Mai Aung Kham, an ethnic Ta’ang—also known as Palaung—from northern Shan State, says he is on the run.
He told reporters on Wednesday at a Rangoon press conference that he has been called to serve in the military wing of the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), an ethnic Shan resistance organization.
Mai Aung Kham, who is the Mong Kung Township chairman of the Ta’ang National Party (TNP), said he was recruited in his native Mong Kung Township, but once he fled, his uncle was detained in his stead.
“They ordered me to come back. If not, my uncle has to do military service instead of me,” he explained at a press conference in Rangoon on Wednesday.
Mai Aung Kham has been detained by the RCSS three times already, he told reporters at the event, which was organized jointly by the Ta’ang Student and Youth Organization (TSYO) and the Ta’ang Women’s Organization (TWO). The first two incidents he felt were due to his affiliation with the TNP, the local ethnic Ta’ang political party in the town.
“They [Ta’ang] held a press conference in Yangon to make the RCSS look bad.” Col. Sai Hla, a spokesperson from RCSS, told The Irrawaddy on Thursday. “It was very one-sided and there was no concrete evidence to support their accusations.”
The RCSS recruited local people in this way in the past, he said, but not anymore. “If our local troops detained [Ta’ang] people, the people could bring evidence to our headquarters and we would release them.”
Mai Aung Kham’s allegations extend further—that the RCSS has restricted cultural activities related to the ethnic Ta’ang community. Ashin Theik Kha Nyar Na, from the Ta’ang Monks Union, alleged at the press conference that the RCSS had restricted the teaching of Ta’ang literature in Mong Kung.
More than 20 schools in Mong Kung have been closed since armed conflict between the RCSS and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) broke out in November 2015, leaving communities to respond to educational needs.
“From the past, and even now, our Ta’ang people have not gotten an education. Our ethnic Ta’ang will disappear in the future if they do not have education,” said Ashin Theik Kha Nyar Na, who said that an estimated 100 Ta’ang villages in Mong Kung did not have schools to start with.
Ta’ang civil society groups say they set up community-based education centers over the past two years, to total 55 schools. But Ashin Theik Kha Nyar Na said that they must operate under threat of the RCSS.
“They threaten our school teachers to ‘go back where they come from.’ If not, they say will arrest the teachers, then they will take them to their headquarters,” he said.
With regard to the RCSS restricting education, Col. Sai Hla said, “We were happy to work with them [Ta’ang monks], but they did not cooperate with us.”
“They [Ta’ang monks] came to our area to campaign politically, not only to teach, he added.
Ashin Theik Kha Nyar Na was among Ta’ang community leaders who met with RCSS leadership in Chiang Mai, Thailand on Sept. 12. In that meeting, they requested support in furthering the education of Ta’ang literature in Shan State, voicing concern over the closing of 60 schools statewide.
“[Lt-Gen Yawd Serk] told us that it was not a problem to open schools, and to just go to ask permission from his liaison office in Taunggyi [the Shan State capital],” said the monk, referring to the RCSS head.
Ta’ang community leaders now say that they followed the procedure and requested permission in the RCSS’s Taunggyi office, but did not receive a reply, Ashin Theik Kha Nyar Na added.
The RCSS was one of a minority of armed groups to sign the government’s nationwide ceasefire agreement in 2015; the TNLA was not a signatory. The rights groups organizing Wednesday’s conference say that the RCSS is violating the agreement and has an obligation to protect civilians—instead, they allege, they are abusing them.
The TSYO and TWO said that in order for the two ethnic groups to be able to coexist, the RCSS should withdraw troops from its northern Shan State bases, hold peace talks with the TNLA and cease alleged abuses against civilians.