Members of the Ta'ang National Liberation Army patrol in Namkhan Township, in northern Shan State, on March 9. (AFP)

Law and order, or frontier justice? Shan’s armed group judiciaries

Amid a power vacuum and surging crime, Shan State’s varied armed groups are increasingly dispensing justice, but their judicial systems often violate human rights norms and are inspired by the Myanmar state that they claim to oppose.


Three uniformed officers from the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army sit behind a desk, facing four men kneeling with their hands tied behind their backs and Chinese name placards around their necks. Another eight MNDAA troops armed with rifles stand with their hands firmly on the prisoners’ shoulders.

The photos, released on May 2, show the proceedings of a temporary court in MNDAA-administered Muban District, which roughly corresponds with Shan State’s Hseni Township.

“They were sentenced to death,” explained Ko Yang Yang, the MNDAA’s information officer, when contacted by Frontier about the images.

The condemned were accused of a raft of serious crimes, including eight murders, robberies and kidnappings. Two of them were said to be members of the Manpan militia, affiliated with the Myanmar military, whose coup in 2021 has precipitated a surge in crime, including in Shan.

“Since the coup in our Kokang area, there have been many criminal cases. The situation is very bad,” Yang Yang said. The MNDAA represents the Kokang people – ethnic Han Chinese who have lived in Shan for centuries and are recognised as a distinct ethnic group in Myanmar.

Myanmar’s biggest administrative division, Shan is also home to the largest number of ethnic armed groups, many of which are among the nation’s most powerful. There has been limited resistance to the junta since the coup here, allowing the military to focus on armed uprisings elsewhere. This has also given the ethnic armed groups relatively free rein to expand their influence.

The MNDAA was founded by Peng Jiasheng with Kokang soldiers who belonged to the Communist Party of Burma before it collapsed in 1989. Following a ceasefire with the military that same year, it controlled a significant chunk of former CPB territory on the Chinese border, before being flushed out by a 2009 military offensive led by General Min Aung Hlaing, who would go on to become commander-in-chief before leading the recent coup.

Of the groups in Shan, it’s been one of the most supportive of the broader pro-democracy uprising, training and commanding new anti-junta troops, but still maintaining some distance from the movement’s central leadership. The MNDAA seems to be largely motivated by a desire to reclaim its lost territory; and as it gains ground, it is increasingly obligated to provide services and protection to local residents.

“The locals complained to our organisation, so we took action against the criminals,” Yang Yang said. “We need to protect the people in our region.”

The MNDAA is one of many groups trying to bring a semblance of judicial order to a lawless state, in a bid to both protect supporters and burnish their legitimacy. But their methods are often harsh and partly inspired by the Myanmar state, which they claim to oppose.

“When the [Myanmar state] justice system collapsed, [ethnic revolutionary organisations] tried to activate their own justice systems in their areas,” said Ko Maung Thu*, an academic based in northern Shan who researches ethnic armed group administrations.

“When crime increases, if the EROs’ justice system is more active, local people will believe in them more,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for them.”

A surge in crime

Laukkai, the capital of the Kokang Self-Administered Zone, has been controlled by the military-aligned Kokang Border Guard Force since the MNDAA was expelled some 14 years ago. Home to dozens of casinos, the town has always been a crime haven, but locals say it has become more violent and dangerous for ordinary people since the coup.

At around 9pm on June 23, Laukkai resident Ko Zeya said gunmen exchanged fire in front of the Kyin Kyan Hotelin the town centre, near where he lives.

“There were two more shootings in July,” said Ko Zeya, who moved to Laukkai from Magway Region in 2009. Starting last year, he said, “there are shootings almost every month… when people die, they hide the dead bodies.”

He claimed two people were killed in the Kyin Kyan shooting but doesn’t know which groups were involved.

“Many small armed groups are appearing these days… we don’t know where they are from. There’s a lot of fighting between those groups and many kidnapping cases,” he said.

It’s a similar story in Muse, a large town on Shan’s northern border with China.

“There are frequent shootings; residents feel unsafe,” said Ko Myint Maung, who works for a voluntary relief association based in Muse, adding that there are also regular kidnappings and robberies. He recalled one case in October last year, when a gang kidnapped a six-year-old child who was on his way home from school.

“The parents had to pay 500,000 Chinese yuan [nearly US$70,000] to the kidnappers to release their kid,” he said. “Every day, the security situation is becoming more uncertain.”

Ko Zeya said there was little point reporting crimes to corrupt authorities under the military junta. For example, a friend of his was caught smuggling drugs in July last year but paid the police 5,000 yuan to get released that same day.

“The police don’t really arrest criminals. If you have money to pay them, you will be released without charge,” he said.

Ko Zeya and the MNDAA information officer also said the cyber scam industry, which often relies on forced labour and is connected to Chinese organised crime, is booming in Laukkai.

“The police haven’t taken action against any of these companies,” said Ko Zeya. “They have armed security and the owners are Chinese.”

The companies often lure workers from across Southeast Asia and beyond with promises of legitimate jobs, but then force them to work as online scammers and subject them to physical abuse. While some groups, like the MNDAA, claim they oppose this criminal activity, others are deeply entwined with it. This includes the United Wa State Army, Myanmar’s most powerful non-state armed group, which controls an autonomous enclave on Shan’s eastern border with China.

Rough justice

Most ethnic armed groups establish judicial departments but can only start enforcing laws after attaining a certain level of military strength. The more territory they control, the more they can take crime and punishment into their own hands, burnishing their credentials as a competent authority.

Because the MNDAA emerged from the powerful Communist Party of Burma, it already had a high degree of military strength and territorial control when it was founded in 1989.

