After years of fierce fighting between ethnic armed groups, entire villages have been emptied and their populations are now desperate for ways to support their families.
The tea plantations on the sides of the roads leading to the Loi An village tract between Kyaukme and Naung Cho townships are choked with weeds. It’s been a long time since farmers were at work bringing in the harvest here.
While most of the recent clashes in Myanmar have been between the junta and the resistance to it, fighting in northern Shan State centres around a long-running conflict between the alliance of the Shan State Progress Party and Ta’ang National Liberation Army against the Restoration Council of Shan State. In June last year, fighting between these three groups nearly emptied out the villages in Loi An.
In Pan Lot village, houses that had been torn apart by bullets stare back through shattered windows. The roofs and walls of houses in the village centre are open to the sky, pummeled by heavy artillery fire. Two houses at the end of the village have been burnt to ashes. Piles of clothing and belongings left behind by fleeing villagers litter the ground.
There are no monks at the village monastery. Instead, an SSPP unit is stationed there, as SSPP and TNLA soldiers now occupy Pan Lot. Military trenches have been dug around the grounds of the monastery.
The village used to have a population of nearly 300. Now, fewer than 10 families live there.
“The trenches were dug during the previous RCSS camp,” an SSPP sergeant told Frontier. “Now we are camped there.”
Lway Than Htay and her three children have returned to their home on the outskirts of Pan Lot village despite the fighting. Her neighbours’ homes are all empty. When reporters from Frontier visited her house, she was terrified to be approached by strangers.
“The RCSS were camped in the village at that time,” she said, describing the conflict in June 2021. “The TNLA and SSPP came from the east of the village. We had to hide at home on the day it started.”
“As soon as the next morning dawned, my husband and I took our three children by the hand and ran. We couldn’t take anything – we had to run for our lives. When I returned, I had nothing left in my house,” she said. “People from the rest of the village also want to return. But here, there is no food or shelter. Without anything, not everyone can come back.”
Mansat, Kaung Kha and Kone Sa villages in Loi An village tract are in the same situation as Pan Lot. TNLA and SSPP troops have set up camp around the villages. Most houses are abandoned.
In 2015, after signing the National Ceasefire Agreement, the RCSS began pushing north towards the Chinese border, establishing bases in a number of townships in northern Shan State. Their troops seized a significant portion of territory in areas that were mostly inhabited by Ta’ang people, which was perceived by the TNLA as an act of aggression.
The RCSS also seized territory from the SSPP when the rival Shan group came under attack from the Tatmadaw in 2015. Though the RCSS denies it, many in Shan State believe it has colluded with the military.
These tensions laid the foundation of a TNLA-SSPP alliance that has come back to haunt the RCSS, which escalated once again into major clashes in 2021.
UN OCHA Myanmar estimate nearly 30,000 people in northern Shan State have been displaced by fighting since January 2021, many of whom have yet to return home. Locals are unable to farm their tea plantations, the main crop grown in Shan State, causing a widespread loss of livelihoods.
Based on interviews with local residents, village leaders and local organisations, Frontier understands that residents of more than 20 village tracts in Namtu and Hsipaw townships have been impacted by the conflict.
“The fighting lasted for months. But our troubles are not over yet,” Mansat village administrator Mai Nyi Thu said. Residents of Mansat village, which is located near Pan Lot, have been fleeing their homes since RCSS troops entered the area in 2017.
Empty houses and empty villages
There are more than 230 houses in Totsan village in the northern part of Kyaukme Township. It was once a wealthy village – full of two-storey wooden homes, a large market, a government high school and a Chinese temple.
“Before the fighting, the village was very prosperous,” said Nan Shwe Lian. He has been a resident of Totsan for more than 20 years.
Now, every house is locked and silent, and armed troops are on the streets. When the fighting began, all of the residents moved to Kyaukme Township’s urban areas for safety. The TNLA has set up camps on the hills around the village, and some SSPP soldiers are stationed in houses throughout the village.
Nang Mo, a 28-year-old resident who sells noodles in the village centre, said there were only a few people left in the once-bustling village.
“Now there are around 10 families staying back in the village,” she said. “Not many people came back. Sometimes soldiers come to my restaurant.”
Sai Lian Moe, the temporary head of Totsan village, said that an aura of fear was still hanging over the village.
“There is no fighting now, but people did not dare to come back,” he said. “They are worried that something will happen.”
Other villages have been completely emptied out. In Pong Long and Hu Son villages, there is no one left. Homes in both villages have been left to rot. Only cats and dogs remain in the streets, waiting for their owners to return.
A volunteer with a group helping internally displaced people in Kyaukme, who declined to give his name due to fears for his safety, told Frontier that many had left to join the fighting.
“These two big villages are mostly inhabited by Shan people,” he said. “Many villagers have joined the RCSS, so their families do not dare to return.”
While Frontier could not definitively confirm whether local villagers had actually joined the RCSS, some of the empty houses did have RCSS training certificates hanging on the walls.
“No villager wants to join any army,” the volunteer said. “But they could not refuse the armed group. Because they have weapons.”
