‘We Are Humans’: Shan State IDPs Endure as Myanmar Military, TNLA Continue Clashes

By Nan Lwin Hnin Pwint 6 December 2019

KYAUKME, Shan State—It is a bad sign for civilians in northern Shan State that lavish peace talks held at luxurious hotels in big towns with sumptuous feasts and full security services have stalled.

As clashes have renewed while peace talks have stalled, small villages in mountainous areas have been brought to the verge of collapse.

Over 300 civilians from Khunkaw, Tawphel and Ohnwe villages in Kyaukme Township fled clashes on Nov. 11. Since then, the internally displace people (IDPs) have been taking shelter in Pan Nin Village-Tract in Namhsan Township.

The civilians fled for their lives as artillery shells fell into their villages amid clashes between the Myanmar military and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), walking through the forest for hours to reach a safe place. They don’t know what has happened to their villages since they fled.

“We had to run as many artillery shells fell. We could not bring anything, not even the bed,” said U Ar Yu, the administrator of Ohnwe Village.

Six residents of Ohnwe Village, however, were trapped. A blind person and two people with physical disabilities were left and three of their relatives chose to stay to take care of them, said community elder U Min Aung. He added that they have no telephones so no one knows their current situation.

Displaced persons taking shelter at Kyaukphyulay Village in Namhsan Township. / Nan Lwin Hnin Pwin / The Irrawaddy

U Min Aung said that other local residents didn’t want to leave the six behind but they had to take care of their own family members and the three disabled people chose to stay in the village.

“Other villagers have children and grandparents [to take care of]. They had to carry them on their backs as they fled,” said U Min Aung.

Clashes spare no one

If they are unlucky, the six people trapped by the fighting may have been injured in the clashes. An armed group may have detained or investigated them. But local residents hope that they will be lucky enough to have a reunion with them.

Residents from the three villages first took shelter at a nearby village called Khon Ngin. But as TNLA fighters were in the village, they knew that fighting could break at any time. As they predicted, the violence spread to Khon Ngin and they had to flee once again on Nov. 16.

After walking through the forest for nine more hours, they arrived at Pan Nin Village in Namhsan Township.

“We don’t know the way and we slogged through bushes in the forest. We left around 2 p.m. and arrived at Pan Nin around 11 p.m.,” said U Aung Than, one of the displaced.

A girl reads at a school for displaced children in Kyaukme Township. / Htet Wai / The Irrawaddy

As the two sides had deployed troops along the roads linking villages, the villagers had to run and stick to the cover of bushes, he said.

Pan Nin Village-Tract administrator U Win Myint arranged accommodation for the displaced civilians. He put out a request on social media for donations from Ta’ang civil society organizations to feed the displaced, but only a few donors came, in part because the Myanmar military prohibited them from going to Pan Nin. Local residents contributed their own food for the displaced people.

Tensions between the Tatmadaw, as the military is known, and the TNLA are growing near the village and Pan Nin alone can’t take care of the three displaced villages. U Win Myint has now sent displaced people from Khunkaw and Tawphel villages to Kyauktaw and Kheykwe villages, respectively, also in Pan Nin Village-Tract.

But the situation is still far from safe. Local residents in Pan Nin said the military bombed villages in Namhsan Township on a daily basis from Nov. 16-24 using helicopters.

The information department of the TNLA said the Tatmadaw shelled places in Kyaukme and Namhsan townships 404 times between Nov. 11 and 26. The TNLA also claimed that most of the shells fell on civilian areas and not on TNLA outposts.

Military spokesperson Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun said that because both sides have carried out artillery attacks, it is difficult to say which side is responsible for shells that fall near villages.

Brig-Gen Zaw Min Tun added that the military took control of a TNLA arms cache near Kyet They Village, also called Kai Tai Village, where they seized 33 grenades, 14 mines and military equipment. The village is located in the hills on the border of Kyaukme and Namhsan townships.

“Most of the clashes happened near Kai Tai Village,” Brig-Gen Zaw Min Tun said.

Brig-Gen Zaw Min Tun declined to answer how many shells the military fired in those clashes.

