Tensions Escalate Between UWSA and Govt Troops

By Saw Yan Naing & Lawi Weng 4 July 2013

Tensions have mounted between government troops and Wa rebels who form Burma’s largest ethnic armed group, with both sides said to be just waiting on orders to open fire.

The United Wa State Army (UWSA), a force of more than 20,000 well-equipped fighters with modern weaponry that reportedly includes transport helicopters and surface-to-air missiles, signed a ceasefire agreement with the government in 1989 but has recently ramped up its demands for greater autonomy from the central government.

“Both sides are preparing for war,” said one well-informed source in Tachileik, a southern Shan State town on the Thai border. “They are now on alert. They deployed their troops in key positions. It seems they are only waiting for orders to open fire from higher officials. The situation is not good.”

He said possible confrontation areas included Mongton, Mong Hsat and Pongpakhem in southern Shan State.

He added that Burmese police, paramilitary militias and an anti-narcotics taskforce were also deployed at checkpoints around Tachileik and were questioning any person suspected of having connections to the UWSA.

UWSA officials at a liaison office in Tachileik have left the border town office for Mongton and Mong Hsat townships. The UWSA has four liaison offices in southern Shan State, in Tachileik, Kengtung, Tangyan and Lashio townships.

Saw Lwin, a UWSA officer in southern Shan State’s Wang Kaung district, told The Irrawaddy on Thursday that relations between the two sides deteriorated after the UWSA refused to withdraw troops from its three mountainous bases, as requested recently by the government.

“Our troops have surrounded the government troops at some places while the government troops have also surrounded our troops in some areas,” Saw Lwin said.

“We are worried a lot about government troops attacking the Shan State Army-North [SSA-North],” he added, referring to an allied rebel armed group in the state. “They are trying to block the road that we and the Shan army used for our troops’ movement.”

Some observers said the tensions might also be related to the UWSA’s recent call for the creation of a Wa autonomous region in the southern part of Shan State and some border territories of Karenni State. The UWSA asked that the towns of Mongton, Mong Hsat and Tachileik be included in the autonomous region as well.

San Tun, a UWSA leader, told the BBC Burmese language service recently that the UWSA sought self-determination because the Wa wanted direct relations with the Union-level government, an elevation from current dealings that are largely with the Shan State government.

He said the Wa’s pursuit of self-determination did not mean the ethnic rebels were going to separate from Burma, and instead would more appropriately reflect the political status that the Wa people deserved, given the UWSA’s governing capacity and formidable army.

San Tun said the UWSA would continue to seek self-determination and await the government’s response, but would not hesitate to engage in armed struggle for the cause if necessary.

The UWSA has two military units—one in northern Shan State at its headquarters in Panghsang and another in southern Shan State. The southern unit consists of five brigades with 1,500 fighters in each brigade.

Maj Sai Lao Hseng, the spokesman for Shan State Army-South (SSA-South), another ethnic Shan rebel group in southern Shan State, said the government army had reinforced its troops while UWSA soldiers remained on alert.

He said that the elevated tensions might be related to a government request for UWSA officials to provide information about all of its southern unit’s military bases in southern Shan State. On June 27, Col Soe Tint Naing, a commander of the government army based in Pongpakhem, asked UWSA southern unit officials to submit a list of its bases positioned along Burma’s eastern Salween River.

Despite the talk of impending conflict, Sai Lao Hseng said he did not think a fight between the UWSA and government troops was imminent. The SSA-South spokesman cited government reluctance to engage militarily as Naypyidaw is in the process of working out peace deals with ethnic armed groups across the country.