N. Shan Residents Live in Fear as Rights, Security Situation Deteriorates

By Lawi Weng 12 March 2019

If you lived in northern Shan State, how would you describe the current conditions, in which the human rights situation has deteriorated dramatically? And would you dare to speak out? Two men were shot and killed in Kyaukme Township this month.  The first, a retired Myanmar Army captain, was murdered in the town, while another local man was murdered at his house. Some locals describe Kyaukme as a “murder town”, one where the killers are never caught.

There have been a lot of human rights abuses in northern Shan. The people are afraid to speak out, as they are worried they will be killed. Among the media, it is difficult to find someone who dares to criticize the rights abuses in the region. Last week, I talked to a member of the Ta’ang Women’s Organization, and asked her about the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS)’ detention of 10 ethnic Ta’ang people in Namtu Township.

She asked me not to use her name in my news story if possible. I can understand her request, but Myanmar is undergoing political reforms, and more people are daring to criticize the government and the Myanmar Army. If I left out her name, my story would lack credibility among my readers. So, I just told her—don’t be afraid to speak.

Northern Shan has various ethnic groups, and various ethnic armed groups too. There are Shan, Burmese, Ta’ang, Kachin, Lisu, Lahu, Wa and Kokang. Trust between the groups has broken down since armed conflict flared in the region. Ethnic people look at Burmans as spies who provide information to the Myanmar Army. This was apparently why the former captain was killed, as some locals believed he was a spy.

Again, the Shan and Ta’ang have no trust in each other. When a Shan sees a local Ta’ang, they suspect him or her as a person who provides information to the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA). Ta’ang people view Shan the same way. This is how northern Shan descended into a state of violence, with fighting escalating and more and more people becoming IDPs.

About 40 ethnic Ta’ang have disappeared in Namtu since fighting broke out between the TNLA and the RCSS in the region in 2016. The families’ victims have no ideas where their loved ones are. Local Ta’ang people accuse the RCSS of killing them. Otherwise, those persons would have come back to their families, they say. But the families have not been able to solve the killings.

Let me describe one more type of ongoing rights abuse. If you have a strong armed force, you would not have a problem fighting back against the Myanmar Army. So, firstly you have to recruit more troops from among your people, then build up a strong armed force. This is the idea that ethnic armed groups have in Kachin and Shan states.

Forcing someone to join your armed group is a human rights violation, according to international law. But some ethnic armed leaders say they have a duty to protect their people. If you do not protect your ethnic group from the Myanmar military, they say, it will disappear soon.

So, youths have come to wonder whether they should join their ethnicity’s armed group or try to find an income for their families.  Many people do not want to serve in ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), as they do not like war. But when your family members are recruited, you have to keep silent about it. If not, you will be accused by nationalists of betraying your people. Many people dare not say so to the media, but they hate the words “You have a duty to protect your people.”

There is daily fighting day between the Myanmar Army and ethnic rebels in northern Shan. Rival ethnic armed groups are also fighting every day. So, northern Shan State has no peace, no days on which local people can travel freely, or grow food freely. Local people are recruited into their ethnic armed forces sometimes despite not wanting to join the fighting.

Northern Shan State has become a war zone where local people are forced to flee almost every day. Buddhist monasteries are meant as places where people go to pray and meditate. However, they have become IDP camps. The same goes for Christian churches, where many Kachin IDPs have taken refuge. Meanwhile, 2,000 IDPs in Hsipaw have fled fighting in Namtu and Hsipaw townships.

Tatmadaw plays EAOs off against each other

All ethnic armed groups have been warned to remain within their bases since Feb. 12, according to an order from the Myanmar Army. If not, the Army said it would take action against those armed groups who fail to heed the order.

However, the RCSS continues to be active in Hsipaw and Namtu townships, despite being based in Loi Tai Lang, in southern Shan State. The Myanmar Army has not said anything to the RCSS despite the deadline having passed already.

Before the RCSS arrived in northern Shan State, the TNLA and Shan State Progress Party (SSPP) only fought the Myanmar Army, and conditions in the region weren’t as bad as they are today. The RCSS moved into northern Shan State after signing the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement in 2015.

The TNLA has clashed over 100 times with the RCSS, according to its annual report—fewer than with the Myanmar Army. Sometimes, the TNLA is joined by the SSPP in attacking the RCSS.

As a joint force, the TNLA and SSPP continue to fight the RCSS with the intention of kicking it out of northern Shan State. Both armed groups said that the Myanmar Army backs the RCSS in the fighting—if it did not, they say, the RCSS would have to leave northern Shan.

In the latest example, Major Sai Than Aung of the SSPP told The Irrawaddy that his troops spent two days fighting against the Myanmar Army in Hsipaw Township on March 9 and 10. One local man was killed and two were wounded, he said.

The Myanmar Army (or Tatmadaw) intensified its attacks, using helicopters on March 10, he said. He said the incident began when tensions heightened between the two Shan groups over an apparent RCSS plan to attack an SSPP base.

The Myanmar Army secretly entered the area with the help of the RCSS, he said.

Brigadier-General Tar Phone Kyaw from the TNLA told of a similar incident where a joint force attacked the RCSS in Pan Loa village, Kyaukme Township. That fighting has been ongoing for almost a week. When the RCSS left the village, the Myanmar Army occupied it, he said.

The RCSS consistently denies accusations from the TNLA and SSPP that it cooperates militarily with the Myanmar Army.