Burma’s new civilian government inherits ongoing conflict in Shan State

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As Burma’s first civilian government in half a century took office this week, conflict remains ongoing in the country’s largest state. Burma’s military known as the Tatmadaw, has clashed over the past year with at least six different armed groups in northern Shan State. The day that President Htin Kyaw took office, army troops were exchanging fire with the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), a group that didn’t even exist when Thein Sein became president in early 2011.

In recent months tensions between Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAO) that singed the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) and those that haven’t in the state, have been very noticeable. Not only is the Tatmadaw, who have been engaged in a major troop build-up in northern Shan State, clashing with ethnic armed groups but some of the non ethnic armed groups are clashing with each other.

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A recent report released by Burma Partnership, an NGO led by long time activist Khin Ohmar, described the situation in the state as very troubling. “A worrying development since the signing of the NCA has been the increased division between signatory and non-signatory EAOs, a situation that is worryingly familiar given the long history of ‘divide-and rule’ tactics employed by Burma’s successive military regimes when dealing with EAOs. This is manifest in the reported clashes between the NCA signatory, the RCSS, alongside Burma Army troops, and the nonsignatory, the TNLA, in northern Shan State,” reads the report issued in February.

Reached for comment, Lt. Gen. Yawd Serk, the leader of the RCSS/SSA described the current situation in northern Shan State as one that is a result of years of misrule by the central government. “They say that our nationalities should be united not to separate,” Lt. Gen. Yawd Serk said. “They worry that the country is too separate but what they are doing is the complete opposite. They use armed forces to offend other groups. Therefore, how can the country be united when they keep separating it,” he said

“If they really want the country to be united, the participation of civilians is needed,” Lt. Gen. Yawd Serk added.

In many ways the clashes between the TNLA and the RCSSA/SSA mirror those that took place in the late 1990’s and early 2000s when the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the country’s largest armed group attacked RCSS/SSA positions near the Thai-Burma border. An offensive that at the time was actively encouraged by the Tatmadaw.  A conflict that produced thousands of refugees being forced to flee their homes.

A heavily militarized conflict area

In the weeks leading up to the official handover of power to the NLD, the situation in northern Shan state appears to have become even more precarious with the arrival of further military reinforcements. On March 11, 2016, the TNLA’s political wing the Palaung State Liberation Front (PSLF), released a statement saying that more than 500 armed vehicles were dispatched to an area they consider their territory. These new arrivals add to an already heavily militarized situation on the ground.

According to sources in the area, there are eight Light Infantry Division (LID) forces actively operating in northern Shan State including, LID No. 11, 33, 55, 66, 77, 88, 99 and 101. The LID units, also known as Chay Myan Tat Ma or Ta Ma Kha in Burmese language, are considered to be a strategic asset of the Burma Army.

At present there are 10 LIDs and each has 10 Light Infantry Battalions (LIB) organized under three Tactical Operations that are commanded by a Colonel. They consist of three battalions each and one reserve, one Field Artillery Battalion, one Armour Squadron and other support units.

Informed sources say that the Military Operations Command (MOC) No. 1, 2, 4, 7 and 16 are now actively operating in northern Shan State. These forces also have about the same number of troops as LID.

An official from the Shan State Progress Party/Shan State Army (SSPP/SSA), who wishes to remain anonymous, estimated that there are about 100 to 150 troops in each LIB stationed in Shan state. He added that one LID has about 1,000 to 1,500 armed troops.

Other military units have also been operating in northern Shan State including the Northeastern Operations Command, also called Bureau of Special Operations, which has 47 battalions.

The headquarters of the Artillery Operations Command No. 902, which has 13 units actively operating in northern Shan State, is based in Lashio Township. The Artillery Operations Command is equipped with heavy weapons that include Light Field artillery battalion equipped with 105 mm, 76 mm, 75 mm howitzers, field guns and mountain guns. Army units tasked with using multiple rocket launchers are equipped with 122 mm self-propelled and towed launchers, both of which can be deployed very quickly.

In addition to their frequent clashes with the TNLA and the SSPP/SSA, Tatmadaw troops in northern Shan State have also recently clashed with troops from the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Kokang based Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and their allies from the Arakan Army (AA).

Burma Partnership notes that the upheaval created by the ongoing clashes has been very difficult for civilians. “Even now in the fifth year of the peace process, sexual violence against ethnic women continues to be used as a weapon of war by the Burma Army with impunity,” reads the Burma Partner report.

“The number of IDPs as a result of armed conflict increased up to 662,000 in 2015 due to the 70,000 fleeing the war against the MNDAA and on-going conflict with the KIA”, said Burma Partnership.

In early March, the Irrawaddy news site reported that a resident of Pang Hat had witnessed the Burma Army Brigade No. 11 detaining 46 men. However, those who were linked to a local militia were released on the same day. But, thirteen men were still missing until February 26, when nine were released.

On March 11, the TNLA also reported that the Burma Army used heavy weapons including 80 mm, 105 mm and 120 mm shells to attack villages in their area. Military soldiers also arrested civilians, robbing, destroying and burning down their homes.

Many of the Burma forces now stationed in Shan State previously operated in other places across Burma. LID No. 11 was in Yangon Region’s Inndine Township, LID No. 33 was in Sagaing Region, LID No. 55 was in southern Shan State’s Kalaw Township, LID No. 66 and 88 were in Magway Region, LID No. 77 was in Bago Division, LID No. 99 was in Meiktila and LID No. 101 was in Magway Region’s Pakokku Township.

Military Operations Command (MOC) No.2 was originally stationed in southern Shan State’s Mong Nong Township, MOC No. 7 was in southern Shan State’s Mong Pai Township. These units are also now based in northern Shan State.

BY Staff / Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN)

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