CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Col. Sai Ngern, spokesperson for the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), spoke to The Irrawaddy reporter Nyein Nyein about the armed group’s clashes with government troops as well as the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), one of the ethnic armed groups that have not yet signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA).
We’ve seen frequent clashes between RCSS troops and TNLA troops lately in Shan State. What is the RCSS doing to de-escalate clashes?
For the time being, there is no direct contact between us and the TNLA. There is a mediator group and we’re trying to hold talks with the TNLA. We tried to arrange informal talks with them in Feb. or March in order to solve the problems and arrange a meeting between senior leaders but,they still haven’t taken place for various reasons. We, on our part, are trying to hold bilateral talks with the TNLA.
There are difficulties with trying to hold talks while fighting. We need to stop the fighting if we are to hold talks. It is important to hold talks. We always believe that dialogue is the only answer to solve this problem so we always keep the door open to dialogue. We think that it is necessary to hold talks on this issue.
Locals in northern Shan State have to flee from their homes frequently because of clashes. They also feel unsafe because of the threat of forced recruitment. What is the RCSS doing to help the war refugees and those who face forced recruitment?
There are two points. We don’t forcibly recruit; we only welcome those who want to join us of their own volition. We don’t have a policy of that [kind of recruitment]. We only accept them according to our principles. We understand that people are experiencing considerable hardships because of the fighting, and we sympathize with them so we try to avoid clashes as much as possible. The only thing that can be done to avoid clashes is to hold a meeting between two sides as soon as possible. Only then, understanding and trust can be built and a solution found. If we continue fighting, it is the people of both sides who will bear the brunt of the fighting. We don’t want that to happen. We take care of internally displaced persons as much as we can.
Which group is now acting as a mediator between you two? When did you, the RCSS, propose a meeting with the TNLA? How is the situation now?
I can’t officially reveal the mediator; let’s just call it an organization. We spoke with the mediator about our demands earlier this month. The mediator will convey our message and mediate [with the TNLA]. So far, there has been no progress yet.
Ethnic Shan woman Nang Mo Hom was abducted and is being detained by the TNLA. The TNLA has said that it put her on trial in its own court for allegedly obstructing troops as they performed their duties in July 2017. Shan groups and other organizations have called for her release. What is the RCSS doing to secure her release?
We are not doing anything specific but we do share the standpoint of the other Shan organizations and the family of Nang Mo Hom.
The RCSS is a signatory of the NCA, but it continues to clash with not only the non-signatory TNLA, but sometimes also with the Tatmadaw. Why do you think this happens?
There are sporadic clashes between the Tatmadaw and us. It can be said that among the NCA signatories, we clash most with the Tatmadaw. Why? Our assessment is that firstly, there is barely any trust between us. We still can’t build trust [with them]. Secondly, we have different understandings of state-level and Union-level [ceasefire] agreements [signed] between us. For example, there are problems with troop deployment. Their understanding of troop deployment is different to ours so we don’t have a common understanding in that regard. Finally, we have to see if there are weaknesses with the ceasefire monitoring mechanism. There are sporadic clashes between us because of these three reasons. That’s why we are planning to hold bilateral talks with the Tatmadaw.
The RCSS has long been trying to hold informal talks [with the government and Tatmadaw] but they still haven’t happened. Why?
We have had three-way talks with the government and the Tatmadaw once or twice but as I’ve said, things didn’t go well. We had a plan to meet them around this time but according to the current political landscape, the government and Tatmadaw are not yet ready. As everyone knows, the political landscape now is quite complicated. Government and Tatmadaw leaders are kept busy with other issues. For the time being, they are not yet ready.
What are the prospects of continued informal talks on political and security matters, known as a package deal, resolving this impasse?
It depends on the discussion. We, the RCSS, alone can’t make decision regarding [the Tatmadaw’s principle of] non-secession from the country. We have to consult other people; we must know the opinion of the people. This is very important. We have history. We Shans were a signatory to the  Panglong Agreement. We are different from other [armed ethnic] groups. One of the solutions is to work out a political agreement through talks between top leaders of the concerned organizations. Whether it will do well or not depends on those discussions.
Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.