Talks are aimed at ending decades of fighting in Myanmar, but some groups refuse to attend.
In a small farming village just outside the city of Lashio in Myanmar’s northern Shan State, Daw Mar Chon, an ethnic Kachin mother of two boys, tends to her buffalo after a day spent in the cornfields.
But for the last two and a half months, her mind hasn’t been on the job like it used to be. Her youngest son has vanished, a suspected victim of forced recruitment by a rebel army.
“When I heard he had disappeared I started looking for him and people told me that he had been taken,” she said.
At 6.30pm on November 26, some outsiders came into the village. With little commotion, they took three young men away, including 16-year-old Khon Taung, a school student who was training to be a mechanic.
Daw Mar Chon didn’t see the incident, but afterwards she heard the kidnappers were wearing uniforms.
There are clearly suspicions in this poor village about who the men were, but the people seem too afraid to speculate or complain to authorities. They feel helpless.
One village elder told me he has since met representatives of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), but stopped short of directly blaming them.
The KIA is a large ethnic army based in Kachin State, but it also operates further south in Shan State where it is allied with the Ta’Ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), a smaller rebellion that, in its latest incarnation, took up arms against the government more than 10 years ago.
One of the TNLA’s founders is Colonel Tar Bone Kyaw, who said they don’t force people to join them.
“We don’t have that policy,” he said. “We just organise them, we just explain to them they have to come by themselves.”
Most estimates put the number of soldiers in the TNLA at around 1,500 but its leaders claim to have 5,000.
Instead of using permanent bases, they are a mobile force waging guerrilla warfare in the jungles of Myanmar’s largest state, where at least seven main groups are fighting for control of territory, natural resources and the drug trade – or simply struggling for a greater say in their own destiny.
“We are not asking for succession. We are not asking for independence,” said Colonel Tar Bone Kyaw. “We would like to build real federalism in Burma with other ethnic nationalities.”
They are joined in the remote mountain areas by countless militias who are connected to and backed by various organisations and individuals, including drug lords, businessmen and politicians.
It makes for a confused and often dangerous picture in Myanmar’s largest state but it is a scene that should be improving as the country heads towards greater democracy. Instead, there are early signs that the security situation will worsen.
In October last year, the government, made up mainly of former generals from the country’s military which had ruled the country for almost 50 years before transforming into a partly civilian government following an election in 2010, signed what it called a nationwide ceasefire deal with rebel organisations and their armies.
In reality, it was anything but “nationwide” and was dismissed by some as a last-ditch publicity stunt by the government before an election they knew they were highly unlikely to win against the National League for Democracy party, led by Aung San Suu Kyi.
Eight groups signed the deal but many others did not, including some of the largest such as the KIA, the United Wa State Army and the Shan State Army North.
Even the leaders of the largest group to sign, the Karen National Liberation Army and its political wing the Karen National Union, were in disagreement over whether they should attend the signing ceremony in the capital, Naypyidaw.
Some groups, such as the TNLA, weren’t even invited to sign, despite previously being involved in peace talks with the government, because they were still engaged in hostilities against the state.
In the weeks after the signing, fighting intensified in some areas as rebel groups accused Myanmar’s army of boosting troop numbers and moving heavy weaponry into sensitive areas.
The TNLA has increasingly been involved in clashes with the Shan State Army South or Restoration Council of Shan State, a signatory to the ceasefire agreement. TNLA leaders believe the government army is now supporting groups that signed the deal to attack those who did not, in what they allege is a divide-and-conquer strategy.
As Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD takes over the government, there may also be an attempt by the military to prove that the country needs its presence to ensure security, even though it will remain a powerful political force in its own right with control over key security ministries and veto power over changes to the constitution.
As always, it’s civilians who are suffering and will continue to do so in the future if everyone’s worst fears of a major escalation in violence are realised.
In the town of Kyaukme in Shan State, temples and monasteries are overflowing with people, mainly women and children. Thousands have driven for hours over bumpy, dusty roads from remote villages high in the hills to seek shelter and escape the fighting between the TNLA and the Shan State Army South.
“We saw people from the neighbouring village coming towards us, so we became scared and decided to leave,” said Daw Aye Mee, a woman taking refuge in Kyaukme.
Our Al Jazeera crew drove up the same long road for several hours through tea plantations, into the mountains towards the area where the fighting is taking place, and were met by village after village that had largely been abandoned.
We were eventually stopped at gunpoint by jumpy government soldiers who prevented us going any further because the fighting was continuing. They said they were there to provide security, but their presence was perhaps evidence that they were giving support to the Shan State Army South in its battles against the TNLA.
A few local men were the only residents left in the area and they too spoke of abuses by the TNLA.
“First they attacked the village, then they robbed people and they kept attacking the Shan troops,” said U Zar Lin Tha, one of the men who stayed behind.
The TNLA deny any wrongdoing and instead say they are the good guys in the region, with much of their time spent fighting the lucrative drug trade by destroying poppy fields and arresting dealers and users. Opium and methamphetamine production is thought to fund many of the armed struggles in Myanmar, something all the groups reject.
They also deny involvement in other abuses such as rape, executions, forced labour and the terrifying and increasingly regular tactic of abduction. As do government forces.
Meanwhile, back in the small farming village near Lashio, the 16-year-old Khon Taung has since phoned his desperately worried mother, but gave no details about where he is or what he’s doing.
“When he calls he says ‘I’m fine’ and he tells us not to worry about him. Of course I miss him,” she said, before staring off into the distance, maybe dreaming of the day her teenage boy comes walking back into the village.