Members of the Ta'ang National Liberation Army take part in a training exercise at a base camp in northern Shan State on March 8, 2023. (AFP)

Blood brothers? Tensions test an old oath in northern Shan

Historic alliances have prevented tensions between armed groups from boiling over in Myanmar’s northern Shan State, but overlapping territorial claims and ethnic sensitivities keep them at a constant simmer.

By FRONTIER

On May 29, Ma Zin Zin* went to register her son at a school in Kar Lai village that had recently been declared open by the Kachin Independence Organization.

Like many other children in Myanmar, her son had missed years of regular schooling due to the COVID-19 pandemic and then the civil war sparked by the 2021 military coup. The village school was previously run by the Myanmar central government but was supposedly being relaunched under KIO-management. However, when Zin Zin arrived for registration, things didn’t go as smoothly as expected.

Kar Lai village is in northern Shan State’s Kutkai Township, which boasts a significant Kachin population but was seized by the Ta’ang National Liberation Army in January.

“The TNLA soldiers closed the school and said we couldn’t use it,” Zin Zin recalled. “I was very sad and angry because we wanted this school to open for our kids. I couldn’t accept it.”

Once firm allies, the relationship between the TNLA and KIO has become increasingly strained due to overlapping territorial aspirations. Although more active in Kachin State, the KIO claims a neighbouring section of Shan with a sizeable Kachin population that it calls the “Kachin sub-state”.

But much of this area, including Kutkai, also has many Ta’ang people, and was seized by the TNLA during a stunning offensive known as Operation 1027, launched in late October.

The KIO played a crucial role in founding and supporting the TNLA, and its supporters see ingratitude and arrogance in the TNLA’s exclusion of the Kachin within its newly-seized territory. But Ta’ang troops fought and died to take townships such as Kutkai, and TNLA supporters scoff at the idea of the KIO turning up after the fighting has ended and sharing the spoils of war.

With the military junta largely chased out of these areas, both groups are now competing to offer public services. This often leaves ordinary people – including school children – caught in the middle of an ethnonationalist divide.

Education is a particularly sensitive issue, because state-run schools have historically taught a version of history that centres the Bamar ethnic majority and the role of the military, usually in Burmese language. Civilians on opposing sides have accused the TNLA and KIA of replicating this chauvinism, opening schools that focus on their own ethnic history and language, at the expense of students from other groups.

The resulting tensions have occasionally boiled over. On June 2, a Ta’ang school in Kutkai town was partially burned by an unknown culprit. The following day in the village of Kar Lai, Kachin residents marched up to the school that had been shuttered by the TNLA, before forcing open the gates and raising a Kachin nationalist flag in the compound.

“They want us to go to the school opened by TNLA. We want to go to the school opened by our own Kachin people,” said Zin Zin, who participated in the protest march.

Lway Khin Ohn, a 52-year-old Ta’ang member of a relief organisation in Kutkai, said the TNLA had already planned to open the Kar Lai school and the KIO tried to hijack it. She also accused the Kachin armed group of collecting taxes from Ta’ang people and closing a road mainly used by Ta’ang people.

“We have been oppressed by the military and various armed groups for 70 years,” she said. “When the TNLA grew strong, we got our rights. And now the TNLA is trying to develop our region. We like living under the TNLA’s administration because we are Ta’ang. I understand why other ethnic groups want to live under their own ethnic government and armed forces.”

A Kachin Independence Army fighter overlooks Myanmar army positions at an outpost near the group’s headquarters of Laiza in Kachin State on May 16, 2012. (AFP)

Perpetual allies?

Friction between the KIO and TNLA predates Operation 1027, and even the 2021 coup.

“From around 2020, the relationship between them became strained. The main thing is that the areas where they operate overlap,” explained Ko Zeya*, who researches conflict in northern Shan, saying tensions run particularly high when both groups recruit soldiers and collect taxes from the same populations.

“Tensions are worst in Kutkai,” he added. “Many groups are active there.”

The population of the township is particularly mixed, with 23.9 percent Kachin, 24.9pc Ta’ang and 28.9pc from the Chinese-speaking Mong Wong community, according to 2019 figures from the General Administration Department. Close TNLA ally the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, made up of Kokang Chinese, is also active in the township, with sources saying it primarily occupies the Mong Wong areas.

