Aerial Assaults as Shan State Conflict Intensifies

By Saw Yan Naing & Nang Seng Nom 16 November 2015

RANGOON — The Burmese military has launched airstrikes in a further escalation of fighting with ethnic rebels in central Shan State, where locals claim about 10,000 civilians have been forced to flee the conflict.

The Burma Army has reportedly brought in at least one helicopter gunship to attack rebel bases and nearby villages with the backing of ground troops in an intensification of an offensive that began early last month and has continued in the wake of a historic general election on Nov. 8.

A video clip uploaded to social media by the Facebook user Ying Oum Mwe purports to show a Burma Army helicopter gunship flying over Mong Hsu town and firing on Shan rebel positions and nearby villages in the eponymous township on Saturday.

Maj. Sai Hsu, a spokesperson for the Shan State Army-North (SSA-N), told The Irrawaddy that fighting between his group and the Burma Army was ongoing as of Monday.

“They [government troops] keep attacking us. Today, they also flew [sorties] and shelled us. We are fighting back now,” Sai Hsu told The Irrawaddy from an area of active conflict.

Asked about casualties, Sai Hsu said he was unable to provide an estimate, but was making field observations and attempting to collect information on the ground.

Nang Charm Tong, a prominent Shan activist from the Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN), told The Irrawaddy via email that about 10,000 people have fled the conflict zone spanning Mong Hsu and Kyethi townships.

“The fighting is escalating, with the Burma Army indiscriminately shelling and shooting civilian homes, temples and temporary IDP [internally displaced person] camps. The situation has terrorized the local communities,” wrote Nang Charm Tong, adding that the Burma Army was reinforcing its troops, with at least 14 battalions deployed to the area.

Heavy artillery, fighter jets and Mi-35 helicopters were being used in the bombardment, according to the Shan activist.

Affected local populations have fled to neighboring townships, namely Lashio, Laihka and Tangyan. Local communities are helping these IDPs, but food supplies and medicine are urgently needed, Nang Charm Tong said.

Meanwhile, another ethnic rebel group, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), also reported that fighting broke out last week in territories under its control in northern Shan State.

Mai Aik Kyaw, the TNLA spokesperson, told The Irrawaddy on Monday that clashes had taken place over five consecutive days, from Wednesday to Sunday, near Pan Kan village in Manton Township.

“Three of our soldiers were wounded. And there were also five bodies of government soldiers,” said Mai Aik Kyaw, who added that TNLA troops had initiated hostilities with an attack on a Burma Army column marching through the group’s territory.

The government troops confronted by the TNLA were from Light Infantry Division 88, 99 and 77, under the military’s Northeastern Command.

“They [the Burma Army] set fire to villagers’ homes, so the villagers from five nearby townships are fleeing their homes,” said Mai Aik Kyaw.

The Burmese government signed a so-called nationwide ceasefire agreement with eight ethnic armed groups on Oct. 15 in Naypyidaw, but neither the TNLA nor SSA-N was among the signatories. Other powerful ethnic armed groups including the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and United Wa State Army (UWSA) also abstained.

Sai Nyunt Lwin, a general-secretary of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) in Rangoon, told The Irrawaddy: “It [fighting] should not happen while Burma is now in the transition toward transferring power. It is getting worse now, even spreading into Kachin State.”

“It [the conflict] is inappropriate to end up like this [violence] as it in fact can be solved by negotiation,” said Sai Nyunt Lwin, whose SNLD won several seats in the Union Parliament and Shan State legislature on Nov. 8.

The Shan activist Nang Charm Tong said the latest government offensive indicated that “the Burma Army has no interest in peace.”

“The Naypyidaw troops have shown that they are war-mongers. Even on election day, their troops shot and killed civilians.”

An unconfirmed report stated that northern Burma’s Mohnyin, Kachin State, was also subject to airstrikes on Monday.

The Irrawaddy’s Nyein Nyein contributed reporting.