KYAUKME, Shan State — Amid ongoing conflict and heightened ethnic tensions, thousands of displaced persons have converged on the northern Shan State town of Kyaukme to seek refuge after recent conflict between two ethnic armed groups.
More than 10 Buddhist monasteries have been transformed into shelters for internally displaced persons (IDPs), including both ethnic Shan and Palaung (Ta’ang), who have fled ongoing clashes between the Shan State Army-South (SSA-S) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA).
The UN estimates that over 3,000 people have been displaced, including some 2,500 from Tauk San village, around 40 miles west of Kyaukme.
Following the fighting, which first flared in November but intensified earlier this month, tensions in the multiethnic communities of Kyaukme Township have risen.
An ethnic Shan motorbike taxi driver in Kyaukme told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday that he no longer felt safe walking in the town at night. His comments reflected the level of distrust that has grown in the community in recent weeks.
“There were many TNLA troops in the town,” he said. “They are trouble makers. They have a powerful armed force and attacked the Shan. They also have an alliance with the Kokang and Kachin.”
When the taxi driver overheard this reporter speaking on the phone to a Mon friend, he questioned whether I was ethnic Palaung. His tone softened when I replied that I was Mon.
“There are many spies from the Palaung here,” said a community leader sheltering in a monastery in the town who goes by the nickname of Dragon. “We have to be careful when we talk.”
A Divisive Pact
Several villagers and ethnic leaders who spoke with The Irrawaddy cited the so-called nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) as sowing the seeds for conflict between the two ethnic armed forces.
The Shan State Army-South (SSA-S), also known by its political arm the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCCS), was one of eight signatories to the NCA in October last year. The TNLA, by contrast, was excluded from the negotiations.
Several major armed groups, including the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Shan State Army-North (SSA-N), refused to sign the pact, in part due to Naypyidaw’s sidelining of several smaller ethnic armed factions including the TNLA.
Soe Myint moved to Kha Hein village in Kyaukme Township around 20 years ago when he married his Palaung wife. A community leader, he is now sheltering in a monastery in the town after fleeing clashes.
In the past, Shan and Palaung had got on well, he said. Leaders of the TNLA and the SSA-N had stayed on friendly terms and there had been few issues.
But tensions rose late last year, according to Soe Myint, over territorial struggles.
“Those southern Shan [SSA-S] wanted to control areas where their ethnic Shan live. But the Palaung also wanted to control these areas. Therefore, there has been fighting,” he said, hinting that neither side was blameless.
“In our village, both sides’ soldiers were killed,” Soe Myint said. “Our village held funeral services and donated food to the monks. But the villagers did not do anything for the deceased Palaung members. The Palaung then got very angry and threatened to destroy our village.”
Sai Su, a spokesperson for the Shan State Progress Party (SSPP), the political wing of the SSA-N, cited October’s peace pact as triggering tensions.
“Shan and Palaung stayed together peacefully for a long time in the community, but now they kill each other. Before the NCA, they could all [live] peacefully,” he said.
Watching a Cockfight
Sai Su and other representatives of the SSPP visited several areas that have been affected by the conflict, including the village of Tauk San.
“I did not expect to see that so many people had fled their villages,” he said. “The Tatmadaw [Burma Army] need to maintain peace and stop the fighting between the two armed groups. The government and Tatmadaw have a duty to stop this fighting.”
Sai Su claimed that Burma Army soldiers were located near villages where clashes took place, but did not join the fighting. He compared government troops to onlookers at a cockfight, waiting to see which protagonist would emerge on top.
“They just watch,” he said, adding that it suited the army’s interests to let the two sides grow “tired from fighting.”
Both the TNLA and SSA-S have traded blame over the cause of the fighting, and over civilian deaths. The TNLA has also accused the Shan armed force of cooperating with government troops, a charge the SSA-S has repeatedly denied.
Sai Su related the alleged killing of seven people at the hands of the Ta’ang group.
“We have evidence of three victims who were killed, but in total there were seven people [killed] according to their families. They were shot in the head according to photographic evidence,” he said, adding that the families accused the TNLA of perpetrating the executions.
Speaking to the Myanmar Times about the alleged killings on Wednesday, TNLA vice chair Tar Gote Ja denied the armed group was responsible.
“We don’t do those kind of lawless activities. If they have evidence, then show it,” he told the local news outlet.
Sai Su told The Irrawaddy he condemned any side which committed abuses against civilians.
“Our country will have a transfer of power soon. We do not need this fighting,” he said. “Thousands of people have fled their homes during this time, this has no benefit for the country.”