Scramble for evidence after attack in northwestern Myanmar

Thang Biak discovered his house in Myanmar’s northwestern Chin State had burned down from watching the television news in neighbouring India.

He had fled Thantlang, a hilltop town of roughly 8,000 people, with his three sons and other residents on September 14, crossing into Mizoram two weeks later.

“When we fled, we couldn’t bring anything. Now all of our property has been destroyed,” said Thang Biak, for whom Al Jazeera has used a pseudonym due to concerns of military reprisals. “When I learned that my house had burned, I was so depressed that I couldn’t sleep or eat,” he added.

His home was one of more than 160 houses and two church buildings in Thantlang that were burned down on October 29, as the military intensified its operations to root out the civilian armed groups that have emerged across the country since the coup on February 1.

Governments, rights organisations and civil society groups have condemned the military for the destruction in Thantlang and have demanded it be held accountable.

More than 500 organisations, including Human Rights Watch, signed a statement last week calling on the United Nations Security Council to act urgently to “end [the] Myanmar junta’s campaign of terror.”

The United States said the incident “lays bare the regime’s complete disregard for the lives and welfare of the people of Burma,” and said the attacks “underscore the urgent need for the international community to hold the Burmese military accountable”.

But as calls for military accountability grow, those collecting and sharing evidence of what happened in Thantlang face numerous risks and obstacles, including fear of arrest or retaliation and an ongoing internet shutdown. Local sources told Al Jazeera that they have also been unable to identify witnesses because Thantlang’s residents had fled earlier waves of violence in September, and the town has been occupied by soldiers.

“We journalists could not go to document ourselves … We could not get [sufficient] evidence and communication has been cut off,” said Salai Zing, who works for a Chin State-based media outlet and who requested Al Jazeera call him by his nickname.

Three churches were hit in the attack, which rights groups and activists have blamed on military shelling [Chin Human Rights Organization via Al Jazeera]
Before the coup, the remote, mountainous area along Myanmar’s northwestern border with India had not seen fighting for years. Although the area hosts the Chin National Front, an ethnic armed organisation established in 1988, the group had signed a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement in 2015, and had not clashed with the military since then.

Since May, however, the country’s northwest has been a stronghold of armed resistance, hosting several of the country’s fiercest anti-coup civilian defence forces, which have at times launched coordinated attacks with the Chin National Front’s armed wing against the military.

In response, the military has shelled residential areas and restricted the transport of food and aid, following tactics it has used for decades to destroy the support base for ethnic armed organisations.

More than 37,000 people from Chin State and neighbouring Sagaing and Magway regions have become internally displaced since May and a further 15,000 have fled to India, according to the UN, which says 223,000 people have been displaced across the country since the coup.