Locals Say Armed Groups ‘Disappear’ Civilians Caught in Northern Shan Conflict

By Lawi Weng 23 February 2017

NAMTU, Shan State — During recent clashes in northern Shan State, Shan and Palaung (Ta’ang) ethnic armed groups have “disappeared” civilian farmers from Namtu town, according to local community leaders.

The two armed groups—the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA)—have fought sporadically since 2015, when the RCSS leadership signed the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) with the Union government. The TNLA has refused to sign the NCA.

During a recent visit to Namtu town, Shan and Palaung rights groups and community leaders told The Irrawaddy that both ethnic armed groups had detained or “disappeared” civilians—a majority of them coming from Namtu—whom they accuse of supporting the other side in the ongoing conflict.

In November, the TNLA detained 11 ethnic Shan civilians, and the RCSS arrested 11 Palaung people, local leaders told The Irrawaddy.

Many of the civilians in Namtu are internally displaced persons (IPDs) who already had fled the conflict in their home villages and had moved to Namtu seeking safety, making their disappearances doubly tragic.

As soon as the civilians were detained in November, Shan and Palaung community leaders created a joint conflict resolution committee. The committee members agreed to work together for the release of all civilian detainees.

In December, the conflict resolution committee persuaded the TNLA to release 11 ethnic Shan detainees.

“We went three times to meet with our [TNLA] armed leaders, and we negotiated for them to release the Shan prisoners. We talked to the top level first, then the middle, and finally to the ground level soldiers. Finally, we won the release of the Shan detainees,” said Tar Aike Taike, a senior member of the committee.

However, the RCSS has so far refused to reciprocate, frustrating many Palaung people.

Tar Aike Taike said he feels unhappy that Shan community leaders have failed to persuade the RCSS to release its 11 Palaung prisoners, despite four months having passed. He said that no one knows if the Palaung prisoners are still alive.

“We want to know whether our people are still alive, or if they were they killed already. We have tried the best we can to free them, but the Shan community leaders have been unable to help us,” he said.

The 11 Palaung prisoners were farmers staying in Namtu Township. They were detained by the RCSS one day while walking to tend their garden in the nearby mountains.

The Irrawaddy also made phone calls to ethnic Shan members of the conflict resolution committee. Shan committee member Sai Hseng Linn blamed logistical problems for delaying the committee’s work.

“Yes, we formed the committee, but we have not met each other in person yet,” he said. “So we haven’t been able to work together to rescue those victims.”

The committee members need to meet each other face-to-face, and there needs to be more discussion by the committee in order to win the release of the ethnic Palaung prisoners, he told The Irrawaddy.

Sai Hseng Linn claimed that he did not have power to negotiate directly with the RCSS, and he alleged the other side—the TNLA—of detaining additional Shan people.

Committee member De De Poe Jaing, an ethnic Palaung leader, rejected Sai Hseng Linn’s statements. If the committee was so disorganized, she argued, how did we already get the TNLA to release 11 Shan prisoners?

“His [Sai Hseng Linn’s] words are just false,” she said. “Our [ethnic Palaung] people worked to have the 11 Shan prisoners released. But the Palaung prisoners are still disappeared.”