KYAUKME TOWNSHIP, Shan State — After a bumpy two-day drive from Rangoon, The Irrawaddy arrived in Kyauk Hpyu, Kyaukme Township, to find a village largely abandoned.
It was Feb. 18. The day prior, fighting had broken out in the area between the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Shan State Army-South (SSA-S). Most locals in the village of around 50 homes had fled to the town of Kyaukme, around two hours away by car, to shelter in monasteries.
A detachment of TNLA soldiers had taken up residence in the village and warned us not to proceed any further. Ahead was a conflict zone.
Sergeant Soe Naing, surrounded by guns, ammunition and other military equipment, welcomed us into one home with hot tea and a lunch of vegetables and fried beans.
“Sorry I cannot give you good food, but this is good for us,” the Ta’ang soldier said. “We just got back from the frontline last night.”
He claimed that six artillery shells had rained down on the village the previous day during a SSA-S attack on the Ta’ang forces.
Members of the TNLA sat around the village with tired faces and dirt-streaked uniforms. Some of them slept under the raised houses, while others stayed indoors.
On Feb. 19, some soldiers took us to Kyaukme Township’s Ton San village where ethnic Palaung (Ta’ang) Buddhist monks were preparing for a traditional prayer ceremony for those killed during the clashes.
The TNLA soldiers did not provide details on the number of troops killed during almost two weeks of fighting.
“Both sides have many causalities,” said a soldier known as Col. Robert. “Reports on the ground have not yet come in detail.”
‘They Shot Us, We Shot Back’
Col. Robert described an operation by the TNLA on Feb. 7 to take a SSA-S base, known as Loi Rin, during which civilians quickly found themselves in the firing line.
The base is situated in Kyaukme Township and surrounded by four villages, Nyaung Maung, Nyaung Pang Hla, Ja Dee Houng and Ja Dee Jan.
“They shot us, we shot them back. It was very big fighting,” Robert said. “I went to hide in a house… then I heard some women were shouting and asking for help. There were six female school teachers and they were locked in a house and were almost killed amid the fighting.”
The women were escorted to a monastery for their safety, he said.
Fierce fighting in the area, which Robert said continued until Feb. 17 and spread to other villages in the township including Tauk San, caused hundreds of civilians to flee their homes.
“We considered the villagers, therefore we ordered our troops to withdraw,” he said. “We have sympathy for the villagers who have fled. The [SSA-S] came to control our areas, therefore we had to launch a military offensive against them.”
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) stated that as of Feb. 16, 3,330 people were displaced in Kyaukme Township and over 1,000 were displaced in Namkham Township.
Fighting between the two armed groups first flared in November last year, one month after the signing of the so-called nationwide ceasefire agreement. The SSA-S was one of eight armed groups to sign the pact, while the TNLA was excluded by the government from the negotiations.
A Villager’s View of the TNLA
Some Palaung villagers have mixed feelings about the armed group that claims to defend them.
Mai Soe Maung, a 28-year-old ethnic Palaung community leader in the isolated village of Myo Thit in Kyaukme Township, said the TNLA offers villagers protection, but in turn seeks tangible support. This not only includes extracting a tax from villagers but also demanding that one male member of each family serve in the Ta’ang force.
When the TNLA are not present, the villagers feel they need their protection, said Mai Soe Maung. “But when we have it, they don’t treat the locals well enough.”
Myo Thit is famous for its high quality tea on the back of which many locals have earned their living. But in recent months, in light of conflict and tensions, many have sought work in China. The village is now eerily quiet.
The families of the young men and boys who join the TNLA still have to support them, Mai Soe Maung said. “The people here are poor. If they have to buy a phone for their children, they owe a debt for it,” he says.
TNLA troops used to stay inside the village, according to Mai Soe Maung, but problems arose when soldiers were inebriated.
“They have guns, but our villagers have no guns. They have the power when there is a problem. Therefore we make them stay outside the village now,” he said. “I do my best when they ask for help. But I feel very sad sometimes when their men on the ground treat [us] badly.
“I feel sometimes that I just want to leave my village. But I need to stay tolerant as I need to do more for the development of my community.”
The Shan State Progress Party (SSPP) has offered to mediate between the two ethnic armed groups and the conflict was discussed at a recent meeting of armed groups in Thailand’s Chiang Mai under the United Nationalities Federal Council alliance. The TNLA is a member of the grouping but the SSA-S is not.
“We will see what results will come out of the negotiations [facilitated by the] SSPP and UNFC. Then we will decide what we should do next,” said Robert.
President’s Office Minister Aung Min also met with representatives of the Restoration Council of Shan State, the political wing of the SSA-S, on Monday evening in Chiang Mai, and reportedly urged for tensions to be scaled back.
Members of the TNLA have alleged that the SSA-S was cooperating with the Burma Army during military operations, claims the Shan armed group has stridently denied.
“If the government told them to go back to their place, there would be no more problems here,” said Robert, who stressed that the conflict was between armed groups, not between the Palaung and Shan people.
“This is just a military issue, not an ethnic issue,” he said.