Amid Peace Talks, Ethnic Armed Groups Decry Kokang War

By Lawi Weng 18 March 2015

RANGOON — Ethnic armed groups of the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT) have shared their concerns with the Burma Army over intense fighting in northern Shan State, where ongoing clashes between Kokang rebels and the government caused tens of thousands of civilians to flee across the Chinese border last month.

The Kokang rebel Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) is a member of the NCCT, and the group pressed the issue with Burma Army representatives during peace negotiations in Rangoon on Wednesday, according to Khun Okkar, an NCCT leader who spoke to media following the talks.

“We are concerned a lot for our member [MNDAA]. We even had a plan to meet our member, but it is difficult to meet now as there is major fighting there,” said Khun Okkar, adding that the Burma Army did not offer any response to the group’s Kokang concerns at the meeting.

The government recognizes 16 ethnic armed groups as constituting the NCCT, but Naypyidaw uses a different list of members than the NCCT does. It refuses to recognize the MNDAA and four other groups that the alliance considers its members.

Hla Maung Shwe, a senior member of the government-affiliated Myanmar Peace Center (MPC), said it was the Kokang armed group that was to blame for the latest ethnic conflict to wrack Burma, with an MNDAA attack on the Kokang Special Region town of Laukkai igniting hostilities on Feb. 9.

“I cannot give comment on the fighting there,” the MPC official said. “Indeed, we invited them for peace talks in 2011, but they did not join. They are the ones who first started the [ recent ] fighting.”

This week’s peace talks are the seventh official round of negotiations between the NCCT and the Union Peacemaking Working Committee (UPWC), the government body tasked with negotiating on behalf of Naypyidaw. Leaders from both sides spoke positively of the first two days of the talks, which are due to conclude on Friday.

Negotiators have struggled for months to bridge differences concerning a draft nationwide ceasefire accord.

Khun Okkar said the latest round of peace talks was proceeding smoothly, aided by an “understanding” reached between the government and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) over the weekend.

“They got some understanding from the talks. So, this supported our peace talks a lot and even fighting in northern Shan may stop in the future,” he said.

Khun Okkar and other ethnic leaders did not offer details about what that agreement might entail, and the KIA—engaged in its own intermittent fighting with the Burma Army since 2011—has not spoken to the press about its weekend meeting with the government.

The Rangoon negotiations got underway on Tuesday even as fighting in the Kokang Special Region continues to rage. Sources in the area say the Burma Army this week ceased its use of aerial support in attacking rebels amid tensions with neighboring China, which has said a Burmese warplane dropped a bomb on Chinese territory on Friday, killing five Chinese nationals. Ground troops continue to operate, however, with clashes between the two sides effectively a daily occurrence.

“Fighting broke out very early today [Wednesday]. It happened at Konegyan hill” near Laukkai, the semiautonomous region’s main town on the Chinese border, according to MNDAA spokesman Htun Myat Lin.

He said that fighting also broke out on Tuesday in Tong Shan, where he said dozens of Burma Army soldiers were killed.

“Fighting yesterday was very intense. It took place almost the whole day and even into the night,” Htun Myat Lin told The Irrawaddy.

Citing Burma’s Ministry of Information, state-run media reported that three Burma Army officers were killed during fighting on Tuesday, on top of two officers killed on Monday. The reports said eight other government soldiers were wounded in fighting with the MNDAA, while three members of the rebel group were killed.

Htun Myat Lin’s casualty count diverged widely from the official narrative, with the spokesman saying about 80 Burma Army soldiers were killed in Tuesday’s clashes in Tong Shan and “many others” were wounded.

The Burma Army had mobilized a ground force about 1,000-strong in an effort on Tuesday to clear and control areas held by the MNDAA.

“They launched a big military offensive. Their strategy is first to shoot artillery and then use ground forces to attack our army,” he said, claiming that no MNDAA soldiers were killed on Tuesday.

A statement issued by the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), another ethnic armed group operating in northern Shan State, vowed to withhold its signature from a proposed nationwide ceasefire if the government continued to deploy additional troops to the area and launch military offensives.

“We welcome having peace talks in Rangoon and even the meeting between the KIA and the government in Naypyidaw, which are efforts working toward peace in the country,” the statement on Wednesday read. “But we cannot see a solution and real peace in the country with the launching of military offensives in our Palaung [Ta’ang] and Kokang areas. We continue to fight defensively and will attack the Burma Army unless the Burma Army withdraws from our area of control.”

The TNLA has openly allied itself with the MNDAA, while the KIA has denied claims that its troops are contributing to the rebels’ armed resistance in the Kokang Special Region.

“They are trying to get rid of our Kokang soldiers,” Htun Myat Lin said. “But for us, we are practicing defensive warfare to fight back at them. Fighting will continue to happen every day as long as they come to attack our troops.

“They do not want us to participate in the peace process. For us, we feel badly about this because we are one of the country’s ethnic groups.”

Parts of this article were rephrased on March 19, 2015 to clarify the NCCT status of the MNDAA and the government’s position towards the NCCT’s membership list.