“In the beginning, we formed a judicial department for Kokang and Mong Ko districts,” said Yang Yang.

The MNDAA’s close ally, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, formed in 2009 but was only able to found a judiciary in 2018, about two years after launching more coordinated, high-intensity offensives against the military. Under its civilian wing, the Palaung State Liberation Front, it established a central court and five district courts.

Maung Thu, the researcher, said groups in Shan have been able to more easily roll out administrative structures since the coup.

“The military is busy fighting the Spring Revolution groups in other areas so they cannot focus much attention here [in Shan],” he said, referring to the nationwide movement to overthrow the junta. “The EROs can now carry out legal work in their areas and try to build public trust.”

The MNDAA is a case in point, establishing two more district courts in Muban and Kutkai in 2021.

But the justice doled out by these groups is often rough and contrary to international human rights standards. Major rights groups, like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, oppose the death penalty in all cases. The junta sparked global outrage last year by executing four members of the resistance in Yangon’s Insein Prison, breaking a decades-long moratorium on carrying out the death penalty, but it remains a staple among armed groups in Shan for those convicted of the worst crimes.

In addition to the four executions already mentioned, the MNDAA sentenced and executed two other prisoners this year, including a 16-year-old, for allegedly kidnapping and killing an eight-year-old boy in Kutkai Township. The UWSA executed two people for murder in 2016 and three more for the same crime in 2020. The TNLA and Shan State Progress Party have meanwhile sentenced alleged child rapists to death, in 2020 and 2021 respectively.

“Most EROs use the death sentence. It can be said that all of them are severe in their judgments,” said Maung Thu.

Drug crackdowns are also often rough and not in line with expert recommendations. The TNLA’s communications department told Frontier that last year, the group acted on 137 out of 161 criminal complaints, with the bulk of the prosecutions, at 101, being for drug-related offences.

Mai Min Thu*, an official from the PLSF, said the group is “mainly working on the fight against drugs”.

In a grand display of this commitment on June 26, the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, the TNLA destroyed more than K900 million worth of drugs, in a ceremony reminiscent of similar yearly burnings held by the Myanmar military.

“There were opium plantations in the Ta’ang region in the past, which harmed Ta’ang society a lot,” Min Thu said. “We send drug users to detention camps and sentence drug sellers to prison,” he added, explaining that users are subjected to forced labour on farms.

“TNLA troops also beat locals when they catch them doing drugs,” said Ko Tun Oo*, an ethnic Shan man living in Kutkai. Media reports and interviews indicate similar TNLA practices in Tangyang, Hseni, Muse and Namkham townships.

Detaining and beating drug users has also been common practice in neighbouring Kachin State among groups affiliated to the Kachin Independence Organisation. Researchers have said this approach “diverges radically… from evidence-based international harm reduction practices and norms” and is unlikely to help addicts quit, but that non-state armed groups and local faith-based organisations may not have the resources to implement more effective programmes.

However, most Ta’ang people Frontier spoke to welcomed the TNLA’s war on drugs.

“In the past, there was a lot of drug use in our village and it wasn’t safe,” said Lway Aye Hla*, who lives in Namhsan Township. “Houses had to be locked up even during the day because we were worried about thieves. Now the situation is much better.”

Questionable models

One problem is that ethnic armed groups in northern Shan primarily take their cues from Myanmar and China, both of which have heavily criticised justice systems. In the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index for 2022, Myanmar ranked 139th out of 140 countries surveyed for the “fundamental rights” category, with China close behind at 137th.

“Most EROs follow laws enacted by the Myanmar government or during the British colonial era,” said Maung Thu, adding that groups with connections to the now defunct Communist Party of Burma – like the MNDAA and UWSA – are more influenced by China.

For example, while Myanmar uses hanging for the death penalty, the MNDAA and UWSA use firing squads, as traditionally practised in China, which carries out by far the most executions of any country in the world. Yang Yang, from the MNDAA, said their legal code is written in Mandarin Chinese, which is the mother-tongue of most Kokang.

The MNDAA said they can also legally give death sentences for kidnapping and human trafficking, and though they haven’t done so yet, they are considering doing so. Both crimes are also punishable by death in China. Like the harsh drug crackdown, this seems to be broadly popular with local residents.

“We welcome the death penalty for them,” said Myint Maung, the volunteer relief worker in Muse. “There’s no harm in giving kidnappers and human traffickers the death penalty.”

Min Thu said that besides its drug prosecutions, the TNLA also sentenced a handful of men to one to three years in prison for “cheating” under article 417 of the Myanmar Penal Code. As in this case, the law is primarily used in Myanmar to prosecute men who have sexual relations with women but later renege on their promise of marriage.

In some areas, like Kutkai Township, where ethnic armed groups have overlapping territorial claims, rolling out competing justice systems can cause ethnic tensions. Tun Oo said some of the drug users beaten by the TNLA, for example, were Kachin, while the KIA recently beat some Ta’ang men for clearing areas of forest for farming without permission.

“Kutkai has many problems like that because there are so many armed groups based here,” said Tun Oo. “If similar incidents continue, it will increase ethnic tensions.”

Maung Thu said that ethnic armed groups have civilian wings but are militarised organisations that struggle to adapt to civilian justice systems.

“The EROs are military groups. They need to be calmer when dealing with civilians,” he said.

While increased lawlessness since the coup is an opportunity for ethnic armed groups to step in and prove themselves to supporters, an overzealous approach to justice risks backfiring.

“If they do serious harm to residents through their justice systems, people will think EROs are oppressing us,” warned Maung Thu. “If that happens, they won’t get respect and trust, they’ll only get hate and fear.”

*denotes a pseudonym for security reasons

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