Murky Picture Emerges of Kokang Conflict’s Actors

By Nyein Nyein 19 February 2015

The Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Shan State Army-North (SSA-N) have rejected government accusations that they are involved in ongoing clashes between the Burma Army and ethnic Kokang rebels in northern Shan State, where more than a week of fighting has killed dozens and displaced tens of thousands.

Via state media, the government on Wednesday night claimed three ethnic armed groups—the KIA, SSA-N and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA)—in the region had been involved in the fighting, alleging that they had ambushed Burma Army troops at a number of locations since Sunday.

Prior to the public indictment, Burma Army commander in chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing warned last week that any ethnic groups supporting the Kokang rebels would be held to account for their actions, though no specific armed organization was named.

Both the KIA and the TNLA lack bilateral ceasefire agreements with the government, while the SSA-N (and its political wing, the Shan State Progressive Party) signed a ceasefire in January 2012.

Sao Khun Sai, secretary of the SSPP/SSA-N, told The Irrawaddy on Thursday that his group “rejects the government’s allegation” that the Kokang rebels of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) were benefitting from SSA-N support.

The TNLA, on the other hand, confirmed to The Irrawaddy on Wednesday that its troops were in clashes with Burma Army soldiers in the Shan State towns of Kutkai and Theinni this week. The TNLA last week revealed its military ties with the Kokang rebel group, and both groups are also members of an ethnic alliance known as the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC).

Sao Khun Sai acknowledged that his group shared the UNFC link as well, but said the ties were purely political.

“The Kokang MNDAA is our ally in the UNFC, but it is a political alliance and we have no military ties on the ground, especially in the Kokang self-administered zone,” said Sao Khun Sai, referring to the semi-autonomous region where fighting first flared last week.

SSA-N troops “have not been in any [hostile] engagement since the last clashes in Tah Pha Hsawng territory in October 2014,” he added.

Despite the signing of a ceasefire in early 2012, the SSA-N had almost 300 clashes with government troops between July 2012 and October 2014, according to Sao Khun Sai. The Shan rebels blamed the close proximity of a Burma Army camp to the SSA-N headquarters at Wanghai.

La Nan, spokesman for the KIA’s political wing, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), told The Irrawaddy on Thursday that his group had disavowed itself of any Kokang alliance last week.

The government said more than a dozen attacks on Burma Army personnel along main routes in northern Shan State by the Kokang and their three ethnic armed “allies” had killed three Burma Army soldiers and two civilians, while 32 others including an army officer were injured.

But KIA troops, according to La Nan, were too busy fighting their own battles in the Kachin rebels’ war with the government, which is in its fourth year. That included fighting on Tuesday involving KIA Brigade No. 2, near the Kachin State capital Myitkyina, and KIA Brigade No. 4 in Theinni, northern Shan State, said La Nan.

“Ignoring what we have said, the government now tries to confuse the public” by conflating the Kokang conflict with the war in Kachin State, said La Nan.

With the Kokang clashes some of the most intense fighting in years, the government’s peace talks with ethnic armed groups appear to have been put on the backburner. The next talks, which were set to take place in mid-February, look likely to be pushed into March.

Peace negotiators said early this month that almost everything in the draft text of the nationwide ceasefire agreement had been informally agreed to as the government relaxed its stance on remaining points of contention. That did not, however, bring the fulfilment of a goal of President Thein Sein’s to sign a nationwide ceasefire on Union Day, Feb. 12.

Fighting in Laukkai, administrative capital of Kokang Special Region, first broke out on Feb. 9, and has sent tens of thousands of civilians fleeing across the Sino-Burmese border as well as to Mandalay and Lashio.

Htun Myat Lin, an MNDAA spokesperson, said the TNLA and the Arakan Army were fighting alongside them in the Kokang region, while other allies were fighting with them “outside of the region.”

According to Htun Myat Lin, the 2,000-troop-strong MNDAA was bolstered this week by several dozen soldiers due to the defection of a Kokang Border Guard Force previously loyal to the government. The MNDAA spokesman claimed that an undisclosed number of civilians had also joined the MNDAA.

Dr. Min Zaw Oo, director of the Ceasefire Negotiation and Implementation Department at the government-affiliated Myanmar Peace Center (MPC), told The Irrawaddy that “momentous” negotiations with ethnic armed groups to reach a nationwide ceasefire would continue.

“Our mandate is to negotiate with the 16 armed groups that the government has recognized to gain momentum in the peace talks,” said Min Zaw Oo, while defending Burma Army action against the Kokang rebels as a fulfilment of its duty to maintain security.

But, he said, “We worry [about the impact of fighting in Laukkai] as there are names [of ethnic armed groups in the area] appearing in [connection with] the Laukkai fighting, but we will try to keep the talks ongoing.”