Wa and Mongla reported to clash as tensions in Shan continue to escalate
PITTING allies against each other, two of Myanmar’s strongest ethnic armed organisations have reportedly engaged in military hostilities. The aggression has shocked domestic peace observers and political analysts who perceive the clashes as exposing a long-extant rift between the two pro-China factions, each operating out of their own enclaves in Shan State.
On September 28, a convoy of as many as 600 Wa soldiers crossed over the border into territory controlled by its former ally, the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA), according to Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN).
The report alleged that the Wa troops had captured two mountain outposts – Loi Kiuhsai and Loi Hsarm Hsoom – as well as a strategic border checkpoint in the Mongla territory, and then arrested more than 150 guards. The detained soldiers were later released.
The United Wa State Army (UWSA) has an estimated strength of nearly 20,000 fighters, whereas the Mongla’s NDAA has an estimated strength of 3000 fighters, according to the Myanmar Peace Monitor.
“The Mongla’s demand for autonomy for the Arkhar ethnic people, Mongla leader Sai Lin’s frequent visits to Nay Pyi Taw and most recently issues at the 21st-century Panglong Conference, were probably the underlying causes of the outbreak of clashes,” U Khun Sai, a member of the Pyidaungsu Institute and an adviser to the Restoration Council of Shan State, told the Shan Herald Agency for News.
At the Panglong Conference last month – the new government’s first major foray into the peace process – the UWSA sent a low-level delegation to attend after much lobbying from government negotiators. By contrast, NDAA’s leader, Sai Lin, attended.
Sources close to the two ethnic armed groups said the NDAA leader rejected the UWSA’s suggestion to likewise send a low-ranking delegation to the conference as a way to tread into the negotiations slowly.
On the second day of the conference, the Wa delegates pulled out and left the capital after a perceived sleight caused by registration confusion. The UWSA delegation claimed the government had unfairly sidelined them, and did not respond to attempts to entreat them to return.
U Than Soe Naing, a political commentator, said the walkout was precipitated by earlier shortcomings.
“The Wa leaders asked State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to include all armed ethnic groups at the conference. However, the Tatmadaw did not agree … and hence the UWSA sent a low-level delegation and was not so committed to participating in the conference,” he said.
Neither of the ethnic armed groups signed last year’s nationwide ceasefire agreement.
The UWSA publicly said last year, after being invited to the signing by then-president U Thein Sein, that since it has a decades-long bilateral ceasefire agreement, it does not need the NCA. Instead, the UWSA lobbied the government to upgrade its autonomous zone into an ethnic state.
While the UWSA has kept its distance from Nay Pyi Taw and the government-initiated peace process, the NDAA has walked a more neutral line and continues to keep diplomatic channels with Nay Pyi Taw open.
U Than Soe Naing suggested recent Tatmadaw aggression against other ethnic armed groups in Shan State was aimed at intimidating the larger groups and especially the UWSA “because it exerts an influence over the three allies that make up the northern alliance”.
The “northern alliance” – the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, the Arakan Army and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army – has built a close relationship with the UWSA over the last year. The Tatmadaw has frozen the northern alliance out of the peace process.
Political analysts have said that as the peace process advances, military pressure is being applied so the armed groups buckle and sign the NCA.
But the Mongla claimed the recent “invasion” had been misunderstood, and was instead a matter of Wa troops simply carrying out military exercises.
“During the military exercises, some UWSA troops misunderstood the instructions and that led to negative consequences. The leaders from Special Region 4 [Mongla territory] met with the Wa leaders to discuss the matter on the morning of October 1. Corrections have been arranged,” the Mongla said in a statement, adding that the Mongla territory had returned to “normal” circumstances.
SHAN also reported that the deputy commander-in-chief of the UWSA, Zhao Zhongdang, is headed to the Mongla region for talks with NDAA leaders.
No spokespersons for either ethnic armed group could be reached for comment yesterday.
“Unless the three groups [of the northern alliance] are brought into the fold of the peace process, northern Shan State is not going be in a stable situation,” said U Than Soe Naing.
Delegates representing the United Wa State Army attend the 21st-century Panglong Conference on August 31.