Deaths of Three Ethnic Palaung Reveal Persisting Conflict in Shan State

By Lawi Weng 8 June 2016

RANGOON — The recent deaths of three ethnic Palaung, also called Ta’ang, in Shan State’s Namkham Township seem to have further entrenched the lines of ethnic conflict in the state.

Namkham, which sits on a border with China, is home to ethnic Shan and Palaung. It is also the site of fighting between two ethnic armed groups: the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Shan State Army-South (SSA-S), the respective armed wings of the Palaung State Liberation Front (PSLF) and the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS).

One ethnic Palaung stepped on a landmine near a tea garden on June 1, while the murdered bodies of two others were found outside the village of Mang Aung on June 3. While it is as yet unknown who is responsible for the three deaths, a number of local ethnic Palaung and TNLA members have since directed blame toward members of the RCSS/SSA-S.

“We haven’t said the names of the people who murdered our people, because we don’t have enough evidence, but we know that they are RCSS members,” said Kyaw Sein, a Namkham resident and an ethnic Palaung.

Ta’ang National Party (TNP) leaders, however, say the path to answers, and to justice, is far from certain.

Tun Kyaw, a TNP lawmaker from Namkham in the Lower House, told The Irrawaddy that his party is at a loss as to how to solve the conflict, and have considered soliciting help from the Ministry of Ethnic Affairs to find a peaceful solution.

“We don’t know who to turn to for action in seeking justice for the three Palaung victims,” Tun Kyaw said.

Indeed, these recent deaths represent the latest arc in an ongoing story of violence between ethnic Shan and Palaung in areas of northern Shan State since late last year.

‘This Isn’t a Communal Conflict’

The TNLA and RCSS have been locked in conflict over territory in northern Shan State since November of last year, after the SSA-S signed the so-called nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) with Burma’s previous government. The TNLA, which was not allowed to sign the peace accord, has accused the Burma Army of fueling conflict in Shan State, saying that it has given logistical support and protection to the SSA-S, though the Shan armed group has repeatedly denied this.

In one part of Shan State, one might hear an ethnic Shan politician blame Palaung groups for instigating conflict in the region; in another, members of the TNLA might say that the SSA-S is to blame because they invaded Palaung territory. The tenuous boundaries of land ownership make it difficult to parse who was in the wrong in accusations of encroachment.

Intense fighting between the TNLA and SSA-S erupted again in February, forcing thousands of people out of Kyaukme Township. Locals say that distrust and hatred between ethnic Shan and Palaung eventually crept into the adjacent townships of Mongton and Namkham.

Tun Kyaw said that the problem, at least in part, is that RCSS and TNLA leaders use their individual political agendas to inflame conflict, all while dragging locals into the fray.

“They get locals to hate each other by talking about being patriotic. But they don’t understand that they’re just being used [by ethnic armed group leaders],” said Tun Kyaw.

“The best way to solve this communal conflict is for everyone—including heads of political parties and community, cultural and village leaders—to sit down together.”

Nang Htwe Hmone, a lawmaker from Namkham representing the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), said that the people who have remained in the region feel that they have no security; she echoed calls for the warring groups to sit at the peace table.

“I’ve heard that two ethnic Shan and Palaung parties will try to cooperate, to work together to solve this problem, but that it is difficult for them to do so because they don’t know who might try to kill them,” Nang Htwe Hmone said.

“Ethnic Shan and Palaung lived together [peacefully] for many years. We didn’t have this problem in the past. But we have this problem now. I think it’s best to let the leaders from both armed groups [the TNLA and SSA-S] talk together to find a solution.”

Col Sai Hla, a spokesperson for the RCSS/SSA-S, said that if TNLA soldiers would stop attacking his troops, there would be no conflict in northern Shan State, while TNLA General Secretary Tar Bong Kyaw, said that conflict between the camps will persist only until RCSS soldiers return to their headquarters in southern Shan State.

“This isn’t a communal conflict. This is some ethnic Shan who support the RCSS and hate the Ta’ang people trying to make conflict,” Tar Bong Kyaw said.

“The Ta’ang people just stay in their villages and keep quiet. We try to encourage our local people not to respond to their anger and to avoid conflict.”

The RCSS, along with eight non-state armed groups, was a signatory of the NCA in October, while the TNLA was excluded from negotiations by the government. The two sides split shortly thereafter.