As bombs rain down on Myanmar's resistance, tens of thousands flee

As bombs rain down on Myanmar's hotbeds of rural resistance, tens of thousands flee to the jungle without food or water.

In a remote part of Myanmar's far west, where narrow roads zigzag through treacherous mountain passes and villages nestle on precipitous slopes and ridges, lives a centuries-old community of hunters.

Traditionally, the Chin people used their intimate knowledge of this hilly, jungle terrain and homemade hunting rifles, called Tumi, to kill wild boar, goat and deer for food.

But lately their skills have been deployed to hunt a far more vicious prey: the Myanmar military.

When security forces started shooting unarmed peaceful protesters in the streets and arresting people by the thousands after a February military coup, Chin villagers picked up their guns to protect their towns and villages from similar attacks.

Forming people's defense forces, these local militia groups made up of mainly young men have become a deadly thorn in the side of the military, known as the Tatmadaw, as it struggles to assert control over the whole country.

A member of the Chinland Defense Force (CDF), who wanted to remain anonymous for security reasons, said its fighters are "ordinary citizens" including "farmers, university students, hunters and some high school students."

"The Tumi guns that we use are part of our culture as we are hunters and farmers, every house has it," he said.

Chin State's Mindat in Myanmar's east has been at the center of some of the fiercest fighting since the military coup.

Their homemade rifles and explosives were put to the test against the military's heavy weaponry of artillery, automatic guns and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) last month, when the Tatmadaw launched an all-out offensive on the Chin town of Mindat, according to multiple humanitarian groups and the CDF.

As bombs and bullets rained down on the town, thousands of people fled. They remain stranded in the nearby jungle hills with little food or medical aid. Water supplies were cut off to Mindat, which is now occupied by junta forces who have reportedly looted and burnt houses and installed snipers on roads into the town.

In the weeks since, fighting between the military and the Chin resistance fighters has spread to other areas of the state, with reports of whole villages forced to abandon their homes.

All-out assault

Mindat is a town of between 15,000 to 20,000 people perched on a mountain ridge 1,000 meters (4,000 feet) high in the Chin Hills, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the Indian border.

Like in most regions across Myanmar, Mindat residents took to the streets to protest the coup. The Chin, often called one of Myanmar's most-persecuted minority groups, suffered decades of oppression and abuse at the hands of the Tatmadaw, including killings, rape and other forms of sexual violence, torture, forced labor and displacement. They did not want to see the armed forces back in power.

Seeing the bloodshed inflicted against protesters in towns and cities across the country, which left at least 840 people dead, Chin people formed the CDF on April 25.

By then, Mindat was already a center of defiance. The Mindat People's Administration Team, formed in February by officials aligned with civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her ousted National League for Democracy government, had declared they -- not the junta -- were in charge of the town, according to local media.

Then in April, clashes broke out between the CDF and the military, with resistance fighters launching ambush attacks on military convoys and shoot-outs between the two sides.

The military said in state media that "armed terrorists" had attacked a police station and a bank in Mindat and assailed security forces, destroying vehicles and killing soldiers, so it imposed martial law on the town.

But the Chin fighters said the clashes started after the military arrested protesters, who put up anti-coup posters in the town, and people gathered to demand their release.

Tensions boiled over on May 15 when the military launched an air and ground offensive on Mindat, using machine guns, RPGs, artillery fire, mortars and helicopters in an effort to quash the Chin resistance. Houses and public buildings were destroyed and about half the town's residents fled into the jungles or nearby villages. Others unable to leave dug bunkers in their yards to try to protect themselves from the incoming fire, local humanitarian group the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) said.

CHRO accused the military of human rights violations and "grave breaches of the Geneva Convention," saying war crimes may have occurred in Mindat.

"They've used human shields during the battle, indiscriminately bombed and destroyed civilian properties, they target civilians -- they don't differentiate -- they occupy schools and hospitals," said CHRO's deputy director Salai Za Uk Ling. "If those are not war crimes, I don't know what is."

CNN cannot independently verify reports of the incidents. Myanmar's military did not respond to CNN's requests for comment.

As the assault on Mindat intensified, the CDF decided to retreat. "If we fight back there will be a lot of loss for the civilians, there will be more shooting with heavy weapons on houses and buildings, we couldn't sacrifice the civilians and we had to avoid the clash," the CDF member said.

Protesters hold signs in support of the town of Mindat in Chin state, during a demonstration in Mandalay on May 17.

Myanmar's military now has full control of the town, he said. The once bustling marketplace is deserted, as those who remain are afraid to step out of their homes. The people left are mostly women, children and the elderly who were unable to flee the bombardments.

Salai Za Uk Ling believes the assault on Mindat was intended as a message from the junta to the militia groups that have formed across Myanmar: If you resist, you'll be crushed.

"It shows to me the extent to which they are prepared to go in trying to put the population under their control," he said. "They were trying to make Mindat an example, and the fact they have been engaged in these kind of violent methods means they are willing to do anything. It's a flagrant violation of international humanitarian law and human rights laws."

As the CDF's activities gain momentum in other areas, Salai Za Uk Ling said he's "very concerned about the possibility of a situation like Mindat repeating in other towns."

A 'humanitarian disaster'

An estimated 10,000 people -- about half Mindat's population -- are hiding in the jungle, staying in informal camps or nearby villages. Food and medical supplies are scant and the monsoon rains are set