Muse 105th Mile Trade Zone Abandoned

By Lawi Weng 25 November 2016

MUSE, Shan State — Muse’s 105th mile trade zone, the scene of frequent fighting since conflict erupted in northern Shan State, appeared abandoned on Friday.

Located on the Lashio-Muse roadway, the trade zone normally provides a steady stream of tax revenue to the Burmese government. Typically, this trade zone would be filled with travelers, cars and trucks lining up to pay taxes and pass through the customs gates.

But no taxes have been collected since Nov. 20, when four ethnic armed groups launched a military offensive in the area. The ethnic armed groups include the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Arakan Army (AA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA).

No one knows how long the fighting will last, or how long the government will suffer financially.

“Now we are free,” said Kyaw Zwa, a car driver in Lashio. “Now we don’t have to pay the taxes any more.”

Kyaw Zwa criticized the government customs officials who normally collect taxes in Muse’s trade zone.

“They were the most corrupt people,” he said. “Where are they now?”

On Friday, no one remained in the trade zone.

In spite of the danger, some cars and trucks continue to try the road between Muse and Lashio. Many truck drivers told The Irrawaddy that they did not have to pay taxes to the Burmese authorities, but they also feared being stopped and made to pay money to the ethnic armed groups.

“We were blocked at one location,” said Ko Thet, a truck driver. “And then a fight broke out [between the Burma Army and KIA]. So we went to hide in some houses close to the roadblock.”

Ko Thet said that it normally takes him two days to drive from Mandalay to Muse. But this week, with rebels erecting roadblocks, his travel time has doubled.

“It was very scary when the artillery shells came down,” said Ko Thet. “First we went to hide near the car, but we realized we were not safe there, so then we went to hide inside the bunker.”

“We are just normal people,” he added, “and we are happy if we could just do our business in peace.”

New Battles Each Day

Since the conflict started on Sunday, there has been fighting every day along the Muse-Lashio road.

Wednesday afternoon, KIA soldiers attacked a Burma Army base close to Mann Wein Gyi village in Namkham Township. During the fighting, a stray artillery shell landed in nearby Khong Kat village, killing two civilians and wounding one. Local residents accused the Burma Army of firing the artillery shell that killed two civilians, but a statement issued by the Tatmadaw blamed the deaths on ethnic armed groups.

On Thursday, ethnic armed groups attacked a Burma Army base close to Maw Taung in Muse Township.

Thursday night, Light Infantry Battalion 144 of the Burma Army fired artillery shells into the area surrounding their base in Mann Tat village, Namkham Township, local residents reported.

“It is cultivation time for our rice paddies, but no one dares to go out there,” said one homeowner in Mann Aung village. “We’re all afraid of the artillery.”

Even when the Burma Army conducts shelling in the daytime, she said, sometimes the artillery shells land on civilian houses.

Friday morning, more fighting broke out near the border town of Mong Ko, in Muse Township.

“We heard there was a big fight happening there,” said Tar Aike Kyaw, a spokesperson for the TNLA.

Also on Friday morning, six Burma Army helicopters landed in Muse to deliver additional soldiers.

Burma Army Restricts Rice Supply

The Burma Army showed a heightened security posture Thursday on the road from Muse to Namkham. Outside Namkham town, there were three army checkpoints close to its bases, and it stopped and inspected people passing on the road.

The Burma Army started restricting rice transports into ethnic Palaung (Ta’ang) villages, according to local sources.

Aike Nang, a local ethnic Palaung, said that his younger brother bought rice in Namkham, but he could not bring it back to his village in Pha Lin. Many local villagers believed the army was trying to block the rice from reaching ethnic armed groups.

“It was not a good solution to ban rice shipments,” said Aike Nang. “Their action was wrong, because now even more of our local people are getting angry.”

“[The army] views all the Palaung people as their enemies,” he added.