What’s Next in Mongla and Wa Tensions?

By Kyaw Kha 7 October 2016

RANGOON – Military tensions arose unexpectedly between the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and its closest ally, the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA) better known as the Mongla Group, at the end of September.

On Sept. 28, around 600 UWSA troops raided Mongla Group outposts in Loi Hsarm Hsoom, Loi Kiusai and Parng Mark Fah inspection gate between Kengtung and Mongla in eastern Shan State and arrested over 150 Mongla Group troops, local media reported.

As observers reacted with surprise to the unexpected conflict between the two groups who share former affiliations with the   Communist Party of Burma (CPB), the Mongla Group released a statement on Oct. 3.

The statement said that UWSA troops had conducted field exercises in the area controlled by the Mongla Group and that some UWSA troops had made serious mistakes during the exercise, resulting in ‘‘terrible consequences.’’

The statement did not provide details about the alleged incidents, but said that leaders of the two groups subsequently met on Oct. 1, when UWSA leaders commanded its officers who performed the military exercises on the ground to correct the ‘‘mistakes.’’

U Kyi Myint, a spokesperson for the Mongla Group, refused to provide specific information when asked by The Irrawaddy about the case. “Just refer to the statement. We have no problem. Everything is just all right,” he said.

Local media outlets questioned both the Mongla Group and the UWSA about the incident, but neither provided details.

According to information leaked from troops on the ground, the UWSA freed Mongla Group troops and returned the Parng Mark Fah inspection gate within three days, but it has continued to hold the strategically important bases of Loi Hsarm Hsoom and Loi Kiusai and to send   reinforcements and ammunition into the areas.

Sources close to the UWSA said it had  done so in preparation for military activities by the Burma Army.

A person close to the UWSA told The Irrawaddy on condition of anonymity: “The place(s) [previously] held by the Mongla Group are militarily important, but their deployment there is not strong enough. Losing this area would put both the Mongla Group and the UWSA at grave risk.”

Some military analysts had a different view, arguing that the Mongla Group had released the statement as a bid, using peaceful means, to persuade the UWSA to retreat.

In 2009, when the Burma Army was putting pressure on ethnic armed groups to transform into sections of the Burma Army-aligned militia known as the Border Guard Force, the UWSA deployed its troops in the area with the approval of the Mongla Group, said U Maung Maung Soe, an ethnic affairs analyst.

He concludeds that the UWSA was now  conducting military activities in the area as a response to the Burma Army’s recent attacks on ethnic groups, including the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).

The UWSA and the Mongla Group have traditionally shared similar views on Burma’s government and on ethnic issues,  but after the National League for Democracy (NLD) government took office this year, the UWSA started to perceive that the Mongla Group had changed its  standpoint, according to some military analysts.

Some analysts assessed that  that the UWSA was  not satisfied with the Mongla Group’s repeatedly making statements in support of  the new government and expressing trust in the government’s peace initiative. The latest confrontation may reflect the UWSA’s irritation with the Mongla Group after the ‘21st Century Panglong’ peace conference, they say.

“The problem is that the Mongla Group talked about its support for the ‘21st Century Panglong’ peace conference and signing the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA), which upset the UWSA,” a military analyst told the Irrawaddy on condition of anonymity.

At the conference, the Mongla Group suggested that it may sign the NCA and engage in peace and development talks, while the UWSA has repeatedly said that the NCA was not necessary.

The two allies, which often refer to each other as brothers, approached the ‘21st Century Panglong’ peace conference differently. While the Mongla Group dispatched senior leaders, the UWSA only sent officers in charge of liaison offices to the government-organized event/ On the second day of the conference, the UWSA staged a dramatic walk-out,  apparently as a result of a misunderstanding over ID cards issued to itsdelegates.

The UWSA has felt some concern over closer ties between the Mongla Group, the government and the Burma Army and therefore took preemptive action to occupy militarily strategic areas, said   Khun Sai, chief editor of the Shan Herald News Agency which is monitoring ethnic armed group issues in Shan State.

“I’m not sure how important those places are for the Mongla Group, but they are absolutely crucial for the UWSA. If those places fell into the hands of Burma Army, the UWSA is finished,” U Khun Sai told The Irrawaddy.

The UWSA is based in two places. It has territory on the Thailand-Burma border while its headquarters are on the China-Burma border, both areas within Shan State. The Mongla region lies in a strategic position connecting the two territories. “If the Wa have to choose between the Thailand-Burma border and that area in Mongla, they would choose the latter. That place is that important to them,” said U Khun Sai.

Apart from its military importance, the area recently newly occupied by the UWSA is in the economically strategic Golden Triangle area straddling Burma, Thailand and Laos. Burma Army battalions are also deployed in the area.

The UWSA may also be more concerned that the Mongla Group will draw closer to the  Burma Army than to  the government, some have suggested. Such ties would constitute a real threat to the UWSA, one analyst said.

Now, despite the Mongla Group’s recent public statement, the UWSA has brought in large reinforcements to the areas in question. It remains to be seen how tensions between the two groups will develop and what impact this may on Burma’s peace process.