Myanmar’s military launched an attack against a group of ethnic insurgents in the country’s eastern Shan state on Tuesday, according to a rebel spokesman who said the move was retribution for refusing to sign a nationwide cease-fire agreement the government hopes to conclude later this month.
The fighting erupted near Loilen district’s Monghsu township headquarters of the Shan State Army-North (SSA-N)—the armed wing of the Shan State Progressive Party (SSPP)—causing Shan residents of five area villages to flee to safety, SSPP spokesman Lt-Col Sai La told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“About 300 government troops from the Middle Eastern Command [in the state capital Taunggyi] attacked us at around 8:40 a.m. near Monghsu and continued firing on us throughout the day,” he said.
“We are still unsure whether anyone has been killed or injured on either side.”
Sai La said the base that came under attack was on the front line of a route to the SSA-N headquarters in Wan Hai village, adding that government troops had remained in the area until Tuesday afternoon.
The clash is the first since the military shelled areas under rebel control near Wan Hai on Aug. 7, and Sai La told RFA he believed it was in retribution for the SSA-N’s decision not to join a nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA) the government hopes to conclude in a signing ceremony set for Oct. 15.
“The SSPP/SSA-N didn’t attend the Oct. 4 meeting between [government negotiator] Minister Aung Min and the ethnic armed groups [at which the signing date was set],” he said.
“I think this attack by the government is a threat, warning us to sign the NCA.”
President Thein Sein’s government has been pushing for the NCA to be signed ahead of general elections on Nov. 8 as part of a bid to end decades of civil war and pave the way for political dialogue.
The government has extended an offer to sign the accord to 15 armed ethnic groups, but at a meeting last month in Chiang Mai, Thailand, only seven of the 19 groups in attendance agreed to ink the deal because of the government’s refusal to make the NCA all-inclusive.
Three groups—the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and Arakan Army (AA)—are still engaged in fighting with government troops and have been excluded from the NCA.
According to Sai La, the SSA-N is waiting for the government to soften its stance before it agrees to the pact.
“If every armed group is permitted to sign the NCA, we will definitely do it as well,” he said.
The SSA-N has had a bilateral cease-fire agreement in place with the government since 2012—a year after two of its three brigades agreed to become part of a pro-government Border Guard Force.
According to The Irrawaddy online journal, the rebel group says it has fought with government troops on more than 100 occasions since then and lost five base camps to the military.
Warning against campaigning
In mid-September, the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) warned political parties against campaigning in several townships in Loilen after areas under the control of its armed wing—the Shan State Army-South (SSA-S)—came under attack by government troops.
The RCSS claimed that at least eight firefights had taken place in SSA-controlled areas since August, leaving some 20 government troops and five rebel soldiers dead, and urged parties to halt campaign activities in the region amid the escalating clashes.
It also alleged that the military had committed “human rights violations” in the region, including the arrest, beating, and shooting of civilians.
Last week, the RCSS—which has been named as a possible signatory to the NCA, but has yet to commit to the accord—lifted its warning against campaigning in the district.
On Tuesday, Sai Kyaw Hla, the secretary of the Shan Nationalities Development Party (SNDP), which is contesting most constituencies in Shan state, told The Irrawaddy journal that if fighting continues in Loilen, his party will have to reevaluate its plans to campaign in the area.
“As there is a lack of access to communication in these areas, we have not heard about [Tuesday’s] fighting,” he told the journal.
“But we planned to go there to campaign this week—we will have to reconsider.”
Reported by Kyaw Thu for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.