Military clashes with ethnic cease-fire signatory in Myanmar’s Shan state

The two sides characterized the incident as a ‘misunderstanding’ over an arms delivery.
By RFA Burmese
2024.01.22
Military clashes with ethnic cease-fire signatory in Myanmar’s Shan state Buildings burn in Sam Hpu village in Ho Pong township of southern Shan state after a skirmish between Pa-O National Liberation Army fighters and Myanmar army troops, Jan. 21, 2024.
Citizen journalist

Clashes broke out Sunday in Myanmar’s Shan state between the military and an ethnic army signatory of a national cease-fire, leading to the arrest of rebel officers, but both sides were quick to downplay the incident as a “misunderstanding.”

The fighting demonstrates how fragile treaties between the junta and Myanmar’s myriad ethnic armies can be in the aftermath of the military’s February 2021 coup d’etat and its subsequent nationwide offensive to solidify its hold on power.

The incident was sparked when the military carried out an inspection of five Pa-O National Liberation Organization, or PNLO, vehicles laden with arms and ammunition as they entered Ho Pong township’s Sam Hpu village, PNLO Patron Col. Khun Okka told RFA Burmese.

The military initiated the attack because troops believed the supplies were being delivered to anti-junta forces, he said, adding that two brief skirmishes took place “while senior officials were in talks,” and the military arrested three PNLO officers, who were released Monday morning.

Khun Okka said that PNLO fighters believed that the military intended to confiscate the vehicles, so “our forces destroyed the military equipment to prevent its seizure by junta troops.”

He reiterated that the arms and ammunition “were for our armed group” and dismissed any suggestion that the PNLO was acting as an “arms broker.”

ENG_BUR_PNLAFighting_01222024.2.jpg
Members of Pa-O National Liberation Army are seen in November 2023. (PNLA News & Information Department)

Khun Okka said the incident would have no impact on the PNLO’s support for the nationwide cease-fire agreement, or NCA, which it signed along with seven other armed ethnic groups and the national military in 2015.

He said the PNLO’s strategies for 2024 include avoiding conflict except in self-defense, refraining from making enemies with any party, seeking public support, protecting civilians, and strengthening its capabilities with arms and ammunition.

The junta confirmed the clashes in a statement issued through its broadcast channel MRTV.

“In consideration of peace, security forces managed to stop the fighting after negotiations, in line with the provisions of the NCA,” it said. “However, people in PNLO uniforms set fire to the vehicles … during the negotiations. Explosions of arms and ammunition on the trucks caused a fire which then spread to Sam Hpu village, destroying 27 houses.”

Observers of Myanmar’s ethnic affairs noted that as NCA signatories outline their stance amid the wider war in Myanmar, they are increasingly coming up against political and military conflicts.

One observer, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to security concerns, added that many ethnic Pa-Os are taking part in the resistance to the military regime, and suggested that the weekend incident “will change their politics and stance on the NCA.”

“The recent situation will have some impact on the PNLO and I wonder if the PNLO might turn to confrontation,” he said. “Moreover, the junta is likely to put additional pressure on [the PNLO].”

The observer added that as the NCA has not led to a lasting peace, relations between the junta and the signatories have gradually worsened.

Translated by Aung Naing. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.

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