TNLA troops parade at a ceremony marking the 59th anniversary of the Ta'ang National Revolution Day in January 2022 in Tangyang Township (Mar Naw | Frontier)

Rising dragon: TNLA declares ‘victory’ in northern Shan

The Ta’ang National Liberation Army marked its revolution day last month with a show of force in Tangyang Township, one of many areas where it is working to consolidate power after victories over the Restoration Council of Shan State in 2021.


In a small mountain village in northern Shan State’s Tangyang Township, more than 400 fresh recruits in crisp uniforms and newly shorn hair march down a dirt road, their AK-47 assault rifles resting against their shoulders.

They emerge gradually onto a parade ground in the remote village, where women in military uniforms are busy preparing food for around 2,000 guests, ranging from high-ranking soldiers to civil society members and local villagers. The soldiers stand to attention as traditional music with Ta’ang lyrics praising the revolution fills the air.

Everything about the January 12 ceremony marking the 59th anniversary of Ta’ang National Revolution Day, right down to the location, seems intended to project the growing power of the Ta’ang National Liberation Army.   

Despite having a significant Ta’ang population, Tangyang has not traditionally been a stronghold for the group. The township, which is also home to many Shan people, is known for poverty, illicit drug production and conflict; numerous pro-military forces and ethnic armed groups, including the Shan State Progress Party, have a presence here. 

TNLA leaders say the group gained control of parts of Tangyang as part of an agreement with the SSPP, its ally in northern Shan State, and has received a warm welcome from the Rumai, a Ta’ang tribe that lives in Tangyang and provided most of the new recruits marching at the ceremony.

“Previously our troops could not reach these areas, but now we have a presence,” TNLA commander-in-chief Tar Hold Plang said at the January 12 ceremony. “Finally, we can protect our Ta’ang people here.”

At the ceremony, there was little focus on the conflict raging across Myanmar in the wake of the February 2021 military coup. Although the TNLA has expressed some solidarity with the resistance, and condemned the military’s actions, it has not publicly sided with the National Unity Government, the administration established by ousted lawmakers following the February 2021 military coup. 

TNLA leaders have so far refused to talk about their relationship with the NUG. They said they have sympathy for those also fighting the military regime and the abuses they have suffered, but remain focused on achieving self-determination for the Ta’ang people.

“We are very sorry to see those incidents – for example, when military troops burned civilians and villages,” TNLA spokesperson Tar Aik Kyaw told Frontier on the sidelines of the ceremony. “One of our ultimate goals is also to overthrow the military regime. But we are doing it our own way.” 

One 25-year-old TNLA officer told Frontier: “We don’t understand why the military committed such brutal crackdowns and killed unarmed civilians, but I guess all mainlanders now know how the military had brutalised and abused people in our ethnic areas. They now understand why ethnic people are fighting against the military.” 

Shifting allegiances

A five-hour drive to the east of Tangyang marks the edge of the autonomous region of the United Wa State Army, another armed group with which the TNLA has a close relationship.

The revolution day parade was the first major event at which the TNLA showed off its new logo – a sword and spear design that is very similar to that of the UWSA, Myanmar’s largest ethnic armed group with an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 soldiers. 

The logo is worn on the left shoulder of the TNLA uniforms, while on the right shoulder sits a sun and dragon design that is also new.

“We Ta’ang are born from a father, the sun, and a mother, the dragon. Our new logo reflects the participation of both men and women in our revolution,” the 25-year-old TNLA officer explained. 

The logo also reflects a shift in allegiances, replacing a design of crossed swords that was almost identical to that of the Kachin Independence Army. 

The TNLA traces its roots back to the founding of the Palaung National Front, a Ta’ang armed group, in 1963. Thirteen years later, a PNF leader, Mai Kwan Tong, cooperated with the Kachin Independence Organisation to form the Palaung State Liberation Organisation/Palaung State Liberation Army, which quickly superseded the PNF. After 15 years of conflict, the PSLO reached a ceasefire with the military in 1991, but was forced to surrender its weapons entirely in 2005. 

