Thang Biak discovered that his house in Myanmar’s northwestern Chin state burned down after watching the television news in neighboring India.
On September 14, he fled with his three sons and other residents from Thantlang, a hill village with about 8,000 people, and crossed to Mizoram two weeks later.
“When we fled, we could not bring anything. Now all our property has been destroyed, “said Thang Biak, for whom Al Jazeera used a pseudonym for military retaliation. “When I heard that my house was on fire, I was so depressed that I could not sleep or eat,” he added.
His home was one of more than 160 houses and two church buildings in Thantlang that burned down on October 29, while the army intensified its operations to eradicate the civilian armed groups that have emerged across the country since the February 1 coup. .
Governments, rights organizations and civil society groups have condemned the army for the destruction in Thantlang and demanded that it be held accountable.
More than 500 organizations, including Human Rights Watch, signed a statement last week calling on the United Nations Security Council to take urgent action to “end” [the] Myanmar junta’s campaign of terror. “
The United States said the incident “exposes the regime’s total disregard for the lives and well – being of the people of Burma,” and said the attacks “underscore the urgent need for the international community to hold the Burmese army accountable”.
But as calls for military accountability increase, those gathering evidence and sharing what happened in Thantlang face numerous risks and obstacles, including fears of arrest or retaliation and a constant internet shutdown. Local sources told Al Jazeera that they also could not identify witnesses because Thantlang residents earlier fled waves of violence in September and the town was occupied by soldiers.
“Our journalists could not go and document ourselves… We could not find [sufficient] evidence and communication have been cut off, ”said Salai Zing, who works for a Chin State-based media outlet and requested that Al Jazeera call him by his nickname.
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 organization founded in 1988, it signed a nationwide ceasefire agreement in 2015, and has not clashed with the military since.
Since May, however, the country’s northwest has been a stronghold of armed resistance, housing several of the country’s fiercest civil defense forces against coup, which at times launched coordinated attacks with the Chin National Front’s armed wing against the army.
In response, the military has bombed residential areas and restricted the transportation of food and aid, following tactics it has used for decades to destroy the support base for ethnic armed organizations.
More than 37,000 people from Chin State and neighboring Sagaing and Magway regions have been internally displaced since May and a further 15,000 have fled to India, according to the UN, which says 223,000 people have been killed since the coup across the country. ontheem.
While the army’s attacks may have been trying to destroy resistance movements, it has apparently had the opposite effect. On September 7, the National Unity Government, operating in exile, declared a “defensive war” against the military government and called on people across the country to revolt against dictatorship.
In Thantlang, clashes began to accelerate days later, and on September 18, resistance forces claimed to have killed 30 soldiers. The same day, the army fired artillery fire at the town, burning down 18 buildings. A pastor who was in a hurry to put out the flames was shot dead, and when locals retrieved the body, his ring finger was cut off.
Over the next few weeks, soldiers and police occupied the town. Four people were shot, two fatally, as they tried to retrieve property or deliver food to those left behind, according to the Chin Human Rights Organization.
On October 8, local media The Irrawaddy reported that the army had deployed about 3,000 troops to Chin, Sagaing and Magway, while the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights described “disturbing reports” that a “significant deployment of heavy weapons and troops “in several townships in these areas.
The chairman of the Chinland Defense Force (CDF) – Thantlang, nicknamed Romoe Lian, told Al Jazeera that CDF fighters, armed with single-shot rifles known as tumee rifles, were moving around the area on the morning of October 29. has. forest to protect the town from looting. When two soldiers broke into a local home, CDF fighters fired three shots and killed one soldier. Military troops returned with artillery and rifle fire, and the CDF withdrew.
Bumblebee footage taken by the CDF that morning shows an armed unit entering buildings in the town; the same buildings burned down after the camera stopped filming. Photos and videos taken from a distance later in the day show several distinct plumes of smoke, indicating that several fires originated independently of each other.
Military spokesman Zaw Min Tun told state media that soldiers and police in Thantlang were patrolling “for the safety of the residents” on the morning of October 29 when resistance fighters fired three homemade bombs and “fired with small arms”. After security forces carried out counter-attacks, he said, the resistance fighters withdrew and “set four houses on fire so that the security members could not follow them”.
