Renewed Fighting Between Myanmar Ethnic Armies Drives Villagers to City

Nearly 200 villagers displaced by repeated clashes between two rival ethnic armies in Kyaukme township in Myanmar’s northern Shan state arrived safely in Kyaukme city on Friday, where they are seeking shelter until the hostilities die down, rescue workers said.

The latest round of clashes between troops from the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), an ethnic Palaung militia, began in the township on March 9 and has escalated during the past two weeks, leaving a handful of villagers dead and wounded and forcing a total of about 1,000 residents to flee their homes.

NGOs from Kyaukme and the towns of Nongpane and Hsipaw transported the displaced villagers to safety in 13 trucks as fighting continued between Mankhauk and Manhkan villages in Mong Ngoc sub-township and Tawphai village in Kyaukme township, said rescue worker Thar Zaw.

“These people are from the village closest to the battle zone,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service about the newest group of displaced villagers. “They fled their village on foot right up to Mong Ngoc sub-township, and we fetched them from there.”

“The clashes have affected four or five villages in the area, and many of these refugees are the elderly and children,” he said.

Earlier this week, shelling from the fighting left two residents of Tawphe village dead and three injured, and forced about 500 others to flee.

On Monday, the online journal The Irrawaddy reported that the TNLA said its soldiers had killed three RCSS members and had seized some of its weapons and ammunition during hostilities along the border between Kyaukme and Namhsan townships, where the RCSS is said to be building a new base, and in Namtu township.

“Some clashes have been quite severe during the past four days,” RCSS spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Sai Oo told RFA on Thursday, adding that other forces may be assisting the TNLA in its attacks against the RCSS.

“We heard that in Pophae village, TNLA troops set fire to some houses because they were angry that Ta'ang villagers failed to report the presence of the RCSS there,” he said. “I think the TNLA has been pressured to launch these attacks considering the strength of the attackers and the type of weapons they have used against us. They could not have done it by themselves. There must be some other forces behind all this.”

Sai Oo also said the continued fighting would not resolve the conflict between the RCSS and TNLA.

“Only political dialogue will do that,” he said.

The TNLA and RCSS, the political organization that oversees the Shan State Army-South, held a preliminary meeting along the Myanmar-China border on Jan. 22 to discuss the ongoing conflict and how to resolve it. They agreed that their senior officials would continue talks to end the hostilities.

“But now because of this recent fighting, we don’t know whether they will resume as planned,” Sai Oo said.

“Innocent internally displaced persons, mostly the Ta'ang people, are suffering greatly from these clashes, and if the fighting continues against the people’s wishes, the TNLA will surely lose their support.”

Blame it on the RCSS

TNLA spokesman Major Mai Aik Kyaw told RFA that a few TNLA troops have been wounded in the latest clashes, though the militia did not have further details.

Initially, the TNLA engaged in hostilities against the Myanmar military along the border between Kyaukme and Namhsan townships and in Namtu township, but began to fight the RCSS when its troops entered TNLA-controlled territory and harassed, seized, interrogated the locals, took away some farm animals, and laid mines in the area’s outskirts, he said.

The TNLA has been fighting the Myanmar army and the RCSS in Shan state since late November 2015, about six weeks after the signing of a nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA) between the government and eight of the country’s more than 20 ethnic armed groups.

The RCSS is one of the eight original signatories to the NCA, while the TNLA was excluded from signing the accord because of its ongoing hostilities with Myanmar’s armed forces.

“The clashes began after the signing of the NCA pact when RCSS forces moved up from the south in 2015, and government troops didn't stop them,” Mai Aik Kyaw said. “They were even helping the TNLA troops' movements, and in some instances in the Namkham area shelled our forces with heavy weapons when RCSS forces suffered heavy losses.”

He went on to say that in many cases, the Myanmar army has launched offensives against the TNLA, which were followed by RCSS attacks.

“We can see the Tatmadaw [Myanmar military] is using the RCSS to weaken our forces,” he said.

Ongoing fighting has resulted in an increase in the number of internal refugees and civilian deaths in Shan and neighboring Kachin states, and has stymied the government’s efforts to bring warring ethnic militias to the negotiating table.

The United Nations estimates that more 15,000 people, the majority of whom are women and children, remain displaced in camps or camp-like settings in Shan state after fleeing fighting that erupted in 2011, with continued sporadic hostilities between ethnic armies and the Myanmar military and different ethnic armed groups further compounding the situation.

More than 91,000 people, mostly women and children, remain displaced in neighboring Kachin State as a result of an armed conflict that restarted between government soldiers and ethnic armed groups in 2011.

Reported by Aung Theinkha and That Su Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.