By Joseph Allchin
Attacks made by Burmese troops on Shan army positions in the country’s volatile northeast have been roundly condemned by the National Democratic Front (NDF), a grouping of ethnic armies.
The series of assaults on the Shan State Army-North (SSA-North) and the Shan State Progressive Party (SSPP), which began last week, comes as junta supposedly gave the groups an ultimatum to withdraw from their bases by the 20 March and fully surrender by the 1 April.
The NDF’s statement claims that the attacks are in “disparity” with that of a civilian government and contrary to the “march on the democratic road”. The ruling junta has repeatedly proclaimed that Burma is transitioning to civilian rule following elections in November last year.
The offensive started on 13 March with an attack on SSA-North positions near or in the village of Mongauk, which according to the army “left casualties on both sides”. The SSA–North statement also ominously asserted: “Now it is very obvious to us the [junta] is preparing to use the four-cut strategy”.
The ‘four cuts strategy’ is the term the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) gives its method of isolating and besieging guerrilla armies who reliant on the local populace. Opponents describe it as akin to a scorched earth policy.
The statement said that such tactics by the Burmese army cause “peoples of the ethnic nationalities…to face endless troubles due to heinous acts of the military clique”.
On Monday this week troops from the army’s 33rd Light Infantry Division, which is under the command of the Eastern Regional Military Command and overseen by Major General San Oo, attacked the village of Honam in Shan state, one of a series of assaults in the region.
Then on Wednesday, Burmese troops reportedly captured a major SSA–North position at Namlao, Tangyan township, which lies southeast of the principal Shan town of Lashio. They attacked multiple positions, which according to the SSA–North resulted in an “intense fire fight.” The fighting was reported to have included the use of artillery by the SPDC, and a shell hit a nearby temple, killing four monks.
This position is seen as a key strategic target, both in the fight against the SSA-North but also against the larger and more powerful United Wa State Army (UWSA) – the Burmese junta fears the UWSA will coordinate with another Shan army, the Shan State Army–South (SSA–South), to aid the SSA–North.
The spokesperson for the SSA-South, Sai Lao Hseng, told DVB that “[The Burmese Army] has deployed their forces throughout the route via which we can provide each other assistance. Also, Wa [territory] is across the Salween river and [the Burmese army] is blocking the route [across the river] to keep the Wa from providing assistance”.
The 30,000-strong UWSA, which is said to be able to produce its own light weaponry, will be the most difficult armed group to subdue. The SSA–South, which split from the SSA–North, is also a potential nearby source of support for the armies.
The SSA–South foreign affairs spokesperson, known as Phillip, told DVB that the group’s leader, Yawd Serk, was holding discussions about whether assistance would be offered, but that “it is too early to say”.
There has long been talk of a more unified approach by the various recalcitrant ethnic armed groups of Burma, but this has so far failed to materialise on the battlefield in any meaningful way. The recent assault on the SSA–North will seemingly test the mettle and potential of the armed ethnic groups as to whether they can indeed effectively unite to combat the vast Burmese army.
The NDF’s strongly-worded statement, which also warns that continued attacks will force the ethnic armies “to resist collectively and thus the flame of civil war in Burma will burn more fiercely”, is an attempt to show the world a more unified face, but whether it results in collaborative military action remains to be seen.
The SPDC troops are said to be supported by light-armoured personnel carriers, probably of Ukrainian or Chinese origin. Burma’s nearly 500,000-strong army far out-numbers all ethnic armies put together.
An SSA–N statement reveals the group has been under growing pressure for a number of months and a significant number of their troops have taken to the Shan forests, from where they intend to counter the superior firepower of the SPDC with a mobile defence, or guerrilla tactics.
The fighting was also, according to the Shan Herald Agency for News, leading to an exodus of residents from conflict-torn areas, with women and children heading to nearby towns and cities. Men were being asked to remain to help repel the advance of the Burmese forces.
The NDF is made of of eight armed groups: the Arakan Liberation Party (ALP), Chin National Front (CNF), Karen National Union (KNU), Lahu Democratic Union (LDU), New Mon State Party (NMSP), Pa-O People’s Liberation Organization (PPLO), Palaung State Liberation Front (PSLF) and the Wa National Organization (WNO).