More Than 1,000 Civilians Flee Amid Shan State Fighting

By Samantha Michaels 24 April 2013

More than 1,000 villagers have fled their homes in eastern Burma’s Shan State since fighting escalated late last month between the government army and an ethnic armed group, Shan activists say.

In northern Shan State’s Tangyan Township, not far from a Chinese-backed mega dam project on the Salween River, nearly 2,000 civilians have been displaced since the government army began an offensive last month against ethnic rebels from the Shan State Army-North (SSA-North), in violation of a ceasefire between both sides, the Shan Human Rights Foundation (SHRF) said on Wednesday.

Kham Harn Fah, director of the Thailand-based rights group, told The Irrawaddy that some people had fled east from their villages across the Salween, while others were staying at relatives’ homes and in temples in the town of Tangyan.

“Two days ago we received news that about 700 people had gone to the main temple in Tangyan town,” he said. “In the temple it’s crowded. There’s hardly enough food because, as far as we know, no help has reached them yet.”

The rights group has been receiving reports from local residents of abuse by government soldiers. “People are scared. They try to flee, to go somewhere else, and [en route] they say their vehicles have been stopped and burned by Burmese troops,” Kham Harn Fah said.

Sai San Sein, a lawmaker from Shan State, said families began arriving in great numbers to the town of Tangyan after government launched a heavy artillery attack on Shan rebels from April 15-16. He said the displaced persons included elderly residents, woman and young children.

“Two houses were destroyed from the artillery shelling,” said a female resident from the village of Loi Say. “We couldn’t work on our farms. We couldn’t eat. We were worried artillery shells might hit our home.”

The fighting broke out despite ongoing peace talks between the government and the Shan rebels.

SHRF said nine government battalions began an offensive during the last week of March to push SSA-North soldiers from their bases in Tangyan along the Salween River. It said government troops targeted civilians in several villages as they began a fresh round of attacks on April 15, during Burma’s annual water festival holiday.

During the fighting, government soldiers allegedly detained and assaulted civilians in at least nine townships, including children, according to a statement by the rights group this week. It said dozens of people traveling for the water festival were also stopped and forced to walk alongside the soldiers as human shields in case of counterattacks by Shan rebels.

Civilians have allegedly been interrogated by government soldiers hoping to learn more about the Shan rebels’ whereabouts. One resident from Tangyan Township’s Nam Lao village told The Irrawaddy that interrogations began after the SSA-N ambushed the government army’s Infantry Battalion 291 near their village.

Activists said the government had launched its military operations in order to clear rebels from areas 20 kilometers southwest of the proposed site of the Nong Pha hydropower dam, one of two Chinese-backed projects planned on the Nam Ma, a tributary of the Salween River.

“The issue of natural resources is at the heart of the conflict in Shan State,” Sai Khur Hseng, a spokesperson for the Shan Sapawa Environmental Organization, said in a statement earlier this month.

“If full-scale war breaks out again in northern Shan State, there will be large scale displacement and suffering,” he added. “These are the costs of dam-building in Burma’s war zones.”

Government officials, including presidential spokesmen Ye Htut and Zaw Htay, could not be reached for comment on the allegations on Wednesday.

War has gripped Shan State for decades, with armed rebel groups fighting for greater political autonomy from the national government and basic rights, after suffering under decades of oppression by the country’s former military regime.

The SSA-North and the government army agreed to a ceasefire in 1989, but the 22-year-old agreement broke down in March 2011. Another ceasefire agreement came in January 2012, after the military regime ceded power to President Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government. Peace talks have since continued, but there have been reports of frequent skirmishes between Shan rebels and government forces.

The continued fighting and alleged rights abuses cast a shadow over the government’s commitment to enact political reforms and negotiate peace deals with the country’s ethnic armed groups.

Kham Harn Fah, of SHRF, said: “The government should be able to do something, to say something to the army to stop these kinds of atrocities. If they are really heading toward democracy, then the government should try to control the military.”

Additional reporting by Kyaw Kha.