To stay or go? Stark choices for villagers in war-torn Shan state
Thousands are living in fear of being caught in the crossfire between Burmese troops and ethnic rebels.
“My parents’ bag is always ready, in case they have to flee,” says May Phoe Ngeal from the Ta’ang women’s organization (TWO). For years now, this has been habit for thousands of people in Shan state frightened of being caught in the crossfire between Burmese troops and the country’s so-called EAOs (ethnic armed organizations).
An elderly Ta’ang recalls her village being encircled. “We were afraid of clashes,” she says. “Women, the elderly and children left. Some men stayed to look after the houses to avoid pillaging.” She herself took refuge in a Buddhist monastery with her relatives. According the abbot there, Mansu Sayadaw, refugees arrived on five different occasions in 2016. “Sometimes for a week, sometimes for a month,” he says.
Villagers are exhausted by a situation that has been going on since 2011. One of the most powerful ethnic armed groups, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) – which has been fighting for self-determination and ethnic rights along with many other ethnic insurgents for half a century, has long resisted a deal that would see it become a Border Guard Force or government militia. Last November, the so-called Northern brotherhood – comprising the KIA and its three closests allies – took the offensive and attacked the Tatmadaw, the Burmese army. So far, more than 18,000 people have fled their homes. Daily life has been paralyzed, as has the flow of trade on the Chinese border.
Troops from the army and EAOs patrol the region, hide in the jungle, set landmines. Often they use villages as base camps. “They station for days… The army forces villagers to work, to grow rice for the soldiers or build fences, walls…”, says Sang Sai, who has taken refuge with relatives in Lashio, the biggest city in Northern Shan. TNLA (Ta’ang National Liberation Army) troops had been stationed in his village for nine days and the Tatmadaw were “only a mile away”. The situation he describes is one of frequent misunderstanding and suspicion. “The Ta’ang soldiers speak Ta’ang. We speak Shan or Burmese,” he says. “In the countryside there is no network, we can’t use phones. So when we go the fields, we use talkie walkies to communicate with our families. TNLA soldiers thought we were spying on them for the Tatmadaw… Incidents occur all the time. Tensions are very high”.
Ta’ang and Shan ethnics have been living together for decades, but that harmony is now threatened by the conflict. Kaw Tai, a local organization, runs a “listening project”, to avoid the spread of hatred, to make people remember “how they used to live peacefully together”. “Some Shan shops don’t serve Ta’ang customers anymore and the other way around…”, says Nang Noom from the organization. Villages are becoming more and more divided. The TNLA is often accused of torturing Shan villagers and recruiting Ta’ang ones by force. Rumors abound of soldiers coming in the middle of the night to ask for money or take hostages. Meanwhile, in the cities, Ta’ang people are harrassed by the Burmese secret police, according May Phoe Ngeal, from TWO. The same goes for the Kachin people. “They came to my church, in the middle of the service, to take pictures”, says the Reverend Hkengdee Brang Ja.
Life in Shan’s countryside has become a day to day struggle. “People survive, one day at the time’, explains Nang Noom. The Chinese border, the main income source for the farmers, is often closed. “Young people are leaving, it is an exodus”, says Lashio’s bishop, Philip Lasap Za Hawng. “Nowadays the options are either to become a soldier or drug addict,” he adds. The situation does not look like easing. The rebels have released statements twice in December calling for a political solution and dialogue. So far, those calls remain unanswered by the Tatmadaw and the government.