Ethnic Issues

Dateline Irrawaddy: ‘The Major Cause of the Fighting Is Conflict of Interest’

By The Irrawaddy 7 March 2016

Thalun Zaung Htet: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy. This week, we will discuss the recent clashes in northern Shan State, and prospects for peace under a National League for Democracy [NLD] government. Irrawaddy news team members Ko JPaing and Ko Lawi Weng have joined me for the discussion. I’m Irrawaddy’s Burmese edition editor Thalun Zaung Htet.

TZH: Both of you covered the clashes in February between the Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army-South [RCSS/SSA-S] and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army [TNLA] in Namhsan and Kyaukme in northern Shan State. What did you see?

JPaing: Fierce clashes broke out on February 7, and since then thousands of civilian victims have fled to Kyaukme. When I went to Kyaukme, I found that the number of displaced persons was increasing rather than reducing. The clashes started to ease on February 17 and stopped the following day. So the fighting lasted for 11 days. It is fair to say that this was the longest clash [we’ve seen] between ethnic armed groups.

I went by motorbike to Tawt San, Nyaung Bin Hla and Nyaung Maung villages in Kyaukme Township. Some villagers alleged that TNLA troops had set their houses alight and tortured them. The TNLA later denied those allegations. There were no [other] eyewitnesses.

Most of the clashes occurred on parts of the main routes linking the southern and northern parts of Shan State. Goods trucks were passing through the area at the time. The three villages I mentioned saw fierce fighting. SSA and TNLA troops are still deployed in those areas now.

TZH: As far as we understand, in the past, serious clashes only occurred between the military and ethnic armed groups. Between ethnic armed groups, there were only skirmishes. Ko Lawi, what do you think is the major reason behind these events?

Lawi Weng: I arrived in Kyaukme on February 17. I found mainly displaced Shan people sheltering in a monastery there. There were also Palaung [Ta’ang] people. The refugees were a pitiful sight. As Ko J Paing has said, some refugees alleged that the TNLA had committed human rights violations.

The next day, I went by motorbike to a TNLA-controlled area. I arrived at Kyaukphyu village, where I found up to 2,500 TNLA troops from Brigade No. 2 stationed. I interviewed the brigade commander, Major Robert. He said the RCSS and the TNLA had co-existed in the region before the signing of the NCA.

TZH: The Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement.

LW: He meant that the RCSS had signed the NCA, while the TNLA had not. I then asked Major Robert why the clashes had happened. He said it was because around 300 RCSS troops had entered territory controlled by Brigade No. 2. After the entry, leaders of the two sides held a meeting, since this was the first time such a large number of RCSS troops had entered the area.

Major Robert said the RCSS could not give a strong reason for its troops entering the region. The clashes broke out after Brigade 2 stopped the trespassing troops, he said.

That was one reason for the fighting, but there is a second reason. The TNLA re-emerged in 2011. It existed long before that, but was not permitted to conduct activities by the former government. Meanwhile, Shan groups like the RCSS and the SSPP [Shan State Progressive Party] were active and levied taxes in the region. But now, the TNLA has taken control of certain areas. This has restricted certain activities of the RCSS, mainly the imposition of taxes and the conduct of businesses. The major cause of the fighting is conflict of interest.

Major Robert said Tawt San is a militarily and economically strategic site for the TNLA. Without it, it is impossible for the TNLA to conduct military activities and for Palaung people to do business. They have to have it. For this reason, the TNLA attacked. They thought the clash would not be so intense and large-scale. But fighting went on for 11 days, and spread to many places, and more than 3,000 people were displaced. So, they began to worry. On February 18, the TNLA retreated from Tawt San village and arrived in Kyaukphyu village, which filled up with their troops. I saw hardly any villagers there, and homes full of soldiers.

TZH: It is the people who suffer the brunt of clashes. This is February, the cold season. It is also exam season for basic education students. So, this has caused lots of trouble for locals. Ko JPaing, you spoke to victims. What are their needs?

JP: The number of victims had reached almost 4,000 by February 18. Many took shelter in 18 monasteries in Kyaukme. Volunteer groups and donors contributed rice, oil and other relief items. But they could not dispel the people’s fear.

Students ranged from those in the first grade to those who cannot now sit for their matriculation examinations, as the clashes happened just about a week before their tests were scheduled. In one monastery, I found students studying together for the exam. It was a pitiful sight. I learned from locals and teachers that pupils who are due to sit other exams will be given an automatic pass so they can move on to the next grade level.

TZH: The RCSS and the TNLA then formed negotiation teams to end the conflicts. However, we heard that clashes recurred on February 28.

Meanwhile, on February 17, an NLD lawmaker put forward an urgent proposal urging the NLD-dominated Parliament to help end the fighting in northern Shan State as soon as possible. The military representatives in Parliament also approved the proposal. It was accepted. Do you think that this will be able to influence events?

LW: I talked to Major Robert about the roles of Parliament, the Burma Army and the United Nationalities Federal Council [UNFC] in relation to the fighting. The TNLA is waiting to see how the parliament will intervene, and what role the [Burmese] military will take. The TNLA says that the military is behind the clashes.

TZH: They say the military is behind the RCSS…

LW: The RCSS is based in the southernmost part of Shan State, near the Thailand border. How did they get to Kyaukme in northern Shan State? The TNLA alleged that the military brought [RCSS] troops [north] in trucks. Previously, the RCSS had only around 100 troops. Now have around 1,500 soldiers.

The TNLA said the clashes would end if the military adopted a neutral position and brokered the negotiations. Instead, the TNLA has alleged, the military has dispatched around 2,000 troops in around 200 trucks to clear the region. The clashes could become more intense. People are concerned that they will have to flee again.

Regarding the question of how this situation could be ended, negotiation is a must. The military has to demonstrate its impartiality. The UNFC should broker negotiations. Major Robert said the TNLA would wait and see what happens with these two [the military and the UNFC] and then make a decision. He said clashes would continue until the RCSS leaves the region. It is difficult to say what will happen.

TZH: To see good prospects for peace under the next government, the military should be impartial. If it pays heed to policies adopted by the NLD government at peace negotiations, the problems between ethnic armed groups could be solved, and there could be a greater chance of peace. If the military instead instigates clashes, the prospects for peace will not be good. Ko Lawi, Ko JPaing, thank you for your contributions.

This transcript has been edited for clarity.