First Images Emerge of Foreign Volunteers Operating with Chin State-Based Group

Two foreigners, one American and the other undisclosed, recently traveled to Myanmar to join PDF Zoland (PDF-Zoland), a local People’s Defense Force (PDF) based in Chin State. However, they were not the first foreigners to interact with the group. Collin Mayfield, an independent journalist and cameraman, previously traveled to Myanmar and lived with PDF-Zoland for a few months in the fall of 2023.

PDF-Zoland

PDF-Zoland and its political organization, the Zomi Federal Union, conduct various operations against Junta forces located in Chin State. The group also conducted attacks as part of Operation 1027, which began in October 2023. In the most significant operation, the PDF-Z captured a Junta outpost on Thuamvum Mual, more commonly known as Kennedy Mountain, located in northern Chin State, in November 2023. Mayfield also accompanied the PDF-Zoland soldiers before and during the attack.

PDF-Zoland preparing to attack the Junta outpost located on Kennedy Mountain (Photo: Collin Mayfield)

The attack to capture the base began around 4 a.m. local time, with machinegun and RPG teams firing at both barracks and various machinegun nests during the capture. The Junta troops were unable to effectively respond due to the element of surprise the PDF gained by moving into position without notice. A drone team also dropped several loitering munitions onto the positions, further preventing the soldiers’ ability to respond to the attack. The PDF captured the base, “dozens of weapons,” and several hundred rounds of various types, according to Mayfield. Mayfield also stated that PDF-Zoland captured 12 soldiers, including the detachment’s captain, while three were killed. The remaining Junta troops fled to regime-held Taignen village. PDF-Zoland sustained one casualty during the operation. 

Alliances between PDF-Zoland/Zomi Federal Union and other militias and political organizations convalesced into the umbrella organization the Chin Brotherhood (CB), according to Mayfield. The alliance also includes the Chin National Organization, the Chin National Council (Mindat), the Maraland Territorial Council, the Chin Defense Force – Kenpetlet, and the Chinland Defense Force – Matupi. The militias and their respective political organizations cooperate in military operations against the Junta’s military forces, the Tatmadaw, in the region.

Azad (Left) and foreigner (Right) standing alongside PDF-Zoland commander (Photo: PDF-Zoland)

However, the organizations also created the alliance to counter the Chin National Army (CNA), which also operates in Chin State, according to Mayfield. The CB was considered necessary to prevent the CNA, considered by many locals in the region to be “warlordish,” from consolidating control over all of Chin State, according to Mayfield. While the two groups previously had a “friendly relationship,” the situation has become tense.

Foreigners

The American who joined the CB as its first foreign volunteer is a former Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) member using the pseudonym Azad, according to Mayfield. He is from the southern United States and was politically active before traveling to Syria to join the YPG. Azad previously served as a sniper with the YPG in Rojava, Syria, for approximately four years. In addition to taking part in operations with PDF-Zoland, Azad also assisted in creating a sniper program for the group.

Photo of Azad during his time in Rojava, Syria, in May 2023 (Photo: Collin Mayfield)

One of the most significant aspects of the course Azad held for the CB was the inclusion of “a 4-man team of women, a first for the militia and also a first for the region,” according to a post on Azad’s Instagram page. He pointed out that while some militia members had doubts, these “were put to rest when the top spot in class was claimed by one of the new women cadets.”

Photos of sniper training course. Left shows snipers conducting movement up the ridgeline and Right shows one of the four women to participate in the course (Photo: Instagram, azad_afa)

Azad also said that this distinction is a badge of honor for both the women and the militia. Furthermore, Mayfield stated that the women participating in the course show how the individual is “exporting” the Kurdish feminism that the YPG, and its all-female sister force the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), are known for. Azad then went on to establish courses and train snipers for the militias that make up the Chin Brotherhood after the initial course. In addition to assisting in training individuals as snipers, Azad has aided in several CB operations to capture towns and bases from the Junta. Furthermore, the soldiers he helped train captured the town of Kanpalet in late April, according to his Instagram. 

However, the pro-regime militia, the Zomi Revolutionary Army (ZRA), made several accusations against both Azad and Mayfield during their time in Myanmar. Specifically, the ZRA accused the CB of photoshopping the foreign volunteers into images recently released. The militia also accused Mayfield of “being a foreign agent paid to make propaganda for PDF-Zoland,” according to Facebook posts by ZRA members.

Analysis

The presence of foreigners such as Azad in Myanmar serves several purposes. For example, his presence denotes the shared solidarity that the Kurdish YPG and the various Myanmar-based PDFs have in fighting back against authoritarianism. This aspect is especially evident in a social media post by Azad that points out the link between the “revolution in Kurdistan,” “the resistance in Ukraine,” and the “multiethnic struggle of the people of Myanmar.” Furthermore, the inclusion of women in sniper training also points to the sharing of Kurdish feminism that is evident in the YPG and YPJ in Syria. The training of women in combat roles, such as snipers, is significant since many Chin hold a traditional view of gender roles. However, the four women not only successfully completed the course, but one woman graduating at the top of the class showed the male members of PDF-Zoland that women can effectively take on roles that are non-traditional in their culture. Women’s training may also extend to other combat roles, such as infantry, since the women have shown the group they are capable of operating in those roles.

Azad and the presence of other foreign fighters operating with groups like PDF-Zoland allow them to receive training on captured military equipment from a third party. This is especially important since relations between some groups, such as the CB and the CNA, can be described as “tense,” and they would be hesitant to cooperate with each other. The foreign fighters would allow the CB to receive training from individuals who have experience conducting guerilla operations against a conventional military force, such as the Tatmadaw. This point is evident in Azad’s assistance in training snipers while also conducting operations with PDF-Zoland and CB.

However, the Junta and its allied militias can use the presence of foreign fighters as propaganda to discredit the groups. For example, one of the Junta’s arguments for staying in power is that it is protecting the country from foreign influence and that the rebel groups receive help from foreign entities. Junta leader Senior General Min Aug Hliang made a reference to this point during the annual Armed Forces Day parade in March 2024. During his speech, Hliang said that the Junta’s “opponents were receiving foreign backing and trying to destroy the country and thwart plans to return Myanmar to democratic rule.” The argument is further strengthened by the ZRA’s comments that photographs of Azad and other foreigners are either photoshopped or altered to add the individuals in the images.

Joaquin Camarena
Joaquin Camarena
Joaquin the panda began Sino Talk in 2022 primarily to give an objective, unbiased view on China related topics as well as other issues related to the Indo-Pacific region. He spent several years studying and traveling throughout China and many countries in the Indo-Pacific region. In another life, the panda was also a U.S. Marine intelligence analyst who enjoyed bamboo MREs and drinking bourbon and soju. Indo-Pacific Division Desk Chief for Atlas News.

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