Some members, unhappy at the failure of the military regime to uphold promises made at the time of the ceasefire, revived the movement under the patronage of the KIO in 2009, forming the TNLA and a political wing, the Palaung State Liberation Front. For most of the past 12 years the group has been allied with the KIO. 

In recent years though, the TNLA has drifted closer to the UWSA, opening a liaison office in Panghsang, the de facto capital of Wa state, in 2018. There has also been tension between the TNLA and the KIA over territory in northern Shan State, where Ta’ang and Kachin populations live in close proximity. 

In contrast, the TNLA claim their alliance with the UWSA is based in part on ethnic kinship. The Ta’ang and Wa, along with the Mon of southern Myanmar, speak Mon-Khmer languages. More prosaically, the UWSA is also economically stronger than the KIA, and has better access to weaponry thanks to its links with China. 

TNLA leaders claim that Ta’ang armed groups have a long history of alliances with their bigger “brother”, the UWSA.

“These days we have a political alliance, and we have good relations,” said Tar Aik Kyaw.

TNLA troops return to Namhsan Township from the frontlines in December 2021 (Mar Naw | Frontier)

A rising dragon

The revolution day anniversary follows a momentous year for the TNLA, one in which its leaders claim to have vanquished a key rival. 

While many other ethnic armed groups were focused on responding to the February 1 military coup, the TNLA and SSPP spent most of the year locked in fighting with the Restoration Council of Shan State, a Shan armed group that has traditionally been based in the south.

This is not a new conflict. After signing the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement in October 2015, the RCSS immediately pushed northward towards the China border, and managed to seize a significant portion of territory around Namhkam, Namtu, Kyaukme and Hsipaw townships. Although much of it was not previously controlled by the TNLA, it was mostly inhabited by Ta’ang people and therefore the TNLA perceived RCSS expansion as an act of aggression. In late 2015, the RCSS also seized territory from the SSPP, which was coming under attack from the Tatmadaw at the time. This prompted allegations that the RCSS had colluded with the military (a charge it denies), and also laid the foundations for a TNLA-SSPP alliance that would come back to haunt the RCSS.

The TNLA of 2015 was much less powerful than it is now, however, and was also clashing regularly with the Tatmadaw. It staged a tactical withdrawal, and focused on building up its strength by mobilising forces in its stronghold areas. It also built new alliances – not only with the SSPP and UWSA, but also groups such as the Arakan Army and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army.

After six years of on-and-off fighting, TNLA leaders say they have managed to push back the RCSS beyond the Mandalay-Muse Highway. As a result, the Ta’ang group now controls more territory than at any point in its history, or that of its predecessors.

Deputy Commander-in-Chief Tar Muse told Frontier at the ceremony that the TNLA had achieved its goal of evicting the RCSS from Ta’ang majority areas by the end of 2021. (The RCSS could not be reached for comment.)

Fighting resumed in January 2021, several weeks before the military coup. But TNLA leaders told Frontier that the coup had created an opportunity to make inroads against the RCSS: Because the Tatmadaw was distracted by events elsewhere in the country, it did little to prevent their attacks on the Shan group, and TNLA forces were able to move relatively freely around northern Shan State. 

For the first time since arriving in northern Shan State, the RCSS was forced to withdraw in the face of a combined TNLA and SSPP attack, retreating from a mountain base near Nyaung Maung village north of Kyaukme, Tar Muse said.

The TNLA won an even more significant victory in October, when its troops forced the RCSS to retreat from its stronghold at Hu Hsun, after several months of fighting. 

Located in the Loi Mauk hills near the village of Kyu Shaw, Hu Hsun had been the northern headquarters of the Shan armed group since 2015. The base fell despite being well-prepared for the attack, with deep trenches and other fortifications that gave the defending soldiers a significant advantage. 

After Hu Hsun fell, the RCSS troops fell back to the southern side of the Mandalay-Muse Highway, and the area north of the highway came under the control of the TNLA’s Brigade 2.

A 30-year veteran of the Ta’ang struggle for autonomy, Tar Muse led the operations against the RCSS last year and said he was present when front-line troops took control of Pan Hkar village in Hsipaw Township in November.

“Now we control all of these areas – the RCSS has left,” he said. “Our losses were less than expected.”