Students at a school for displaced children in Kyaukme Township. / Htet Wai / The Irrawaddy

The Tatmadaw reported seizing over 40,000 weapons, including RPGs and FN6 surface-to-air missiles, at three arms caches belonging to the TNLA during its search of areas surrounding Homein Village in Namhsan Township on Nov. 22.

Local residents are in a state of constant panic as they have seen helicopters flying over their villages every day.

“Every day, [military helicopters] fly over our village and bomb the places where clashes are ongoing. We are worried that we will be hit one day,” said Pan Nin Village-Tract administrator U Win Myint. He said that Kyet They, Ar Pyaung and Nar Lway villages and their surroundings have all been targeted in these bombings.

Over 800 civilians from those three villages have fled from their homes and are taking shelter at Kayukphyulay Village in Namhsan Township and Mankhauk Village in Kyaukme Township. On the ground, those who have not yet fled are helping those have fled.

Local residents in Mongngawt, Kyaukme Township said the military unit based in their area had been firing artillery shells throughout the month of November and they are used to hearing it.

“Not even the children are afraid of those sounds. [The military] shot at the hills. We have heard that sound almost daily this month [November],” said restaurant owner Nan Kham of Mongngawt.

Compared to other hillside villages around it, Mongngawt is safer because it is surrounded by Tatmadaw military outposts, said locals.

A reporter for The Irrawaddy was in Mongngawt around noon on Nov. 26 and saw and heard three artillery shells fired from Mongngawt toward Pan Nin, which is around a two-hour motorbike drive from Mongngawt.

The shells fell on Panpaw Village in Pan Nin. Shortly afterwards, Panpaw residents fled on motorbikes toward Kyaukme, with three or four people sharing a motorbike along with bunches of clothes.

Gugin, a 15-year-old resident, was carrying three little girls on his motorbike.

“A clash is about to begin. Artillery shells fell on our village. There are a lot of TNLA soldiers in the village. They said at least one person must stay in each house. So, my father stayed. I am sending my sisters to Kyaukme,” he told The Irrawaddy.

He added that the roads leading to villages in the hills are not safe because the TNLA usually plants mines on those roads between 4 p.m. and 8 a.m., before rushing back to his motorbike and driving toward Kyaukme.

At the same time, U Win Myint was worried that artillery shells would fall in villages in Pan Nin Village-Tract. If more clashes happen in Pan Nin, local residents and displaced people have nowhere to run, he said.

“I am always obsessed about the possibility of artillery shells falling on our village. In the middle of the night, I wake up with anxiety and I hear the sounds of shelling. We are humans—please spare us,” he said, crying.

He said he was feeling suffocated by his responsibility to take care of his villagers and the displaced people taking shelter in his village. He said he wants to go back to living a peaceful life as soon as possible.

Students at a school for displaced children in Kyaukme Township. / Htet Wai / The Irrawaddy

As clashes continue on the ground, there are also disagreements between the TNLA and the military over their territories. The Tatmadaw has demanded that the TNLA operate only in Mantong and Namhsan townships—the two townships that make up the Palaung Self-Administered Zone—but the TNLA is active across northern Shan State. The two sides are also attempting to negotiate a bilateral ceasefire agreement.

“They are holding talks but it is not connected to the fighting on the ground. I want to ask them to stop fighting. We are the victims of the clashes. We have to be afraid of both sides,” said U Win Myint.

It is a customary practice for village administrators to provide accommodation and meals for any armed groups visiting their village. In times of clashes, villagers say they do not feel safe being together with soldiers from any side. Though local residents in northern Shan State don’t always talk openly about their feelings, their faces reflect fear and anxiety as their future remains uncertain.

Infants and the elderly are also bearing the brunt of clashes between the Tatmadaw and the TNLA. Daw Aye Kywe, one of those displaced in northern Shan State, fled from the violence when her baby was just four months old. Like her fellow displaced residents, she lacked blankets and warm clothes to shield her and her child against the cold. At the camp in Pan Nin Village-Tract, she has to live together with around 50 other people. She said she does not want to flee again through the forest in the cold December weather without blankets.

“All I can do is to pray that the two sides will reach an agreement,” she said.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko