Full-throated they belt out songs of victory, their boots adding the drumbeat as ranks of new recruits jog in formation through their jungle training camp.
There’s no doubting the shining eyes of these young people united by an ideal – freedom from the junta that’s smothered democracy in Myanmar.
Nor, perhaps, hiding from the dark tragedy that may await them.
They pour into Camp Victoria, the headquarters of the long-standing ethnic army of the Chin National Front (CNF) in western Myanmar, close to India’s border. They defy attempts by the camp’s leadership to suspend training because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Many come from within the surrounding mountainous territory. But many others make the dangerous journey across a nation that’s already riven with protests, army violence and oppression – in search of military skills.
On the cusp of adulthood, these volunteers say they demonstrated against the military coup that swept away their civilian government in February. And as the junta’s response has grown increasingly bloody, so they have taken up arms.
But any hope of singing songs of actual victory anytime soon are remote. Their leadership is warning of a long fight.
“Now it’s a kind of an urban guerrilla-type (conflict) but within months it will transform into a conventional civil war,” Suikhar, vice chairman of the CNF, tells CNN.
This bleak truth raises the prospect, indeed the probability, that Myanmar will descend into a protracted conflict where no victors emerge, and the country collapses.
In a report on the emerging civil war in Myanmar published at the end of June, the International Crisis Group (ICG), a transnational think tank, accused the military of using a strategy that targeted civilians to undermine militia support.
But the experts’ prognosis for the civilian population was grim, too. “The coming period of national economic collapse, widespread poverty and deprivation will give them greater incentive to secure sources of revenue, either directly from locals or at their expense. These factors point to the likely emergence of new, sustained armed groups in these areas, following dynamics witnessed many times over the decades of insurgency in various parts of Myanmar,” the report said.
Suikhar insisted that his movement and the Chinland Defence Force, which are also being trained at Camp Victoria, were led by Myanmar’s National Unity Government.
This exiled administration that exists largely, for now, in name only, is a loose alliance of anti-junta forces and has no command or control authority over the armed groups inside Myanmar itself.
And for the new graduates from the jungle training camp, there may be a bitter end to the romantic vision of a fight for freedom.
Anxious to hear how outsiders saw the conflict unfolding, a young fighter, a former journalist and graduate from the University of Yangon explained that he was the commander of what started out as a 10-person group specially trained in urban guerrilla warfare.
“At least, I did command 10 people. Now there are only seven. I lost three last week when they were carrying a homemade bomb to use against the junta. It blew up in their hands. They all died on the spot,” he says.
He’s been ordered by his superiors in the Chinland Defence Force back to Camp Victoria for a break after this blooding. In a few days he was in a new black uniform and undergoing more specialist training. His eyes now shone with cold determination, not hope.
Stalemate is not victory
But the junta army is striking back ruthlessly, analysts say.
“The Tatmadaw is using its long-established ‘four cuts’ counter-insurgency strategy in these areas, a cruel approach that deliberately targets civilians in an effort to deprive insurgents of food, funds, recruits and intelligence on troop movements (hence the four cuts). Attacks on populated areas are an integral part of this strategy, along with the looting of food stores and denial of relief supplies, in clear violation of international humanitarian law,” the ICG alleges.
The strategy is well enough known around Camp Victoria, where civilians are leaving outlying villages for small refugee encampments, or safety in Indian communities across the Tiau River. Most of the refugees are women, children and the old. They all left their villages for the same reasons.
“I am really afraid of the Myanmar military because they’re very nasty and they are a brutal military. Twenty years ago the military tortured my son in my own house. They hit him on the head. There was blood all over his head and that’s why I am really afraid of them,” said Tial Song, an elderly woman who was sitting under the orange plastic sheeting of a newly erected shelter.
“How long will be you a refugee?” CNN asked Chanlal, Song’s neighbor on this muddy hillside.
“As long as the military rules over us,” he replies.
Beyond the outer defenses of Camp Victoria, the mountains of Chin State leap in near-vertical waves of thick jungle. Travel is on precipitous mountain passes along tiny mud tracks.
Locals, many of them experienced hunters, have the edge over invading armies. They also have the mass intelligence network of their own communities, with fighters receiving live updates of enemy troops movements from village agents all over the state.
But these advantages alone won’t help the anti-junta forces survive. Stalemate is not victory.
An unlikely jungle guerrilla
Getting in, or out, of the Chin-controlled zone is a grueling test of endurance. It often involves entire days of back-breaking bouncing along the mud-slickened tracks on the back of small Chinese-made motorbikes. These little 125cc workhorses are the mules of the modern era, carrying fighters, ammunition and food to far-flung camps run by the Chinland Defence Force.
One of these camps that CNN visited sits close to a jungle trail, with a small network of bunkers and dormitory tents for the volunteers. It may be their home and fighting base for many months to come.
John Ling gave up his history studies at the University of Yangon to join the insurgency. Swapping the classroom for a hilltop camp, he’s the administrator, or quartermaster, for about 150 other volunteers. A slightly built man of 22, Ling’s an unlikely jungle guerrilla.
“Aren’t you afraid of being killed?” CNN asks him. “No, because I stand for my country,” he replies – adding that his parents are not worried about him, but proud of the stand that he’s taken.
It may be noble – but it’s also open-ended.
The armory is an A-framed tent of plastic sheeting and tree trunks. Its precious contents, dozens of shotguns designed for shooting birds, are lined up along each wall. On the floor, a log fire burns to keep the damp out, and rust off the guns.
Suikhar, the Chin National Front vice chairman, is adamant that these fighters will soon be supplied with automatic firearms, such as AK-47s.
“There are international smugglers. … You can get weapons anywhere,” he insists, but is opaque about how those weapons would be paid for.
“People donate, raise the funds. So I don’t think that money will be a problem.”
Many armed groups in Myanmar have relied for decades on smuggling, especially drugs like heroin and methamphetamines, to fund their insurgencies. And the longer they depend on local populations, the greater the chances are that civilians will be burdened by graft, protection rackets or simple taxation by rebel armies.
The CNF says it believes it’s one of 16 ethnic armies, and hopes for cooperation among them against a common enemy – all in the name of “democracy and federalism.”
Young citizens have flocked to this ideal; it was the thwarting of a democratic future that drove so many young people into the forests with guns. But the future length of their war, indeed whether they win or lose, may depend less on the young people of the opposition than on the young soldiers and officers being sent to fight them from the national army.
The quickest end to fighting rests in a “young officers’ coup” against the brutality and corruption of the generals who returned to power in February. The Chin leadership knows this.
“We’re working on it,” says Suikhar.