NAMTU, Northern Shan State—Many people strive to be a leader in their community, but Sai Maung (not his real name) was far from happy when he was chosen by lottery to serve as the village head of his hometown of Pan Wo Village in Namtu Township, northern Shan State for two years.
Historically in Myanmar, village head is the leading authority at the village level and represents the most basic traditional administrative system. It is usually a hereditary position but can also be chosen by local residents when an aging or deceased village head has no male heir. It would be considered a desirable honor to hold the position, if you live in a peaceful area.
But things are different in Sai Maung’s case, as his village is located in the center of an armed conflict. “I don’t want people to know that I am the village headman,” said Sai Maung, turning his head away as if he were concerned I would take his photo.
“The headman is less safe than ordinary villagers,” said Sai Maung’s niece Nan Seng Kham. “Every group will look for the headman first and ask for whatever they want from him. Nobody wants to serve as village headman here.”
Nan Seng Kham’s father was a hereditary village head but after he retired, no one was willing to assume the position. So, as of 2019, the village began a new system: all the male village residents have to participate in a lottery to decide who becomes the village head.
Around Pan Wo Village, armed groups from the Shan State Progress Party (SSPP), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and their opposition, the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), are all active.
Fighters stop in the village frequently to ask for rice and meat from the residents.
“When my father was the village head, whenever armed groups came, they stayed at our house. When some group asked my father to do something amid heightened military tensions, we were constantly worried,” said Nan Seng Kham.
Armed groups extort rice from the village in exchange for protection and it’s the village head who bears the responsibility of collecting rice from members of the community, she said.
“If we had no [rice] on the day when they came and asked for it, we had to borrow money from others to be able to give to them. If we were not able to give them the amount they asked for on the appointed date, we had to beg them,” she added.
Nan Seng Kham said she witnessed TNLA fighters torturing a village head of Seng Khaung Village as they interrogated him about the movements of RCSS troops during clashes between the two groups in 2016.
Like in Pan Wo, village heads in most of Namtu Township have to maintain good ties with all the armed groups.
The Irrawaddy travelled across Namtu Township and met 15 village heads and five village-tract administrators in the township in January and July, and all of them reported being forced to bend to the wishes of the SSPP, TNLA or RCSS. All the village heads requested anonymity because of concerns about their safety (names used in the remainder of this article have been changed).
An ethnic Shan village head said he was forced to work as a double agent, having to inform the TNLA and the RCSS about each other’s troop movements. He also had to collect a bag of rice from every household in the village to give to the SSPP.
The Irrawaddy found that the TNLA has detained and tortured at least 60 Shan civilians in Namtu Township since 2016, and the RCSS has done the same to at least 30 Ta’ang civilians in the same period.
The Ta’ang National Party based in Namtu Township claimed that nearly 60 Ta’ang civilians have been slain or tortured by the RCSS since 2016.
Village heads have to be very careful to avoid accusations of spying from either side.
Aung Sai, head of a village in Namtu Township, said, “We have to get on well with all the groups. As I am ethnically Shan, I have to be careful to avoid being accused by the TNLA of being a spy.”
On March 12, Sai San Pe, head of Meng Mu Village in Namtu, was abducted by the TNLA at midnight. They also looted the grocery store which he operated out of his house. Sai San Pe was released after one month of detention. The TNLA also forced his wife to show them which households have ties with the RCSS.
Meng Mu residents say they are now frightened at the sight of even a single armed man in their village.
Sai San Pe doesn’t want to recount his experiences during detention. “My place is not safe. I have a family. I want to tell nothing,” he said.
When I met Sai San Pe, it had been three months since he was released but scars from the ropes the TNLA used to tie him were still vivid on his wrists. His family has now resettled in another village.
In Pan Kut Village, where mostly Ta’ang people reside, 11 civilians went missing last year as they fled clashes between the armed groups. When Pan Kut Village Administrator Than Aung asked the TNLA and RCSS about the civilians, an RCSS commander threatened him.
“He threatened me saying how dare you accuse us. It is not safe living in this village,” said Than Aung.
In some villages in Namtu Township, armed group fighters arrive not only in uniforms but also in plain clothes. Residents are suspicious of strangers, reporters and international non-governmental organizations coming into their villages.
Though ethnic armed groups are quite a headache for village heads in norther Shan State, the bigger problem comes when Myanmar army soldiers come and stay in villages. Their arrival is a sign that fighting will soon resume.
The Myanmar army, or Tatmadaw, troops also ask village heads about the movements of ethnic armed groups. When the ethnic armed groups come through a village, they do the same.
Most local residents also flee violent clashes, but village heads are often unable to leave their villages; they have to wait in their homes to speak with the ethnic armed groups. Leaders of the groups often complain that the village heads failed to inform them about the movements of government troops.
According to the Ward and Village Tract Administration Law enacted in 2012, village administrators are appointed by the General Administration Department (GAD) through elections in their villages. But in Namtu Township, villages have still largely maintained the village head as a hereditary position and only village tract-level administrators are elected. Unlike the hereditary head position, these positions are paid.
But official administrators are also not safe in conflict areas in northern Shan State. They don’t dare to say “no” when ethnic armed groups ask them to collect protection money and provide information. But they still work under the township GAD and have to cooperate with other authorities in drug busts and security measures. They have to be very careful to avoid being stuck between the government and ethnic armed groups.
A former Nam Hu Taung village-tract administrator, Sai Tint Cho of Kyaukme Township, is on trial for charges under Article 17 (1) of the Unlawful Associations Act for allegedly collecting funds for the RCSS and the SSPP.
Sai Tint Cho had served in the position since 2013 and submitted his resignation to the township GAD in 2016, bemoaning that he was being forced to kowtow to ethnic armed groups. The GAD rejected his resignation. He continued his job and was detained in April on charges related to the same issues he had spoken out about.
Following the prosecution of Sai Tint Cho, 22 village-tract administrators in Nam Hu Taung submitted their resignations.
“We are concerned that we will also be sued like U Sai Tint Cho so we submitted resignations. All the 100-household administrators and ten-household administrators of the entire village-tract resigned,” said former administrator Sai Than Win.
Kyaukme Township community elder Sai Myint Oo criticized the government for failing to provide protection for officially-appointed administrators. Even the official administrators appointed by the government feel unsafe but it is worse for hereditary headmen, he said.
Sai Maung dreads that anyone outside the village will learn he is the headman. Born and raised in Pan Wo, he is not willing to leave his home but he is deeply concerned about the trouble that may come with his new position.
“I live here and I’ve become village head here, so I have to go on like this,” he said.