Prior to 2015, armed groups were active in the area but not firmly entrenched; nominally, it was under state control. Now, the TNLA is determined to consolidate its authority.

“Before the RCSS came, the TNLA didn’t have bases in our area – we just sometimes saw their troops passing through our village,” said U Myo Oo, the 40-year-old state-appointed secretary of Hu Kut, a Ta’ang village about 5 kilometres south of Hu Hsun.

In September, the TNLA and RCSS clashed in Hu Kut, forcing residents to flee and setting some homes on fire. The RCSS were eventually driven out of the area.

“Now the TNLA has settled in the old RCSS camps in the mountains near our village,” Myo Oo told Frontier.

When Frontier visited the site of these recent battles in January, most Ta’ang said they were pleased to be living under TNLA leadership. 

They listed a litany of complaints about RCSS rule, blaming the group for planting landmines, seizing livestock and restricting movement – the latter preventing the Ta’ang from harvesting their tea crop, their main source of income.

“If we wanted to leave our village, we needed to get permission from the RCSS,” said one Ta’ang resident. “They were very strict. In some villages in Hsipaw, the RCSS didn’t even let residents use mobile phones.”

Shan residents have more mixed feelings, but are quick to distance themselves from the RCSS. “We are worried about all sides – the TNLA, SSPP and RCSS,” said Sai Kyaw Ohn, 32, a resident of Loi Kone village, a cluster of more than 100 houses not far from Hu Kut. When the fighting broke out in September, the Loi Kone residents were also forced to flee, but have since returned to their homes. “I hope they [TNLA and SSPP] won’t oppress us just because we are Shan – we are not the RCSS. We need to have good relations with all EAOs in the area because we want to live in peace.”

On January 10 – two days before the ceremony – the TNLA announced in a statement following their annual meeting that they had evicted the RCSS from the Ta’ang-majority areas. Now, the group is focused on strengthening its grip in its newly acquired territory.

“We have to keep working hard to maintain our hold on these areas,” said TNLA general secretary Brigadier-General Tar Bhone Kyaw. “We can’t let our Ta’ang people be oppressed by other armed groups.”

Nyaung Maung village in December 2021, where the RCSS retreated from attacks by the TNLA and SSPP (Mar Naw | Frontier)

Drugs and taxes

In the decade since the TNLA was established, the group has managed to gain control of a significant slice of northern Shan State and is arguably the most powerful armed group in the region.

Its goal is to establish a Ta’ang state that includes all of Namhsan and Mantong townships, and parts of Namhkam, Mongyai, Tangyan, Kyaukme, Hsipaw, Lashio and Namtu townships in northern Shan State, as well as Mogok Township in northern Mandalay Region. 

Such a state would cover a significantly larger area than the Palaung Self-Administered Zone created under the 2008 Constitution, which comprises just Namhsan and Mantong.

“We are not greedy – we are not demanding control of the cities, that will just lead to endless clashes. We are just demanding the regions where the majority of the people are Ta’ang,” said Tar Bhone Kyaw.

Although it has forces operating in all of these townships, Mantong, Namhsan and Namkham are considered TNLA strongholds. In these areas it has already established an administrative system, which it is working to roll out to the areas of Kyaukme and Hsipaw over which it has recently assumed territorial control.

Meanwhile, the TNLA said it has also established a legal department that will act as a judicial system within its territory, and in some Ta’ang villages in Tangyang Frontier observed TNLA members working with SSPP members to resolve land disputes between Ta’ang and Shan residents.

In these respects, the TNLA seems to be following in the footsteps of the Arakan Army, which was established around the same time, also under KIA patronage. Over the past year, the Arakan Army has consolidated control over the territory it gained during a brutal two-year war with the military in 2019-20 by launching a judicial apparatus, rolling out administrative offices and expanding its taxation system.

The TNLA administrative system is similar to the General Administration Department, with district, township and village tract offices, whose main responsibility is law enforcement and security.

A major focus is eradication of illicit drug use, which is an issue that the TNLA has prioritised since its re-establishment. Focusing on drug use seems to have won it significant legitimacy and popular support among Ta’ang communities, despite its harsh methods, which include detaining addicts and sending them to “detention centres”.

