Shan Ceasefire Starts to Show Cracks

By Saw Yan Naing 22 August 2012

Despite a peace deal with Naypyidaw still being in place, ethnic Shan rebels say that tensions with government troops are growing more acute as they are being forced to withdraw from certain economically strategic bases.

“Light Infantry Battalion 149 and 150 asked us last week to withdraw our troops from our base in Mong Hsu Township. They claim the area does not belong to the Shan rebels. It seems that they want to control our areas which are economically and militarily important,” said Maj Sai Hla, the spokesperson for the Shan State Army-North (SSA-N).

He told The Irrawaddy that the Burmese armed forces have already settled fresh troops in several bases that the SSA-N was previously instructed to vacate. “The government also deployed around 300 of their troops in areas surrounding many of our bases,” explained Sai Hla. “It seems they can attack our bases at anytime.”

“It is time to build trust between each other. But they still conduct military movements,” he added.

The SSA-N still control several bases in northern and eastern Shan State including Wanhai, Kyaukme, Hsipaw, Mong Hsu, Thibaw.

The government peace negotiation committee has reached ceasefire agreements with more than 10 major ethnic armed groups since last year. However, fighting still rages with the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) in northern Burma with little sign of a truce on the horizon.

Sai Hla said dozens of clashes have been reported between government soldiers and ethnic rebels in Shan State since a ceasefire was signed in January. “We have confronted government troops more than 30 times after the ceasefire agreement. So we are always on alert to protect ourselves,” said Sai Hla.

Burmese Railways Minister Aung Min, who acts as Naypyidaw’s chief peace negotiator, was quoted by the state-run The New Light of Myanmar on Tuesday as saying that recent Shan State clashes are because government and rebel forces have not yet finished repositioning their troops or set up sufficient liaison offices.

And he expressed confidence that fighting between the government and Shan rebels will end permanently once all steps of the agreed peace process have been completed.

Ashley South, a Burma researcher who has been closely following the current negotiations, told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday that now “is the best opportunity in half-a-century to resolve ethnic conflicts in Burma.

“However, the peace process is beginning to falter, and could fail unless the government is willing to discuss political issues at the heart of the conflict, and can bring the fighting in Kachin and Shan states to an end,” he added.

The KIO wrote to the Burmese government in July saying that they wanted a political dialogue aimed at cementing a permanent peace rather than just talks towards a temporary truce. However, there has apparently been no response from the government so far.

“I don’t think the peace process will work unless the government resolves the Kachin conflict and is willing to discuss the armed ethnic groups’ key political demands,” said South.

Due to the ongoing conflict between the government and KIO in northern Burma’s Kachin and Shan states, more than 60,000 civilians have been displaced from their homes since June last year.

Meanwhile, around 4,000 Kachin war refugees who are living in temporary camps in southwestern China’s Yunnan Province are now being forced to return home by the Chinese authorities despite the continuing civil war.

Due to growing pressure from the Chinese authorities, around 700 have already been returned to KIO-controlled areas since last week.

China said that they have no agreement with the United Nations to provide refugee shelters on their territory. Local authorities said that they have been hosting these refugees for a year already and so it is now time for them to go home, according to Kachin sources on the Sino-Burmese border.

“They also banned media workers from taking photos of the Kachin refugees and circulating news about the refugees’ return,” said Mai Li Awng, a relief worker who is helping the displaced to return over the border.

Mai Li Awng, a spokesperson for the Wun Tawng Ningtwey (Light for the Kachin People) local relief group, said that refugees do not want to return as there are still military operations taking place near their homes. The onset of the heavy monsoonal rains also makes it hard to travel, she added.