Clashes Cease in Wan Hai, but for How Long?

By Lawi Weng 27 November 2015

WAN HAI, Kyethi Township, Shan State — For the second month running, most of the few villagers left in Wan Hai did not make their customary visit to the local monastery in order to mark the full moon.

At the end of October, celebrations of the Thadingyut holiday to mark the conclusion of Buddhist Lent were cut short when the village was hit by mortar fire shortly after midnight. Many locals had already fled at the urging of the Shan State Army-North (SSA-N), who believed the Burma Army was preparing to attack the town.

This time around, a few elderly villagers who had stayed behind went to pay their respects at the monastery, which had nearly been hit by a mortar round during last month’s assault. But the others went to their crops.

It was the first time they had been able to tend to their paddy fields in more than a month. The end of the harvest season is in two weeks. If they weren’t able to return now, they would risk starving later.

From the time since the military offensive began on Oct. 6, when the SSA-N refused a deadline to vacate its longstanding port base at Tar San Pu village, somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 locals have been displaced.

Clashes ceased three days ago in Kyethi, Mong Hsu and Mongkaing townships, the epicenter of SSA-N territory, in the mountainous ranges south of Hsipaw. Locals say that peace talks are underway between the Burmese government and the Shan State Progressive Party, the SSA-N’s political wing.

The Irrawaddy was given a tour of the ethnic armed group’s frontline posts in Mong Hsu, to the east of the SSA-N’s Wan Hai headquarters. Encountering a number of officers along the way, many spoke of the pitched battles waged against the military since the conflict began. Few believe the temporary lull in fighting will last.

Close Quarters

At the base of Mount Ju Mauk Kuang is one SSA-N post, with the Burma Army’s base at the mountain’s summit just barely visible from the perimeter. The base commander, a cheerful man sporting a giant tiger tattoo on his bare torso, eagerly showed off the post’s 60mm mortar while describing the area’s most recent clash.

“They fired their artillery down on our base, so we shot them back,” he said, pointing out bits of shrapnel embedded in the fortifications, adding that no-one on their side was hurt in the exchange.

He later brandished a small tablet computer, which he said had taken from a Burma Army major killed in a recent battle. He scrolled through the self-portraits of the deceased, a young man of no more than 35.

Officers say the Burma Army has made a concerted effort to take the SSA-N’s hilltop posts in Mong Hsu, an objective it has largely failed at despite nearly two months of fighting.

Were the military able to take these hill posts, they would be able to block the road between Mong Hsu and the Wan Hai headquarters, severely restricting the movement of SSA-N troops and cutting the armed group’s territory in half.

Maj. Sai Phone Han of the SSA-N said that the government is demanding a withdrawal from these bases in current ceasefire talks, which the rebel group is unwilling to countenance. The SSA-N’s withdrawal from Tar San Pu in October did not halt the military’s offensives for long.

“We have bad conditions from these peace talks,” the major said. “The government still want us to withdraw our troops currently based on the east side (of our territory). We cannot agree to this.”

In the meantime, the Burma Army has wanted the group to withdraw from their Mong Hsu positions in three days. If they don’t, the clashes will resume.

The military has already shelled and strafed villages in the township with the support of helicopter gunships and fighter planes. As in Wan Hai, many civilians have already fled. Mong Hsu town itself looks devoid of life, with many houses boarded up and schools closed.

At a frontline post in Wan Loi village, SSA-N battalion commander Sai Seng Hein told The Irrawaddy that there had been a number of casualties on the Burma Army side, playing video footage he took of a recent clash on a small camera.

“It was not an easy job to defend our post,” he said. “[Their soldiers] know they will get shot, but they keep coming. When they get wounded, they move back—then as soon as they recover, they come to attack again. We fought each other at very close quarters.”

“The biggest offensive was at Mount Pu Lone. They attacked us for three days and used 6 air force planes at the end,” he added. “Shells hit the ground and the earth shook very strongly. But they could not get our post.”

It may be only a matter of days before they try again.