“Before 2010, drug use was common here,” said Mai Lin Thu*, the administrator of a village of more than 100 households in Namhsan Township. “Now, people don’t dare to use drugs because the TNLA will arrest them.”

In Namhsan, Mantong and Kyaukme, the TNLA’s administrative staff have also ramped up tax collection. The group collects annual taxes from liquor shops, grocery stores and other small businesses up to a maximum of K50,000 a year, locals told Frontier. The TNLA also levies taxes on larger business owners, brokers and traders based on their income, but this aspect of its tax system is significantly more opaque.

In the aftermath of the military coup, the TNLA administration department has also banned the sale of military-owned products in townships under its jurisdiction. Frontier did not see any shops selling military products during our recent visit to TNLA-administered areas of northern Shan; residents said the ban was strictly enforced, with only a few shops in urban areas still stocking military products.

“If they find Myanmar Beer or Red Ruby cigarettes for sale in my shop, they take them and destroy them. We’ve also been warned that they might take further action if we are caught selling them,” said a 48-year-old woman from a village in Kyaukme Township, who spoke on condition of anonymity. 

As Myanmar’s Delta wave of COVID-19 spread through Shan State in late 2021, the TNLA also began taking steps to control the virus, setting up checkpoints and introducing a testing and quarantine system. “If I came back to my village after spending a night in one of the cities, a TNLA medical officer would test me with a rapid test kit and I would also need to quarantine,” said Lwe Aye Sein, a 47-year-old resident of rural Namhsan Township. “The only way to avoid quarantine is to return the same day, without spending a night out of our village. It can make things a little difficult, but we have to follow the rules.”

The TNLA did not officially disclose its military strength at the revolution day ceremony. Tar Hod Plarng, the TNLA’s commander-in-chief, said only that the group has seven brigades and more than 30 battalions. 

Based on troop numbers provided by battalion-level officers, the TNLA now has around 10,000 troops under its military department, and some others who are based in its administrative and other departments. 

Frontier understands that about 1,000 new recruits graduated from TNLA training in January, including the 400 who marched at the Ta'ang National Revolution Day celebrations in Tangyang that Frontier attended.

One of the more controversial aspects of the TNLA’s expansion is its reliance on conscription, something the RCSS has also been accused of. In areas under its full control, it implements a policy under which each household has to provide at least one recruit, and those with many sons often have to provide two.

Some families have been unhappy at the recruitment policy and tried to send their children to other areas so they can avoid being conscripted. Although this worked previously, it has become more difficult to evade conscription due to the strengthening of the TNLA administrative apparatus.

The TNLA’s geographic expansion has also provided a pool of new recruits. Myo Oo, from Hu Kut village in Kyaukme, said the departure of the RCSS from the area had encouraged more young people to enlist, with dozens from Hu Kut signing up in January in response to a TNLA recruitment drive.

“After the RCSS left, most young people wanted to join the Ta’ang army,” he said. “Under the RCSS our villages were oppressed so some youngsters believe that joining the army will strengthen our people.”

TNLA leaders say they plan to expand their territory to other areas where Ta’ang people live, including Mongyawng and Mong Hsu townships, on the basis that these communities need to be protected from other ethnic groups.

“Before the armed uprising, our Ta'ang were oppressed,” TNLA vice chair General Tar Jok Jar said at the Revolution Day celebrations.

“Now that the TNLA has emerged to represent the Ta'ang, it can no longer be suppressed ... but in the future, we need to make our military stronger,” he added. 

Both TNLA leaders and rank-and-file soldiers say that autonomy for the Ta’ang is still a long way off, despite the group’s recent expansion.

The 25-year-old TNLA official who spoke to Frontier on the sidelines of the anniversary celebration said he believed it would be an even longer struggle than the fight to overthrow the military regime. “They might be successful in three years or five years, but our journey could be much longer. It’s not certain we’ll be able to get a Ta’ang state in the time of my sons or grandsons,” he said. “But what we know is that we have to fight.” 

* Denotes the use of a pseudonym. Some names have been changed at the request of the interviewees for safety reasons.

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