Ethnic Issues

SSA-N Soldiers Prepare to Defend Key Base as Withdrawal Deadline Passes

By Lawi Weng 30 November 2015

WAN HAI, Kyethi Township, Shan State — The Shan State Army-North (SSA-N) has rejected an order from the Burma Army to withdraw from positions east of a motorway splicing Mong Nawng, Mong Hsu and Kyethi townships in central Shan State, with the group now bunkering down to defend itself against further attacks.

Government troops had given the Shan armed group five days to comply with the order or risk further fighting. The deadline passed on Sunday.

“We decided at a meeting not to withdraw our troops,” said a captain from the SSA-N who joined the two-day dialogue at the group’s Wan Hai headquarters in Kyethi Township. “Withdrawing our troops would not mean they will stop attacking us. They will keep asking us for more withdrawals.”

The ethnic armed group has not yet released an official statement outlining their decision not to withdraw amid a conflict that first flared on Oct. 6, leaving thousands of civilians displaced.

The SSA-N captain said the armed group would make engaging in political talks with the incoming National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government a priority.

“Our country will have a new government in the next four months. We will solve our political conflict by having political dialogue,” he said.

The ten brigades of the SSA-North are in active deployment, preparing to defend the group’s Wan Hai headquarters.

“We were born here and we will die here. We will not move. We have been based here for 20 years already,” said SSA-N Major Sai Han Kham. “We are not asking for our rights. We have our rights already but they [the Burma Army] took them. We need to protect our rights.”

He added, “It does not mean our armed group did not listen to their order. [But] five days is too short a time. We need to have meetings even of the ground forces. We need time to talk about withdrawing.”

Costs of Conflict

Ongoing fighting has led to the displacement of over 10,000 people, according to a statement issued by the Shan Human Rights Foundation (SHRF) last week.

The rights group has also documented eight cases of sexual violence committed by Burma Army soldiers in southern and eastern Shan State since April 2015. Most recently, on Nov. 5 in Kyethi Township, the SHRF said a 32-year-old woman was gang-raped by an estimated 10 Burma Army soldiers while her husband was restrained.

The toll in soldiers’ lives from both sides is unknown. SSA-N commander Sai Seng Hein described one fierce recent battle against government troops in Mong Ark, Mong Hsu Township, during which several Burma Army soldiers were killed.

“We fought for one night and one day. The [Burma Army] suffered a lot from our attacks. One dead body was a commander. They have all run to bases on the mountain now,” he said.

The Irrawaddy visited a mountain post belonging to the SSA-N in Loi Phwe Long, Mong Hsu Township, which the Burma Army, including the air force, attacked for three days but failed to capture.

The intensity of the military’s attack was immediately visible on the ground, with many trees reduced to charred remains and small craters indicating where bombs had exploded. There were also still some unexploded 50 kilogram bombs nearby.

“They shot here and trees were burned down,” said a Shan solider. “The fire even spread to my clothes while I was hiding in my bunker. It burned a little but I wasn’t hurt.”

Government troops used air power and 200 ground forces in the offensive, according to a SSA-N officer, Sai Khwe, who participated in the group’s defensive actions.

“Their ground forces attacked us at 11 am on Nov. 16. They stepped on our bombs, and many of them were wounded. But still many of them climbed to our post and tried to attack us. We were very close to each other [but] we did not want to kill them,” Sai Khwe said.

“We are brothers. We should not kill each other. We did not want to kill them because they have their wives and children. Their families would be very sad when they know their lovers were killed.”

The dead bodies of seven government soldiers were still lying on the ground near the ethnic armed group’s post, according to Sai Khwe.

“We should share land,” he continued, adding that the Burmese military should not dictate where the group operates, “because this is our land.”

From the SSA-N outpost, cooking smoke could be seen rising from a Burma Army encampment on the other side of the mountain. “We can even hear the soldiers swear,” Sai Khwe said.

Some SSA-N leaders said the Burma Army may resume offensive operations as soon as Monday, after Sunday’s withdrawal deadline passed unmet.

Burma Army soldiers reportedly fired shots on Monday morning, but they were described by an officer of the Shan armed group as indicating communication between battalions.