In a country plagued by nearly six decades of civil conflict, and where the government army has traditionally cast itself as the nation’s premier institution, it is surprisingly rare for the Burma Army to build cemeteries for its fallen soldiers.
However, a month after intense fighting between the Burma Army and Kokang rebels from the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) broke out in February, a gravesite for government troops was established near the town of Lashio in northern Shan State.
The Irrawaddy paid a recent visit to the cemetery which hosts the graves of some 200 soldiers who died between February and April this year, at the height of the conflict in the Kokang Special Region along the border with China, which displaced tens of thousands of civilians.
The soldiers were first cremated and their remains buried in graves denoted by simple, white headstones detailing each soldier’s name, rank, battalion and date of death.
Situated in an isolated area outside Lashio, no one appeared to be tasked with the austere cemetery’s upkeep. There was no signboard, memorial or other information at the site referring to the conflict or how the soldiers died.
Several senior government figures have paid their respects at the cemetery during visits to northern Shan State.
Nang Wah Nu, an ethnic Shan lawmaker with the Shan Nationalities Development Party, accompanied Union Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann on a trip to Lashio in May. She described the sobering sight of around 30 soldiers being treated for wounds in an army hospital.
“I became dizzy when I saw those wounded soldiers. I didn’t dare to look too closely. I even thought about our Shan army and the treatment of their soldiers wounded in fighting,” she said.
Nang Wah Nu also visited the cemetery alongside the parliamentary speaker.
“I heard that the tombs were just for soldiers who died while coming from Kokang to get treatment in Lashio. Some others died in the hospital. They could not pick up those who were killed on the frontline,” she told The Irrawaddy.
Government figures suggest at least 200 deaths in the conflict, including Burmese and rebel soldiers, although independent estimates put the death toll much higher.
A report by Jane’s Defence Weekly issued in May cited an intelligence report indicating that an estimated 800 Burma Army troops were killed between February and mid-May.
The Burmese military framed the Kokang conflict as a fight with an outside adversary and won a degree of public support, including on social media.
Many Burmese, including Buddhist monks from the nationalist group Ma Ba Tha, voiced their support for the military and offered donations—rare approval for an army widely loathed after decades of repressive rule.
The MNDAA announced a unilateral ceasefire effective June 11, citing concerns that ongoing hostilities could potentially delay Burma’s national election, which is scheduled to take place on November 8.