Two Wa political parties have asked the government to allow their people to move freely in northern Shan State after authorities blocked members of the ethnic group from traveling to Kyaingtong and Tachilek.
Ethnic Wa in the two major towns have also been stopped from returning to their homes near Pangsang Township. Meanwhile, ethnic Wa students who have just finished exams at government schools have also been prevented from going back to their homelands, according to a joint statement released by the Wa Democracy Party and the Wa National Unity Party.
“Blocking them from traveling benefits no one. We are asking the government to let our civilians travel,” said Nyi Palote, chairman of the Wa National Unity Party.
He pointed out that there are two tribes – the La and Loi La — who are ethnic Wa and live in the region but whose members have been allowed to travel freely, but not other Wa people.
“This action from the authorities is intended to divide these tribes and the Wa,” said Nyi Palote.
“Peace is important in our lives, as we all know. We all expect to have peace. But restricting the ethnic Wa from traveling around the country is not building peace. Instead, it will block peace and national reconciliation and it is discrimination against the Wa,” the parties said in the joint statement.
The Myanmar Army’s action appears to have been born out of its animosity toward the United Wa State Army (UWSA), which is a leading member if the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC).
The FPNCC, also known as the Northern Alliance, consists of seven ethnic armed groups – the UWSA, the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA), Ta’ang National Liberation Front (TNLA), Arakan Army (AA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance (MNDAA), Kachin Independence Army (KIA), and Shan State Army (SSPP/SSA). But the army appears to have singled out the Wa.
“There are other ethnic armed groups in the FNPCC, not only the UWSA. They should not target the Wa by blocking only them from traveling,” Nyi Palote told the BBC’s Burmese language service.
The UWSA signed a ceasefire agreement with the government in 1989, but it has yet to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) despite the government urging it to do so.
The UWSA’s territory borders China and traded goods flow over the frontier daily. The UWSA also shares a border with Mongla Township in Special Region 2, which is run by the NDAA.
The two armed groups have agreed to allow all trade and citizens to cross their border and there are some UWSA troops based at a port on the Mekong River near Mongla.
The NDAA has agreed to let the UWSA take care of the river port and nearby areas. But the Myanmar Army wants the UWSA troops to withdraw from the port.
“The travel restrictions on the ethnic Wa relate to the UWSA troops based in Mongla,” U Zaw Htay, director of the President’s Office, told reporters in Naypyidaw earlier this week, noting there were about 4000 UWSA troops based in Mongla.
“The Tatmadaw (Myanmar Army) is negotiating with the UWSA over this issue,” he said.
The UWSA has asked the Myanmar Army several times not to interfere in Mongla, according to Nyi Rang, a UWSA spokesperson based in Lashio.
“We will take care of this with our brothers,” he said, referring to the NDAA.
Some leaders of the NDAA also want the UWSA troops to leave their region, but they do not dare say so publicly. As such, they have sought help from the Myanmar government and the military to pressure the UWSA to pull out of Mongla.
This dispute flared after the first Panglong peace conference was held in 2016. Some NDAA leaders who joined the conference asked the Myanmar government for help. But the information was leaked to the UWSA, who have deployed thousands of troops in Mongla and taken control of several mountain bases.
The UWSA agreed to withdraw some of the troops from Mongla last year with some units of the UWSA and NDAA posting shared photos on social media to show their improved relationship.
The UWSA is the largest ethnic armed force in Myanmar with an estimated 40,000 troops. The UWSA has influence and power, and some NDAA leaders are not happy about its presence in their territory.
“My understanding is that (NDAA) invited the UWSA to set up bases in their region,” said Nyi Rang, the UWSA spokesperson.