Mai Zacer Mawi* was accustomed to being pushed about as a 17-year-old. She had been chosen to travel from her small home town of Falam in northwestern Myanmar to Yangon, one of the country’s main cities, as an ardent and excellent martial artist.
She’d been invited to a national training camp to practice martial arts. Despite her abilities, Mawi was subjected to ridicule and abuse from her classmates due to her upbringing.
Her hometown is in Chin state, one of Myanmar’s 15 regions.
“It is Myanmar’s least developed state.” It is Myanmar’s poorest region.
We grew up in an extremely impoverished household. During the rainy season, my five siblings and I had just three umbrellas to share.
“If we only had one egg, it would be shared among the entire family,” Mawi says.
Myanmar’s states are more than just geographical boundaries; they also demarcate the country’s many ethnic groups. Mawi is ethnically Chin as well since he hails from Chin state.
The females in her new training camp, on the other hand, were largely Bamar, Myanmar’s majority ethnicity, who are generally from the country’s central and wealthier cities. Mawi was singled out for bullying because of their disparities in economic and cultural origins.
“I was so frustrated that I made a promise to myself that I would beat them.” As a result, I started to workout far more intensely than they did.”
Mawi chose to practice with the males at her camp instead of attending her martial arts sessions with the other ladies in the group. “They’re stronger and faster.”
Because I intended to easily defeat the chicks, I opted to practice with guys.”
She started to giggle to herself as she told her tale. “Do you think I’m a jerk?” It was quite difficult.
I had been beaten, and I was often bleeding, with a swollen face and black eyes. By the time I was 20, no female had ever been able to defeat me.”
Mawi’s fight against ethnic prejudice is a microcosm of life in Myanmar since the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, ousted the democratically elected government in a coup on February 1, 2021.
The divisions between Myanmar’s ethnic groups and the Tatmadaw have been a source of unending bloodshed and turmoil since the country’s independence from British colonial authority in 1947. This has most recently shown itself in the Tatmadaw’s most recent campaign of violence, which has seen the Tatmadaw conduct a range of air and ground operations against many military wings formed by Myanmar’s ethnic groups, as well as civilians from those ethnic groups.
Since August, Chin has been one of the Tatmadaw’s primary focus areas of military strategy, with a buildup of soldiers in and around the state that the UN is worried about mirroring the buildup that occurred before the Rohingya atrocity four years ago.
Two military groups formed in Chin last year, the Chinland Defence Force (CDF) and the Chin National Defence Force (CNDF), in response to the threat posed by the Tatmadaw and the coup in general, to bolster the protection offered to the state by the more well-established military force that has been present in Chin since 1988, the Chin National Army (CNA).
Mawi became a founder member of the CNDF after spending restless nights debating whether or not she should participate in any kind of resistance to the coup. They had built up their first base in the Chin forest by mid-May, and she was in charge of hand-to-hand combat training for the new recruits.
“I had no idea something like this would happen to me.” I had no idea how serious the political situation in Myanmar was until now. I didn’t pay any attention to how our fundamental human rights were being violated.”
However, the Tatmadaw atrocities that have been occurring around the nation for decades have now reached Mawi’s doorstep.
Thantlang, a Chin town a few hours’ motorbike ride from Mawi’s hometown, has been depopulated. Since August, the neighborhood has been subjected to a barrage of mortar bombardment by Tatmadaw forces stationed nearby, as well as deliberate burning of houses and businesses, progressively turning the town to ashes.
According to CDF data from early December, roughly 530 Thantlang dwellings had been damaged by fire.
The only traces of life in the town now are a ring of sniper fire resounding through the deserted streets, the darting footfall of the CNA and CDF troops on the frontlines, and the odd wandering farm animal abandoned by its missing owners.
Zai Rem Mawi, 26, is a merchant who has lived in the town her whole life until September. “Because my house is close to the police station, the first gunfights occurred right outside my door.”
That was a dispute between the cops and the CDF. At the moment, I was at home.
The Tatmadaw launched a mortar that detonated just outside my home, destroying my motorcycle totally. Then another destroyed all of the glass in my house’s windows.”
Rem Mawi and her family had been fleeing Thantlang on foot for two weeks when they finally discovered a moment of safety among the daily strikes. Covid-19 regulations have previously prevented communities in the municipality from letting outsiders to enter.
“The sounds of gunfire and explosions terrified us.” I felt good about myself, but I was concerned about my old parents and children.”
She and 14 other family members arrived in Van Zaang, barely two villages away, where they were hosted by a six-person host family for two weeks. They were then relocated to an empty residence, where they have been ever since.
Rem Mawi’s tale is now well-known across Chin state. According to CDF estimates, Thantlang township (one of nine townships in Chin state that encompasses Thantlang and the villages and hamlets that surround it) is home to almost 13,000 IDPs. IDPs have been able to find sanctuary from the Tatmadaw’s threat of brutality, rape, and arbitrary detention because to the efforts and hospitality of local communities, as well as the CDF, which also offers humanitarian assistance.
“It’s very painful for us because we’ve invested so much in our Thantlang home and businesses.” It’s been quite tough to deal with losing everything so suddenly.”
The Chin Joint Defence Committee (CJDC), an alliance of the three military factions in the region, is coordinating the military reaction of Chin state against the Tatmadaw’s recent activities. Salai Thla Hei, who is also the general secretary of the CNA, the oldest and biggest of the three forces, chairs the committee.
The CJDC’s goal is not only to stop the Tatmadaw’s recent attacks, but also to help end the regime’s decades of violence across Myanmar, and to replace it with a federal democracy in which Chin, like the country’s other territories, would have self-governance rights similar to those enjoyed by the 50 states of the United States.
While the CNA has had this objective since 1988, when the military conducted a coup, Hei noted that it was not until last year’s coup that the necessity and desire to accomplish it became apparent to the mass of the Chin populace, or even became likely.
“It had been difficult to persuade the Chin people to join the movement since 1988.” The difference today is that it has evolved into a genuine popular movement. People who are undergoing training with the CNA have arrived from all throughout China and Myanmar.”
Hei, however, sees not only Chin support as necessary for victory, but also support from the majority ethnic Bamar in Myanmar’s central cities, who, after witnessing the brutality of Tatmadaw violence for the first time in more than a generation, have formed their own grassroots military group, the People’s Defence Force, whose members are being trained by the CNA.
Even with the Bamar’s help, though, the path to triumph will be difficult. Hei sees potential for failure within the fault lines between not just the numerous ethnic groupings but also the many tribes that make up, and frequently split, the people of Chin, in addition to having a significant deficit in terms of weaponry, resources, and men.
“The lack of unity and coordination among ethnic armed organizations and the PDF, as well as within Chin, is one of the most significant obstacles to victory and federal democracy.” As a result, we are working hard to bring all Chin people and ethnic armed groups together.”
Thanks to Alex McBride at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.