UPDATED at 10:08 A.M. EST on 2019-03-29
Fresh fighting that erupted on Wednesday between Myanmar forces and two ethnic armies in violence-ridden northern Shan state’s Namtu township has displaced more than 200 villagers and damaged buildings, local residents said.
Government soldiers clashed with an alliance of troops from the Shan State Progressive Party (SSPP)/Shan State Army-North and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) between the township’s Mong Mu and San Kha villages, causing residents to flee to safety, they said.
“I felt speechless and overwhelmed. I suffered a lot,” one displaced woman told RFA.
“I’m afraid, and I can’t imagine going back there again,” she said. “I'm afraid of heavy artillery fire.”
One artillery shell landed in Mong Mu village during the fighting, damaging two houses and a warehouse, residents said, adding that it was not clear which side fired it.
“[I was] still in the village when it happened, living at a relative’s house as a displaced person,” said the owner of one of the damaged homes. “I then got a call and learned that my house was on fire, so I rushed there. An artillery shell caused the fire.”
Residents reported that military helicopters fired in the area between the two villages on Thursday, and that gunfire from the Myanmar Army’s Namtu-based troops continued until noon.
A reporter with RFA’s Myanmar Service saw soldiers from the Myanmar Army and another ethnic armed group, the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), pass through Mong Mu village on Thursday morning, while rebel troops staked out positions around the San Kha and nearby Lon Mate village areas.
TNLA spokesman Major Tar Aik Kyaw said that the Myanmar Army’s Light Infantry Battalions 256 and 252 under the command of Brigade 101 launched the attack, and that government forces used a helicopter to continue the attack on Thursday, while Namtu-based troops provided artillery support.
He also denied having any knowledge about the arrest of a local administrator, who residents said had been detained during the conflict, and suggested that civilians address any complaints to the TNLA’s public relations team.
SSPP representatives were unavailable for comment on the report of the administrator’s arrest.
Colonel Win Htut Lay of the Myanmar Army’s Northeast Military Command was also unavailable for comment on the battle.
Nearly 45,000 people have been temporarily displaced by fighting in 21 townships in northern Shan and neighboring Kachin states since January 2018, according to an update issued this February by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
More than 106,000 people have taken shelter in 171 displacement camps in both states since 2011, the update said.
Fighting over territorial grabs
The fresh hostilities fly in the face of a unilateral four-month cease-fire that the Myanmar military declared in five of its command regions, including Shan state, which has been under armed conflict for much of Myanmar’s 70 years of independence from Britain.
The TNLA has been fighting the Myanmar Army and the RCSS in the region since late November 2015, about six weeks after the signing of a nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA) between the government and some of the country’s more than 20 ethnic armed groups.
The RCSS is one of 10 signatories of the NCA, while the TNLA has been excluded from signing the accord because of its ongoing hostilities with Myanmar’s armed forces.
The RCSS has also fought the SSPP for more than a year over territory in northern Shan state’s Namtu, Hsipaw (also known as Thibaw), and Kyaukme townships, resulting in several civilian deaths. The SSPP has not signed the NCA.
Fighting in Namtu and Hsipaw recently displaced more than 2,000 civilians who fled their homes, the online journal The Irrawaddy reported.
The RCSS issued a statement on March 21, calling for a cease-fire with the SSPP, but not the TNLA, which has fought the RCSS since 2016.
Naga leaders charged
In a separate development, police in the town of Hkamti in northwestern Myanmar’s Sagaing region charged five leaders of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K) with violating Myanmar’s Unlawful Associations Act for allegedly cooperating with Assam rebels from India, an ethnic Naga civil society member who spoke on condition of anonymity told RFA.
The armed group operates mainly in northeast India, but seeks to establish a sovereign state for all Naga-inhabited areas both in India and in northern Myanmar.
The NSCN-K leaders have been charged under Section 17 (1) of the act, which carries a prison sentence for those who interact with illegal groups such as rebel organizations, for allegedly sheltering Assam rebels and letting them operate military training schools.
They are being held at the Myoma Police Station in Hkamti, according to the civil society member.
The arrests took place in Hkamti on March 9, when 10 NSCN-K representatives met with the military to discuss peace in Myanmar’s Naga region, the source said.
Police arrested NSCN-K Peace Committee chairman An Kam, vice chairman Kyaw Wan Sein, official Saw Htein, Major General Aung Mai, and Lieutenant Colonel Aung Sai, and later released the five others, he said.
Hkamti township police officer Myint Lay filed a case against the five on March 26, he added.
RFA was unable to reach the local Myoma Police Station for comment on Thursday.
‘They violated pre-peace agreements’
A statement issued earlier this week by the Myanmar military said it had found evidence that Assam insurgents who operate in northeast India tried to set up a military training camp in Myanmar by pretending to be members of the NSCN-K.
Based on information that the Assam separatists were operating near an NSCN-K camp in Sagaing’s Takar village, Myanmar forces seized some NSCN-K posts, the statement said.
Colonel Than Naing, spokesperson of Northwest Military Command, accused the NSCN-K of violating the terms of a cease-fire agreement it signed with the Sagaing regional government in April 2012.
“They violated pre-peace agreements with the regional government,” he told RFA. “They had collaborated with the Assam rebel group in their military movements. That’s why we took action against them.”
A military raid on NSCN-K headquarters in the village of Ta Ga in Nanyun township in late January caused most of the armed group’s troops to leave the base, though a few leaders stayed behind to try to ease the tension, The Irrawaddy reported.
The military reported that it had arrested 36 people in NSCN-K areas and discovered one body, the report said.
Sources close to the Naga organization said the NSCN-K and the government military continue to distrust each other, despite the regional truce.
“There’s already a lot of doubt and suspicion between ethnic armed groups and the government army,” said the first source, who declined to be named.
“The military detained them [NSCN-K leaders] while moves were being made to build trust with the ethnic armed groups,” he said “It makes the divide between them larger, and the peace process will become very difficult to achieve.”
A second source, who also asked to remain unnamed, confirmed that Assam soldiers were in Myanmar’s Naga Self-Administered Zone.
“Assam rebel troops are not only moving around in Naga region, but also in Tamu and Kalay,” he said. “Locals know about it. The military and the government also know about it, but what they did to the NSCN-K leaders now is like pushing them back into a corner to beat them up. It badly destroys trust.”
Naga civil society members have sent a letter to the Myanmar government’s National Reconciliation and Peace Center asking negotiators to intervene in the matter, The Irrawaddy said.
The Myanmar government wants the NSCN-K to sign the NCA, but the armed group insists on first having a pact that covers the entire Naga population in northeast India and Myanmar.
Reported by Kan Thar and Lwin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Nandar Chann and Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.