Loi Tai Leng, Myanmar – Carved into the mountains along Thailand‘s northwestern frontier, Loi Tai Leng is the isolated headquarters of the Shan State Army South (SSA-S) – one of the largest ethnic armies in Myanmar‘s ongoing civil war.
“We’re fighting for freedom,” 20-year-old soldier Sai Leng says, taking in the emerald expanse of the Shan Hills surrounding the army base. “We want to take our country back.”
Over one charred ridge lies another armed group infamous for its involvement in the region’s narcotics trade. Closer by, an outpost flying the Thai flag looms above the simple homes of SSA-S military families and Shan people who have fled war-scarred villages. Towns under the control of Myanmar’s government sit past a tangle of mountain wilderness dotted with hamlets, landmines, and SSA-S patrols.
Like many other armed ethnic groups, the SSA-S signed a ceasefire after Myanmar transitioned to a nominally civilian government in 2011. Deadly clashes between SSA-S forces and the Myanmar military, however, continue despite the agreement. Accordingly, Myanmar’s government is pushing the country’s armed ethnic groups to sign a new nationwide ceasefire this year.
“When you see the picture that is being painted internationally, Myanmar seems to be opening up and becoming a democracy,” says Lieutenant Colonel Yawd Muang, a former Buddhist monk who now heads the SSA-S’ Department of Foreign Affairs. “ASEAN members and the international community, however, need to know that there are two sides to this story: the government one, and the ethnic one.”
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The Shans are Tai-speaking Theravada Buddhists who share a common origin with the people of Laos and Thailand. Numbering about five million in Myanmar, they are the country’s second-largest ethnic group after the Bamar. Most Shans live in their eponymous Shan State, an area rich in teak, gold, gemstones and opium.
Once governed by a clutch of principalities, the Shans lost control over their lands following Myanmar’s 1962 coup d’etat, which destroyed the country’s federal union in favour of centralised – and brutal – military rule. Following the coup, many Shans fled to Thailand. Some, however, took to the mountains to join and fight other ethnic groups in what has become the world’s longest-running civil war.
Commanding an estimated force of 6,000 soldiers (the group refuses to divulge its exact numbers), the SSA-S and its political wing, the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), operate from six bases hugging the Thai border as well as a handful of small towns within Shan State. They are believed to receive significant support from their ethnolinguistically similar neighbours in Thailand. There is also an entirely distinct Shan State Army North.
On February 7, thousands of Shans from Myanmar and Thailand flocked to the normally quiet base to celebrate Shan National Day. The event was meant to show Shan unity and might. Celebrations included military drills, marches, concerts and lengthy speeches.
“We are chained by the rulers of this country,” SSA-S leader Lieutenant General Yawd Serk told rigid lines of soldiers on Shan National Day. “We have lived under the English, the Japanese – and now the Burmese too.”
He spoke from a stage filled with Shan dignitaries and other ethnic leaders. Myanmar’s president and chief peace negotiator both declined invitations to attend. “The future of Shan State is in the people’s hands,” the chairman declared. “If we want rights and democracy, we must seize them!“
To many Shans, Loi Tai Leng – which translates to “The Mountain of Shan Light” – is something of a haven. Sai Muang, 42, travelled for four days to be here for the celebrations. His route was circuitous, and he had to lie at the military checkpoints he passed along the way. Upon return to his village, he risks fines or imprisonment under Myanmar’s draconian Unlawful Associations Act.
To Muang, the risk was worth it. “At home, we’re not free to speak like we are here,” Muang says. “All of the Shan people’s hearts are with this army.”
Both visitors and residents of the base claimed that rapes, land seizures, and arrests are still happening at the hands of the Myanmar army. Gau Li Ya, for example, travelled to the base from northern Shan State. The 46-year-old farmer alleges that the Myanmar army stole 20 acres of land from his community in 2012, a year after the ceasefire. He came to Loi Tai Leng for a political and legal training programme to help him reclaim his land. When asked how the country’s recent democratic reforms have affected his community, he said, “Nothing has changed in Shan State.”
‘Nothing holding the army to account’
Seated in his modest mountaintop villa, Yawd Serk’s nationalistic rhetoric is replaced with world-weary pragmatism. The 55-year-old former guerrilla has led the SSA-S since it broke away from another group in 1996.
Right now, there is basically nothing holding the Burma army to account. The Burma army doesn't see itself benefiting from the peace process.
“The ceasefire was signed between the RCSS and the government, but the clashes are between our troops and the Burmese military,” the SSA-S chairman says. “Either there is a genuine split between the government and military, or such a perceived split is actually a strategic effort designed to confuse us.”
Yawd Serk claims that Myanmar’s army is venturing into SSA-S patrol areas, thus instigating continued fighting. Lives have been lost on both sides. A Myanmar government representative did not reply to a request for comment.
According to Paul Keenan, a senior researcher at the Burma Centre for Ethnic Studies and the author of By Force of Arms: Armed Ethnic Groups in Burma, the split between Myanmar’s government and military is very real.
“Right now, there is basically nothing holding the Burma army to account,” says Keenan, who has been studying Myanmar’s ethnic groups for the past 15 years. “The Burma army doesn’t see itself benefiting from the peace process… [and] the longer it takes to find agreement on any side of the armed ethnic struggle, the stronger the Burma army becomes, the weaker the Burmese government becomes – and the harder it will be to achieve real compromise in the future.”
A tough position
The Myanmar government’s push for a new nationwide ceasefire will not be easy. There are more than 18 armed groups (as well as many smaller militias) in the country, and if increasingly intense fighting in places like Myanmar’s Kachin State is any indicator, the Myanmar military will continue to stray from the government’s reformist agenda – an agenda that the SSA-S is attempting to mirror by ending conscription, hosting leadership conferences, and working to eradicate poppy production in Shan State.
The government’s position also places groups like the SSA-S in a difficult position. Either they can put down their arms and accept less than the full autonomy they have fought for, or they can keep fighting in the face of international condemnation and economic isolation at a time when the world is eager to open up places like resource-rich Shan State for business.
Yawd Serk says he trusts Myanmar’s president – a trust not shared by many of his war-weary countrymen.
“We believe that President Thein Sein is an honest person… and we also want peace, so we are continuing to work on an agreement with him,” the chairman says. “We are now asking for self-determination – that is, we would like to join a federal union.”
After decades of violence and betrayals, however, Yawd Serk offers no prognosis for the future. “Right now, uncertainty is the name of the day.”