As Conflict Reignites, TNLA Claims Gains at Shan Army’s Expense

By Lawi Weng 6 May 2016

RANGOON — Fighting broke out this week at eight separate locations in northern Shan State, pitting the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) against the Shan State Army-South (SSA-S), with the TNLA reclaiming army bases from SSA-S troops, according to a statement from the former on Thursday. The locations of the hostilities were spread across the adjacent townships of Mongton, Namkham and Kyaukme.

The two ethnic armed groups have been engaged in conflict over territory in northern Shan State since late last year, after the SSA-S signed the so-called nationwide ceasefire agreement with the previous government. The TNLA, which was not allowed to sign the accord, has accused the Burma Army of lending logistical support and protection to the SSA-S—a charge the SSA-S has consistently denied.

According to the statement, the TNLA launched its recent offensive in order to drive out SSA-S troops who had come to “invade their [ethnic Ta’ang, also known as Palaung] lands” and cause difficulties for their people.

The TNLA and SSA-S are the armed wings of the Palaung State Liberation Front (PSLF) and the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), respectively.

In February, fighting caused hundreds of local residents to flee to safer areas in northern Shan, including the region’s larger towns, adding to the several thousand already displaced in the conflict between the two ethnic armed groups. (Fluid rates of flight and return made IDPs difficult to quantify.)

Fighting then halted for almost a month, during the tea harvest—cultivation of the crop being the principal occupation of the Ta’ang people. However, in early March, the Burma Army began operations in the area against the TNLA from its command base in Lashio, before conflict with the SSA-S resumed.

The TNLA claims that SSA-S troops advanced to establish further bases in March. Thursday’s statement accused RCSS members of detaining local Ta’ang people, demanding money from them and restricting their ability to travel and obtain food, including by blocking roads.

“They were acting as if they were in their own land and made trouble for our people. They are behaving like a wild tiger. We need to drive them from our land,” Tar Bong Kyaw, general secretary of the TNLA, told The Irrawaddy.

From two villages, Sai Lane and Loi Hom, the TNLA on Thursday took back the Kaung Sai mountain in Mongton Township, where three separate SSA-S bases had been established. There were heavy clashes and casualties on both sides, reported Tar Bong Kyaw.

The TNLA took two more SSA-S bases in a May 2 attack on Mong Won village and another in Tarbong village on May 4, all in Namkham Township.

Col. Sai Hla, a spokesperson for the SSA-S, confirmed that fighting had broken out recently between his troops and the TNLA. He said it was “hard to say who is right and who is wrong” regarding accusations of territorial encroachment.

“We have our own area in Namkham Township but they have their own ‘special region’ under their control,” he said.

Sai Hla said his troops had not formerly intruded onto TNLA-controlled land, but after a column of SSA-S troops was ambushed by the TNLA in Namkham Township in November, they had crossed over.

The SSA-S had only established “temporary” bases in TNLA-controlled areas, according to Sai Hla, who said he could not neither confirm nor deny the TNLA’S claim to have seized several SSA-S bases. “I shall enquire with my troops on the ground. We are guerrilla troops and we did not have permanent bases.”

Sai Hla said his troops had only blocked roads to cut off rations to the TNLA; the move was not targeting local Ta’ang communities, as the TNLA claimed. “It was a groundless accusation,” the spokesman said.