The United Wa State Army (UWSA) and the Mongla Army have denied allegations by Myanmar’s military that they are helping ethnic Kokang rebels fight government troops in Shan state, where clashes have displaced tens of thousands of people in recent weeks.
UWSA spokesman Aung Myint said Friday that his group and the Mongla Army sent a joint letter to President Thein Sein, dated Feb. 26, rejecting claims they were helping the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) rebels retake Shan state’s Kokang self-administered zone, which they had controlled until 2009.
Aung Myint said the letter also refuted claims by the military that the UWSA had supplied weapons to the MNDAA, led by ethnic Chinese commander Peng Jiasheng.
“The military has accused us of helping the MNDAA fight them, but we totally denied that accusation in the letter,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service, adding that since signing a bilateral cease-fire agreement with the government in 1989 “we have always advocated solving ethnic problems through peaceful means.”
“If someone said [the UWSA is] involved in the fighting against the Myanmar army, we will not accept this accusation. We have decided to work until we get peace and … we expressed these attitudes in the letter to the president, after we discussed it with the Mongla Army.”
Last week, Myanmar Army’s Office of the Commander-in-Chief Lt. Gen. Mya Htun Oo said Kokang rebels under the MNDAA were using “Chinese mercenaries,” along with soldiers from other armed ethnic groups in Myanmar, including the Wa and Mongla Armies, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the Arakan Army, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Shan State Army-North (SSA-N).
Aung Myint said Thursday’s letter had been sent to Thein Sein through the vice chairman of the government’s Union Peace Working Committee (UPWC), Thein Zaw, and also called for a meeting with the president.
While the Wa spokesman said the UWSA had not supplied weapons to the MNDAA, he did not rule out the possibility that the MNDAA was using weapons produced by his group in its fight for Kokang.
“I want to say it’s impossible, but our weapons could have been traded to any group by someone who is involved in weapons trafficking,” he said, adding that the UWSA “don’t have any relationship or any contact with the MNDAA.”
Aung Myint also urged the military to end speculation that Chinese nationals were involved in the fighting, saying it misrepresented the Kokang as tied to China, when they are an ethnic minority of Myanmar.
“The Kokang are an ethnic group as well. People say the Kokang people speak a Chinese language, but they are speaking their own language,” he said.
Aung Myint said the current fighting in Kokang was “having some effect” on national sovereignty along the border areas of Shan state, though “there are many opinions about the conflict.”
“We are also waiting to see what will happen next, but I think the outcome depends on how the government and military tries to solve the dispute.”
Ties to China
The ethnic Chinese Kokang and the Wa and Mongla ethnic minorities live in a mountainous region on Myanmar’s border with China and have strong cultural links with the country.
Their armed groups made up most of the China-backed Communist Party of Burma, before it collapsed in 1989 and splintered into various ethnic armies that signed cease-fire agreements with Myanmar’s former junta, which granted them a degree of autonomy.
According to the Irrawaddy online journal, reports in state media and remarks by army and government officials suggesting Chinese involvement in Kokang in recent weeks have successfully swayed opinion among the Burmese-majority public in favor of the military, despite their ruthless reputation during decades of junta rule.
The Wa—long accused of extensive drug and weapons trafficking—have emerged as the most powerful rebel army in Myanmar with an estimated 20,000 fighters and sophisticated Chinese weaponry, including armored personnel carriers, surface-to-air missiles and helicopters, according to some reports.
The UWSA has had a ceasefire with the government in past decades, but the issue of autonomy for the Wa region has yet to be resolved.
The MNDAA cease-fire agreement faltered in 2009 when armed groups came under pressure to transform into a paramilitary Border Guard Force under the control of Myanmar’s military—a move the MNDAA resisted.
Also on Friday, two other groups of ethnic rebels—the TNLA and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA)—clashed with government troops as tensions continued to rise in the Kokang region.
According to Col. Ta Phone Kyaw of the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, several days of fighting escalated Friday after TNLA soldiers destroyed opium fields two days earlier near the Pansai township police station, which he said were owned by a local resident with close ties to the military.
“We have been fighting with the army for two to three days, but today’s clashes in Nanhkan township have been the worst,” he told RFA, adding that government troops had “attacked with artillery shells.”
Ta Phone Kyaw’s claims about the opium fields could not be independently confirmed.
Meanwhile, Naw Pogay of the Karen News group told RFA the DKBA had been involved in “several” skirmishes with the military on Friday.
“We can confirm that there have been several clashes between Col. Saw San Aung’s Democratic Karen Buddhist Army and government troops after contacting leaders from the DKBA, although we don’t have specific details,” he said.
President Thein Sein’s efforts at signing a nationwide cease-fire agreement between the government and an alliance of 16 ethnic groups faltered in September over key political issues, such creating a federal system, and fighting in northern Myanmar has escalated since then.
Reported by Tin Aung Khine and San Maw Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.