacy of white flags as a form of protection.
“Even when we’re just going out to get vegetables, we need to carry a white flag. That’s still no guarantee, but we have to take our chances so we don’t just starve to death,” said one local.
To make matters worse, the town’s mains water supply has been cut off since May, making trips to collect water a daily necessity.
“There’s no water, so we have to go to the streams to get it. We don’t even have enough water to maintain hygiene,” said another resident.
A member of the Mindat People’s Administration Team said it was difficult to know how many people were still living in the town.
Among them, however, are elderly people who were too frail to flee before the military arrived. In some cases, it is almost certain that they haven’t survived the challenges of meeting their basic needs on their own in a town under siege.
Meanwhile, as fighting spreads to other villages in the area, many are worried that Mindat could once again become a battle zone.
But for some, the greater fear is what will happen to the town if the military ultimately prevails in the ongoing struggle.
“This is the poorest town in the poorest state. Even if our revolution succeeds, it will be difficult for us to get back on our feet. So I want to urge everyone to please be active before the entire population gets wiped out,” said one defiant resident.