RANGOON — The powerful United Wa State Army (UWSA) and the Mongla rebel group in northern Burma have denied any involvement in ongoing heavy fighting between the Burma Army and ethnic Kokang rebels in Shan State.
A Chinese-language joint statement, dated Feb. 12 and apparently bearing official seals of the United Wa State Party and Mongla Special Region 4, was circulated in recent days and states the groups are “deeply concerned” about the escalation in fighting between the army and the Kokang rebels since Feb. 9.
“Special Region No. 3 (Wa State) and Special Region No. 4 (Mongla) are willing to do our utmost to facilitate peaceful negotiations between the two sides while maintaining our policy that ‘we do not support the clashes and are not involved in clashes,’” the statement said.
“Both sides are urged to put the interests of national people at the fore, and are to resolve the dispute through peaceful negotiation,” the groups said. The Irrawaddy could not immediately verify the statement’s authenticity.
Heavy fighting has raged in northern Shan State’s Kokang Special Region as the Burma Army fought with the 1,000-man strong Kokang rebels, also known as the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and its allies, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Arakan Army, at more than a dozen sites.
The Kokang Region borders the Wa’s Special Region 3 to the east, which is located adjacent to Special Region 4 of the much smaller Mongla group (also known as the National Democracy Alliance Army) further east.
Army reinforcements streamed in last week as helicopter gunships and fighter jets launched airstrikes on rebel positions in the mountainous region. Government forces were able to retake control of Laukkai, the largest town in the Kokang area, where army and police stations have come under heavy rebel attack.
Dozens of casualties were reported on both sides and tens of thousands of civilians have fled into China or south to central Burma, according to state media reports.
The Kachin Independence Army has cooperated with the MNDAA, while some Burma experts, such as veteran journalist Bertil Lintner, have said they believe that the UWSA are supplying the warring rebel groups with arms and ammunition.
Burma’s Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, in a Union Day speech last week, accused unnamed ethnic armed groups of “being involved in the fight of Kokang renegade troops,” adding that “They have to take responsibility for it.”
Burma’s nationwide ceasefire process faltered in recent months and fighting with three non-ceasefire groups, the KIA, TNLA and MNDAA, has intensified.
The Kokang, Wa and Mongla are ethnic groups located along the Burma-China border that have strong cultural and business links with China. Their armed groups belonged to the Communist Party of Burma until its demise in 1989, when it fell apart into separate ethnic armed groups that cut ceasefire deals with the then-military regime that granted them a degree of autonomy.
Kokang leader Peng Jiasheng, who is leading the fight against the Burma Army, is the father-in-law of Mongla group leader Sai Lin.
The Wa, which have long been accused of large-scale illegal drug trade and gun-running, have emerged as the most powerful rebel army in Burma with an estimated 20,000 fighters and sophisticated Chinese weaponry, including armored personnel carriers, surface-to-air missiles and possibly helicopters.
The UWSA has had a ceasefire with the government in past decades, but the issue of autonomy for the Wa region has yet be resolved.
The Kokang ceasefire lasted from 1989 until August 2009, when a Burma Army offensive took the Kokang region without firing a shot and raided the properties of MNDAA leader Peng Jiasheng, replacing him with his Kokang rival Bai Souqian. At the time, Peng Jiasheng was believed to have fled to Wa territory with several hundred men.
Additional reporting by Thet Ko Ko.