Kutkai is strategically important because the town lies on the Union highway between Mandalay and the Chinese border at Muse – one of Myanmar’s most important trade arteries. The township also holds special significance for the KIO, as one of its earliest operational areas, after it was founded in northern Shan in 1960.

Relations between the TNLA and KIO, meanwhile, go back decades. In 1976, the KIO signed an alliance agreement with TNLA predecessor the Palaung State Liberation Organization at its former headquarters in Kachin’s Waingmaw Township.

“Any problems between the KIO and PSLO will be resolved peacefully for the perpetual alliance of both organisations,” the agreement said, adding this alliance extends beyond the armed groups to the “Kachin and Palaung peoples”.

The Ta’ang are also known as the Palaung in Burmese. While the term was once commonly used by Ta’ang nationalists, they now prefer Ta’ang, with many even viewing Palaung as a pejorative.

In the 1990s, the KIO and PSLO both signed ceasefires with the military, but in 2005, under intense pressure from the military, the PSLO surrendered its arms, effectively suspending the Ta’ang insurgency. Some former Ta’ang leaders, like Tar Aik Bong and Tar Bhone Kyaw, remained politically active from Kayin State and Thailand, biding their time until they could relaunch the armed struggle under the TNLA banner in 2009. The KIO extended crucial support to the nascent TNLA, training its first 100 troops, and the two reiterated their “perpetual alliance”.

But over time, the TNLA became strong enough to rival the KIO. It also developed a close relationship with the United Wa State Army, which has long competed with the KIO as the dominant armed group in the north.

KIO supporters said the TNLA should not forget who helped them when the Ta’ang movement was weak and fractured.

“To be blunt, they are biting the hand that fed them,” said a 30-year-old Kachin activist in Kutkai.

But Lway Khin Ohn said that while the KIO and its armed wing, the Kachin Independence Army, may have offered support, they also treated Ta’ang people as second-class citizens.

“I don’t like the KIA. In the past, the KIA forcibly recruited our Ta’ang people to serve as their soldiers, and they discriminated against us. If a household couldn’t give a soldier to the KIA, we had to pay more than K100,000, and we needed to give them a certain amount of rice every year. They oppressed us so much, but that time has passed. Now we have the TNLA,” she said.

The Ta’ang, who traditionally live on remote hilltops, have long been denigrated as a poor, backwards group by other communities in Shan. The Kachin activist acknowledged that the Ta’ang people suffered discrimination when the KIA was more powerful, but said the TNLA is now acting in a similar manner.

“In the past, some people used to talk unkindly, saying to others that if you don’t bathe, you’ll be dirty like the Palaung. Now that they have grown strong, they want to show their fangs.”

Amid a dispute over territory along the Shweli River, top leaders of the KIA and the TNLA held a meeting in May last year in Mai Ja Yang, on the Chinese border in Kachin’s Momauk Township, where they once again agreed to honour their historic alliance and avoid conflict.

But everything changed again in October.

TNLA troops return to northern Shan’s Namhsan Township from the frontlines in December 2021. (Mar Naw | Frontier)

Right of conquest

Six months after the talks in Mai Ja Yang, the balance of power shifted dramatically when the Three Brotherhood Alliance of ethnic armed groups launched Operation 1027. The TNLA and MNDAA would go on to seize huge swathes of territory in northern Shan, including major towns, while the third member of the alliance, the Arakan Army, later did the same in Rakhine State.

This unprecedented territorial makeover left the TNLA largely in charge of Namtu, Namkham, Kutkai, Namhsan and Mantong townships, declaring them part of a new Ta’ang State. While some townships such as Namshan and Mantong are overwhelmingly Ta’ang, others like Kutkai are more diverse.

The TNLA has tried to roll out a parallel administration, but as an armed organisation primarily dedicated to the political rights of a single ethnic group, has found it difficult to satisfy the diverse population of its new territories.

The Kachin activist said he respects the TNLA senior leadership, but thinks the group was surprised by the success of Operation 1027 and unprepared to actually administer significant territory.

