In Myanmar’s Divided Shan State, a New Appeal for Unity; China Will Be Watching

By The Irrawaddy 13 July 2021

Last week, a newly formed Shan political organization known as the Shan State Front for Federal (SSFF) and a Shan political party, the Shan State Liberation Party (SSLP), called for a united front against the military dictatorship and urged reconciliation and a truce between two rival Shan armed groups.

It is reported that this new political group comprises Shan youth and intellectuals who want to see unity in Shan State.

They claim to fight for democracy, federalism, ethnic states’ rights and the right to self-determination. The group made its announcement on July 7. A few days later, on July 11, it declared war on the State Administration Council (SAC), the governing body established by the military after its coup in February. However, the newly formed Shan group remains something of a mystery, and it is not yet clear how much support it commands.

Meanwhile, the two rival ethnic Shan armed groups, the Shan State Progressive Party (SSPP) and the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), have been fighting over a territorial dispute for a month in the mountains of Kyethi Township, southern Shan State.

The Shan State Progress Party in Kyethi in 2016. / The Irrawaddy

The war has forced thousands of villagers to flee their homes. Influential Shan monks have been trying to stop the conflict.

On July 8, the RCSS issued a statement in English and Chinese calling for a peaceful solution to the conflict in northern Shan State.

The statement also said that a combined force of SSPP and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) troops has been attacking military camps and strongholds of the RCSS in Namtu and Kyaukme townships. “These prolonged armed conflicts have been causing great difficulties for the local populations,” it reads.

But behind both the recent and past armed clashes, Shan analysts suspect that the powerful Wa armed group, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), is behind the SSPP and TNLA. This time, according to Shan observers, the SSPP and TNLA are deploying heavy artillery, suggesting some ethnic forces might have been involved in assisting the SSPP.

Both the Wa and the TNLA have denied claims the former is backing the latter.

Commenting on the ongoing conflict, Sao Pha, the general secretary of the SSFF, told The Irrawaddy that the group is unhappy to see armed clashes between the RCSS and SSPP and said that Shan people want reconciliation between the two Shan groups.

In Shan State, he said, the RCSS and SSPP are at loggerheads and engaged in a protracted armed conflict. The Shan are frustrated as two ethnic Shan armed groups are in conflict instead of targeting the Myanmar military.

In fact, these two major Shan forces have been fighting each other in northern Shan State since 2016-17. In recent years, the RCSS expanded its territory into northern Shan State, which shares a border with China. Notably, this conflict has worsened since the RCSS signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with the government of former President U Thein Sein in October 2015. Soon after, it expanded its forces to the north, resulting in clashes with the TNLA.

Map of Shan State

The RCSS is based along the northern Thai border but its troops have expanded their territory into central and northern Shan State bordering China. The SSPP is based in northern Shan State.

It is interesting to note that the armed clashes between the two Shan insurgent groups (and those involving several smaller ethnic armies including the TNLA) in Shan State have taken place along the route of China’s natural gas pipeline in Shan State. In the future, China plans to build major infrastructure projects, railroads and bridges in the area.

Since the coup in February, fighting has intensified between the RCSS and SSPP, as the military has been busy in Yangon and elsewhere trying to contain anti-coup protests.

In Manhlyoe, a town in northern Shan State’s Muse Township on the Chinese border that is home to a border checkpoint, this year SSPP commanders told RCSS troops to leave the area. This is where China plans to build one of the Myanmar-China Cross-Border Economic Cooperation Zones (CBECZs). The junta has reorganized the members of the central committee for the implementation of CBECZs. The committee is set to play a major role in drawing up implementation policies, in the management of the zones and in pushing to gear up the projects. Under the China Myanmar Economic Corridor agreement, the CBECZs are planned to be constructed in Shan and Kachin states, along Myanmar’s border with China.

To protect Chinese economic interests and upcoming major projects in Shan State in Myanmar, China has been heavily dependent on local security forces, international security companies and active armed groups in the respective areas.

RCSS leaders suspect that China supports the SSPP. Not long ago, RCSS senior leaders reportedly sought a meeting with Chinese officials at the Chinese Embassy in Yangon. Details of the discussion were not disclosed but the contentious issue of the clashes and control of territory in northern Shan State was discussed.

If China and Chinese businessmen are in favor of the SSPP, this reflects a certain amount of calculation. Beijing thinks the SSPP is an unfailing ally helping China preserve influence in northern Shan State. More importantly some key figures in the SSPP leadership are former members of the now defunct Communist Party of Burma, such as General Sae Htin.

The Chinese feel they can trust them.

Some Shan political analysts say China may think the Thailand-Myanmar-based RCSS is close to Western-funded political organizations, and also has connections to the parallel National Unity Government (NUG). Moreover, in the context of the foundation of the Shan armed resistance movement, China sees the RCSS as historically anti-communist.

Therefore, China feels it can’t trust the RCSS.

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