The situation calls for flashbacks to the army’s “clean-up operations” against the mostly Muslim Rohingya in Rakhine state in 2017, when soldiers burned down hundreds of villages and fled 730,000 people to Bangladesh.
Then the government led by Aung San Suu Kyi accused “Muslims” of starting the fires while denying independent access to journalists and human rights monitors, and refusing to cooperate with a fact-finding mission conducted by the UN Human Rights Council has been appointed.
Salai Dokhar, an independent politician from Thantlang and an anti-coup activist who was released from four months’ imprisonment at the end of June, told Al Jazeera it was impossible for local resistance groups to start the recent fires.
“Whether it is poor or rich, we [Chin People] caring for good homes. “For Chin people, a house is the most valuable of all possessions,” he said. “It does not make sense for us to destroy our homes that cost millions [of kyats] to build and the churches in which we worship… We are not so vulgar. ”
The Chin Human Rights Organization, which has played a leading role in documenting the army’s abuses in Chin State since the coup, said the fires were caused by rockets fired by the army into the town.
The organization’s deputy executive director, Salai Za Uk Ling, told Al Jazeera the fires were “deliberate and part of the [military’s] scorched earth campaign… according to which soldiers on the ground are authorized to take part in activities designed to destroy lives and property at their discretion ”.
⁇ Thantlang Fires⁇
We were sent this video today in which we claim:
HThantlang is on fire again
🔍 Fires started by soldiers of LIB 269 / LIB 222 / MEMBER 11
We examine both claims and show how we can quickly verify the first, but need more information about the second.
– Myanmar Witness (@MyanmarWitness) 29 October 2021
The primary photographic and video evidence, published from the morning of October 29, is the CDF’s drone footage, which does not capture the moment the fires broke out. Only one witness report, a radio interview with Voice of America, has been published so far.
Those documenting the incident say they have experienced numerous difficulties in gathering and verifying information.
Challenges of authentication
Since the coup, the military has arrested at least 126 journalists, expanded its use of online surveillance and set up roadside checkpoints where security forces regularly search electronic devices. Some people were also arrested for posting footage of human rights incidents on social media.
Salai Zing, the local journalist, told Al Jazeera that his team had significantly scaled down its activities since March for fear of being targeted. “We closed our office and took off the sign… We asked our journalists to live like ordinary citizens and told them not to carry cameras,” he said.
Not only is his team capable of sending reporters to the field, but they are facing an internet shutdown that has been set up in 24 townships across Myanmar’s northwest, including Thantlang, since September.
It has become very difficult for journalists to obtain data and information, and when we investigate, there are many third parties who [passed] it from person to person, ”he said.
Myanmar Witness, a non-profit organization that independently collects, verifies and stores evidence of possible human rights abuses, including supporting investigations into violations of international law, also faces a scarcity of evidence surrounding the Thantlang fires, according to its chief of investigations, Benjamin Strick.
To verify the details of an incident, the organization compares various pieces of evidence, including social media posts and those it receives from direct submissions. It has so far attributed 37 percent of the 1,187 pieces of media it has analyzed since the coup to Myanmar security forces, but has not yet made a statement about the October 29 fires in Thantlang.
“Our level of recognition extends much deeper to ensure that what we see is actually soldiers in uniforms with specific patches on, with specific ranks and badges, and before we get to that level, we can not attribute,” Strick said. .
The main obstacle to documentation, he said, was limited internet and telecommunications access, which “flowed as a result of less footage and fewer people posting online about what was happening”.
At the national level, however, there are signs of progress.
On Friday, the Independent Investigation Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM), a body set up by the UN Human Rights Council, announced that it had collected more than 1.5 million pieces of evidence since the coup, and that preliminary evidence was “widespread and systematic”. attack ”on civilians amounting to crimes against humanity.
The mechanism, set up by the UN Human Rights Council in 2018, seeks to gather, consolidate, preserve and analyze evidence of serious international crimes and violations of international law committed in Myanmar since 2011 in order for those responsible to be held accountable at regional, national and international level. tribunal.
Strick, whose organization shares evidence with the IIMM, said that despite the ongoing obstacles, he hopes organizations will find a way to document, preserve and verify reports of human rights abuses so that evidence “does not just use next week can not be. or next month, but in five, 10, 15 or 20 years when there is legal action and investigations ”.