Tar Bhone Kyaw, General Secretary of the TNLA and their political wing, the Palaung State Liberation Front, told Frontier on February 6 that the fighting had calmed down since the TNLA took control of the area. He said he wanted the Shan people to return to their homes.
“Shan and Ta’ang have been living together for a long time,” he said. “The Shan are not the enemy of the Ta’ang. The Ta’ang are not the enemy of the Shan. We are currently lobbying for people to return to those Shan villages.”
Remnants of war
Even if people wanted to return, the landmines and unexploded ordnance left behind in many of the villages has made going home a difficult prospect. Landmines and heavy artillery have both been used extensively in the fighting between ethnic armed groups in northern Shan State, leaving deadly debris throughout the villages swept up in the conflict.
Local media in Shan reported that the SSPP and TNLA have both received large contributions of heavy weapons from the United Wa State Army. The UWSA is Myanmar’s largest ethnic armed organisation with an estimated 30,000 troops, and is headquartered in an autonomous enclave in northern Shan State on the Myanmar-China border. Tar Bhone Kyaw, General Secretary of the PSLF/TNLA, denied the supply of weapons and maintained that the UWSA was not involved in the northern Shan State conflict.
Regardless of where the weapons came from, they were put to destructive use when the lime tree-lined village of Yay Oo in Namtu Township on the Hsipaw-Namsan road became a battlefield in April last year. By May, eight houses in the village had been set on fire. Many of them have not been repaired.
In March, Frontier reporters saw that the roofs of many houses throughout Yay Oo village were riddled with bullet holes. In the middle of the village, the elementary school had also been heavily damaged by artillery fire.
For local residents, life in the village has become one of constant vigilance.
“Sometimes bombs explode,” said Yay Oo village resident Mai Kyaw Hla*. “Sometimes rockets explode. In some places, mines explode when they are set on fire to clear a fence.’’
These remnants of war have proved fatal for some. A 12-year-old boy was killed in January this year while playing with an unexploded ordnance in the village. The incident sent shockwaves across Hsipaw, Kyaukme and Namtu townships, where the RCSS and TNLA were still locked in combat.
A worker with a local aid group in northern Shan State said that landmines need to be cleared by the ethnic armed organisations. “The landmine problem is serious. From time to time, people are affected and die when they go to work. EAOs need to clear the area of landmines for people to make their livelihood there,” he said.
Local media has reported 13 people dead and more than 30 injured in Shan State because of landmines and remnants of war weapons between January and March this year. The TNLA has said that they are aware of landmines and remnants of war and are in the process of clearing them.
Despite this, villagers in Kyaukme and Hsipaw townships say their homes are still largely uninhabitable.
“We heard and found that a lot of landmines were exploding in our areas,” said Pankha village resident Mai Aung Hla. “People are worrying and can’t go to their tea leaf farms. If they can’t go to their farms, they will not be able to return to work and return to the village.”
Prior to the clashes in Pankha village, villagers said that RCSS troops had set up barricades around the village, barring villagers from travelling to their tea plantations. Frontier tried to contact the RCSS repeatedly by phone for comment, but was unable to get a response.
“There is no fighting now. But we expect that there are already mines there,” said Aung Hla. “So it is very difficult to work in our traditional job of tea leaf production.”
As if to confirm their fears, on February 25, tea leaf farmer Mai Aik Win was found dead after stepping on a landmine on his way home from working on a tea plantation.
Lives in ruins
Many in Shan State are struggling to make ends meet as a result of the conflict.
Eighteen-year-old Mai Tun Aye* was attending a technical school in Myingyan Township in Mandalay Region before COVID-19 spread to Myanmar.
After his school was closed as a result of the pandemic, he went back to his home in Pan Seng village in Kyaukme Township to join his family working on tea plantations.
Tun Aye’s family, who own a two-storey house and a number of tea plantations, earned enough to support themselves before the conflict. Tun Aye and the four members of his immediate family fled to Kyaukme after fighting in the village in October 2021.
“At first we stayed in a refugee camp in Kyaukme for about three months,” he said. “There were so many people there. The number of refugees increased in our camp. We needed to leave.”
After the influx of refugees, Tun Aye and his family left the camp and rented a house in the city.
“We shared with five other neighbourhood families. We stayed there for a long time, and we needed income to find food and shelter. It became difficult.”
Tun Aye and two of his friends went looking for jobs to support themselves and their families. Soon they were buying and selling goods, picking up food supplies in the city and riding motorbikes to the military camps to sell. Every two days, they sell their wares at TNLA bases near their home villages.
“My goal was to become an electrical engineer. Now I have to sell food to the army,” he said.
Although Tun Aye and his family were able to find work in the area and stay together, other families were separated.
Lway Than Htay’s family faces much the same situation as Tun Aye. With no money coming in, her husband went to Laukkai in the Kokang Self-Administered Zone for a job. She and her children left Kyaukme, before managing to return to Pan Lot village, but her husband remains in Laukkai, roughly six hours away.
“I did not dream the family would be separated. If the war hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t have to face this situation,” she said. “All of this because of war,” she added angrily.
* denotes a pseudonym has been used on request due to safety concerns