YANGON–With sadness, we look on at the conflict between two ethnic Shan sides using their resources and efforts against each other instead of banding together in their fight against the common enemy– the Myanmar Army.
Three civilians, including an eight-year-old boy, were killed and two others wounded–one of whom just two years old–in the most recent outbreak of fighting in northern Shan State. The Shan State Progressive Party (SSPP) accused the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) of shooting at a building where they mistakenly thought soldiers from the SSPP were staying. It turned out the house was not occupied by soldiers of the SSPP, but rather a civilian family who received the brunt of the attack.
Typically, when the Myanmar Army harms civilians, their actions are subject to an outcry of strong condemnation. Following the recent incident between the RCSS and SSPP, very few people outwardly voiced condemnation of the actions of the ethnic armed group and the tragic consequences of their mistake.
Civilians should be protected. Any armed group’s harming of civilians is an abuse of human rights and a violation of international laws. These actions could have untold negative effects, including accusations of war crimes from the international community.
Not a single rights group or political party in Shan State has issued a public statement condemning the actions of the armed group or their rights abuses. The Shan National League for Democracy (SNLD) did send a letter to the SSPP and the RCSS on Nov. 26 warning them to avoid targeting civilians.
Some Shan community leaders, including members of the SNLD, have tried to bring peace negotiations between to the two ethnic armed groups to the table. Despite representatives of the groups having met for discussions twice now, fighting in northern Shan State has only escalated.
Until a few years ago, northern Shan State had enjoyed many years of peace, with the Shan and Ta’ang ethnic groups living in one community peacefully. However, since armed conflict broke out between the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the RCSS in February 2015, the region is no longer stable.
Armed groups are the main cause of a spoiled peace and have caused hatred within communities between the Shan and Ta’ang people, with the former naturally taking the side of the RCSS and the latter supporting the TNLA. The Ta’ang and the Shan people, who have lived in harmony for a long time, have today lost trust in each other.
The recent series of conflicts in Shan State has been ongoing for four years now, at the cost of the lives of many local people, including both the Shan and Ta’ang. Local residents are the victims of war between the ethnic armed groups, and they often have to flee from fighting in or near their villages. They don’t feel safe. Having to flee from home so often, they face difficulties in keeping their farms and growing food for their survival.
When conflict arises between rival ethnic armed groups in northern Shan, even the media have a difficult time reporting it. In one recent example, a Ta’ang man was murdered in Namtu Township in October and his family accused the RCSS of killing him. Soon after, however, some nationalistic Shan people blamed me of not reporting when the TNLA killed one of their Shan people.
Originally, the TNLA was the only enemy of the RCSS and would attack them when they tried to operate in northern Shan. Nowadays, however, the RCSS have another rival armed group, the SSPP, who have formed an alliance with the TNLA and have launched joint attacks against the RCSS.
Though both the RCSS and the SSPP are Shan groups, their bases are traditionally located separately, with the RCSS based out of southern Shan State and the SSPP in the north of the State, hundreds of miles apart.
While some Shan back RCSS attacks on the TNLA, almost no one supports fighting between two Shan groups. Meanwhile, a number of nationalistic Shan continue to support the RCSS’s movement into northern Shan, despite it igniting conflict in the area.
Fighting first broke out between the RCSS and the TNLA in February 2015 in Namkham Township when the RCSS accused TNLA members of ambushing their soldiers as they returned to their southern headquarters in Loi Tai Leng after attending military training in the north.
The RCSS have always claimed the right to have military bases anywhere in Shan State where ethnic Shan people are living, but northern Shan was never their main base.
After signing the NCA in October 2015, they slowly began to occupy space in northern Shan, a move which the TNLA said was backed by Myanmar Army.
Since their formation in 2009, the TNLA have been based in northern Shan and the Myanmar Army have regularly launched military offensives against them there. However, responses of the TNLA have been sophisticated, using guerrilla strategies and killing many Myanmar Army soldiers. The TNLA believe that the Myanmar Army, after realizing their attacks against the ethnic armed group were ineffective, adopted a policy of using the RCSS as a sort of shield in a bid to reduce their own casualties.
Why has the RCSS moved into northern Shan?
There are several reasons why the RCSS moved north. Northern Shan State has become a key point for border trade between Myanmar and China, especially with China’s impending Belt and Road Initiative. China has plans to build a railway link to Myanmar. The RCSS’s business interests are a main reason behind their attacks on TNLA and SSPP forces.
As well as this, the RCSS has sights on forcing the TNLA out of northern Shan State which would give them control of more of the land. If they were to run the TNLA out of northern Shan, the RCSS could establish stronger ties with the Myanmar Army who could then act as valuable protectors of their border business affairs.
The RCSS also like the system of the United Wa State Army (UWSA) who have two bases–one at the Chinese border and another at the Thai border in southern Shan. The UWSA enjoys healthy border trade with China and resultantly, they have the largest armed force of all of Myanmar’s ethnic armed groups.
The RCSS will become friends with China if they can occupy a large base in northern Shan, and improved border trade could help them emulate the USWA’s strength.
Ultimately, the RCSS’s efforts as they try to take more control of areas in northern Shan State are likely to cause suffering and human rights abuses for more and more civilians in Shan State as a result of fighting between the rival ethnic armed groups.