Government troops launched a fresh attack on rebel soldiers in eastern Myanmar’s Shan state Wednesday as an election official announced that polling stations may be relocated due to safety concerns in the area ahead of a vote scheduled for early next 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 villagers to flee to safety, SSPP spokesman Lt-Col Sai La told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“Government troops attacked us at around 11:00 a.m. this morning,” he said.
“The fighting took place in Monghsu township, about 10 miles (16 kilometers) away from our headquarters in Wan Hai.”
It was not immediately clear if either side had suffered any casualties from the fighting.
Two Buddhist novices around the age of 14, a 12-year-old girl and a woman in her mid-50s were injured Wednesday when a roadside bomb exploded in Mongshu near a Shan culture center and a Buddhist monastery, the Irrawaddy online journal reported, citing a resident of the township named Sai Mon.
It was unclear whether the explosion was related to the Wednesday’s clash, though Sai Mon told the Irrawaddy that “whenever there is fighting in other areas, bombs always go off in our town.”
The SSA-N accuses Myanmar’s military of initiating an offensive against their group on Oct. 6, and fighting in the region has left around 3,000 residents displaced since then.
The SSPP was among several armed ethnic groups that opted out of a so-called nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA) with the government on Oct. 15, and has suggested the offensive was part of a bid by the military to force it to sign the peace deal.
Reports of ongoing fighting in Shan and Kachin states has drawn condemnation from the international community, including the U.S. State Department, which said in a statement after the signing ceremony that all groups should be allowed to pursue peace through dialogue “without exception or threat of penalty.”
On Wednesday, Sai La told RFA that the SSPP had sent a letter to ministers Aung Min and Soe Thein, who negotiate for the government, to inform them of the ongoing offensive, and said an SSPP official met with the two in the capital Naypyidaw on Oct. 16.
“[The military] accused us of blocking their path in the region, attacking government troop camps and building new camps outside of our territory, but these claims are not true,” he said.
“We haven’t ventured outside of our territory—we’ve been here since 1989, when we signed a cease-fire with former general Khin Nyunt [then-secretary of Myanmar’s former military regime].”
Sai La said the SSPP wants to know if it will still be able to join political dialogue between armed ethnic groups and the government as an observer after it refused to sign the NCA, and questioned whether the government plans to “only solve political problems with military might.”
According to the spokesman, five SSA-N soldiers have been killed and around 15 injured since the military launched its offensive on Oct. 6. He said the fighting had “killed more government troops than our soldiers.”
On Tuesday, the official Global New Light of Myanmar reported that government troops had clashed with the SSA-N a total of 37 times from Oct. 6-19 after the latter refused to withdraw from positions outside of its headquarters. It said seven rebels had been killed in the clashes, while the military had suffered “an unspecified number of casualties.”
Threat to polls
Reports of the ongoing clashes Wednesday came as Than Lwin Myint, deputy director of the Shan State Election Commission, told RFA that polling stations may be relocated from conflict areas in northern Shan state ahead of general elections scheduled for Nov. 8.
Than Lwin Myint said election officials are monitoring the fighting in Monghsu, which is home to 50,000 eligible voters, and will be forced to relocate the township’s 34 polling stations if the clashes continue.
“We have submitted our recommendation to deploy military security forces if we don’t have enough police personnel on Election Day,” he said.
“But if the fighting continues, the polling stations will definitely be moved out of the township to nearby safer locations.”
According to the Myanmar Times, the central Union Election Commission (UEC) pledged that voting will go ahead next month in areas under the control of the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS)—another ethnic Shan group which was among the eight ethnic armies to sign the NCA last week.
The announcement followed a meeting between UEC members and representatives of the eight signatories in the commercial capital Yangon Tuesday to discuss the elections, the report said.
Fighting between government troops and the RCSS’s armed wing, the Shan State Army-South (SSA-S), erupted last month, prompting the Shan group to warn political parties against campaigning in the 16 townships where is was active.
Last week, the UEC announced a list of around 600 villages where voting has been cancelled due to conflict—most of which are located in Shan and Kachin states.
Reported by Nay Rein Kyaw and Kyaw Thu for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.