As Conflict Abates, Shan State Rebels Weigh Naypyidaw Dialogue

By Lawi Weng 3 December 2015

WAN HAI, Kyethi Township, Shan State — Leaders of the Shan State Progressive Party (SSPP) may soon travel to Naypyidaw to meet with the government, amid a lull in fighting but simmering tensions as a territorial standoff here enters its ninth week.

The Shan rebel group earlier this week decided it would not comply with a Burma Army demand that its armed forces withdraw from positions east of a road cutting though Mong Nawng, Mong Hsu and Kyethi townships in central Shan State, vowing to instead defend its Wan Hai headquarters.

A deadline for the pullout, set by the Burma Army, came and went without event on Sunday. Two days later, the military’s Eastern Central Command phoned the Shan State Army-North (SSA-N), the SSPP’s militant wing, in an apparent effort to resolve the impasse, but leaders from the Shan rebel group declined an invitation to meet at the regional command’s Kho Lam headquarters.

Maj. Sai Han Kham from the SSA-N said his group would consider pulling back its troops from their positions east of the motorway if Naypyidaw could guarantee that there would be no more attacks on the Shan armed group following the withdrawal.

“We talked about this with the Eastern Central Command commander [Lt-Gen Yar Pyae], but he could not give a guarantee on this. This is why he told our leaders to talk to Naypyidaw,” said Sai Han Kham.

“They promised us that their ground troops would not attack us during our leaders’ travels to Naypyidaw. We hope that we will have a little peace for a while,” he said.

The personal assistant for Thein Zaw, a member of the government’s Union Peacemaking Working Committee (UWPC), told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday that the two sides had agreed to meet in the capital, though no date had yet been set.

Previously, a government delegation led by President’s Office Minister and UWPC member Aung Min met with SSPP representatives, including the party’s vice-chairman, in Rangoon on Nov. 23-24.

SSA-N troops have been on heightened alert since the Sunday deadline for their withdrawal passed, fearing another Burma Army offensive was imminent. As of Thursday afternoon, no renewed fighting had been reported despite the expiry of the troop withdrawal deadline.

“They could come and attack us at an area where we do not expect, so we all have to be alert for our security,” said Sai K-Main, deputy chief of the SSA-N.

About 200 Burma Army troops have been deployed to a hilltop post overlooking Mong Hsu Township’s Mong Ark village, and more soldiers have been stationed in Mong Nawng Township, with locals fearful that the buildup presages another attack.

Fighting between the two sides first flared on Oct. 6 and hostilities have recurred in the weeks since, with the Burma Army launching multiple offensives that have at times included aerial support and heavy artillery fire.

The SSA-N has deployed about 1,000 troops to its headquarters and the surrounding area in anticipation of any such offensive, according to leaders of the Shan armed group.

Monastic to Militant

Even as SSA-N representatives consider meeting the government at the negotiating table, there are signs that a resolve to continue the fight—if necessary—is hardening here, and not just among longstanding members of the Shan armed group.

Until last month, Sao Thiha was a Buddhist monk in Mong Nawng Township, but less than two weeks ago he decided to shed his robes to join the SSA-N’s armed resistance, he told The Irrawaddy at Wan Hai. Sao Thiha said at least two other monks had followed suit after their monastery came under attack from the Burma Army.

“I feel it is the right time to do it, time to take action against injustice. It was just 10 days ago that I changed to this new life,” said Sao Thiha, adding that in addition to his former monastery sustaining damage from Burma Army fire, soldiers at one point conducted a search of the building, suspecting, erroneously, that SSA-N soldiers were hiding inside.

“For us, we want to act in accordance with justice, but they do not act according to justice. They oppress our people. All our Shan and other ethnic groups have been suffering from human rights abuses,” said Sao Thiha, wearing a newly minted SSA-N uniform with a pistol holstered at his waist.

“I have seen this for a long time. How I could keep my tolerance, having seen this for so long?”

For now, the monk turned soldier will spend his time among those displaced by the fighting.

“I will take whatever duty they assign to me. I am ready to help them,” he said of the SSA-N. “They have given me a duty to help IDPs [internally displaced persons]. They do not give me big responsibility yet as I am a new recruit.”

Battlefields and Paddy Fields

Sai Khum Lum from Mong Ark village said the protracted hostilities were a threat to livelihoods and, ultimately, farming communities’ survival.

“Our problem is that we cannot cultivate our paddy fields. The Burma Army will shoot us if we do, so we are afraid to go to the fields to cultivate,” said the 52-year-old farmer.

From its hilltop position near Mong Ark village, the Burma Army has a line of sight down to the paddy fields that serve as an informal buffer between its troops and the SSA-N.

Sai Khum Lum said two of his friends who were farmers from Mong Ark were shot by government troops last month after they attempted to cultivate this year’s crop. One was killed and the other wounded, he said.

When The Irrawaddy met Sai Khum Lum at an IDP camp on Wednesday, he described the latest setback in efforts to resume some semblance of normal life.

“We planned to cultivate early this morning, but we stopped when we heard [Burma Army] gunfire.

“I worry that our people will starve,” said the father of five, pointing to local residents’ reliance on the rice harvest for subsistence.

Sai Khum Lum said this was first time in his life that he has had to flee his village and all but abandon his crops.

“I was born in here. We lived in peace. But now the Burma Army has destroyed our peaceful life,” he said.

Additional reporting by Nang Seng Nom in Rangoon.