“The TNLA found itself in an unexpected situation they’d never experienced before,” he said. “The lower level troops can’t handle it.”

Yet, despite this burden, the TNLA has seemingly been reluctant to share it with other ethnic authorities, and has been particularly wary of lingering KIO influence.

In January the TNLA objected to the KIA reopening its liaison office in Kutkai town. The office had first been opened in 1995, a year after the KIO agreed a ceasefire with the then-junta. This ceasefire broke down in 2011, and the Kutkai office was closed in 2015 after the KIO suffered heavy defeats fighting the military.

The reopening of the office went ahead despite the TNLA’s objections. But a month later, when around 50 KIA troops tried to hold a Kachin National Revolution Day ceremony with Kachin residents in Kutkai town, TNLA troops responded by taking down Kachin flags flying over civilian homes.

The TNLA and its supporters believe the group is merely exercising the right of conquest.

“During Operation 1027, our TNLA soldiers were killed and injured while fighting the military to seize Kutkai. But the KIA wasn’t involved; they didn’t even shoot a single bullet during those battles,” said Lway Khin Ohn.

“After the TNLA seized Kutkai, they [the KIO] came into the town saying ‘this is our place’ and tried to open an office. That’s unfair. If they think these places are theirs, they should have fought for them.”

KIO vice chair General Gun Maw said in a speech to Kachin diaspora groups on April 13 that this is the same mindset as British colonialism. He said he had told the TNLA and MNDAA to “abandon the mentality that military dominance grants sole ownership of territory”.

“They shouldn’t have taken those areas because they already had an owner,” Gun Maw continued. “But they didn’t want to listen to that.”

But Kachin nationalists struggle to explain why, given the population make-up, their claim to these areas is more legitimate, or how a KIO administration would govern more fairly.

Despite rising tensions, the historic friendship between the two armed groups means mechanisms are still in place to deescalate.

“We had a meeting and the problem was resolved through negotiations,” a TNLA official told Frontier in reference to the dispute over the liaison office, which was allowed to remain open without objections following the mid-April talks.

Then, on May 31, the TNLA sent a letter requesting mediation from the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee, a coalition of the most powerful armed groups in northern Myanmar, including the TNLA and KIO, who all have close relations with China. In its letter, the TNLA accused the KIO of disrupting its administration in Namtu, Kutkai and Mantong townships, and obstructing its mining operations in the latter.

Whether these mechanisms are strong enough to prevent conflict remains an open question, but it’s clear the TNLA feels it has the upper hand in Kutkai. On May 22, the group held a large military parade in the town, which it officially claimed was a graduation ceremony for new recruits, but which some Kachin residents interpreted differently.

“There were a lot of soldiers doing exercises, nearly 1,000 troops,” said one resident. “A lot of people saw it. We feel like they were showing off their military strength.”

All civilians who spoke to Frontier – whether they supported the KIO or the TNLA – said they hope the groups can continue to solve their disputes via dialogue.

Zin Zin said her family had to flee from Kutkai to Lashio due to heavy fighting in November, and were only able to return home in February.

“I would like to plead with them to negotiate to resolve everything,” she said. “We don’t want to suffer the punishment of war over and over again.”

The Kachin activist agreed, saying any conflict between the KIA and TNLA would be far more bitter and brutal than that with the Myanmar military, because the two groups live side by side.

“There are cracks between the two communities. When we fought the junta, we were fighting people who lived far away from us. But the Kachin and Ta’ang live together. If the two communities fight, we will have to cut our neighbours with knives,” he said.

But he also displayed a clear disdain for the TNLA and Ta’ang people in general.

“We don’t like them governing us because they are Palaung. They don’t have the qualifications to rule over us. Their ethnicity is not of the level to govern us,” he said. “They don’t know how to do anything… we can’t put our town in the hands of these kinds of people.”

Lway Khin Ohn, the Ta’ang social welfare worker, said she doesn’t want to see conflict either, but had a warning for the KIA.

“If the TNLA and KIA are like brothers, then I agree that the KIA is the older brother,” she said. “But the KIA should know that your younger brother is now as strong as you.”

*indicates the use of a pseudonym for security reasons

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