In Myanmar’s Shan state, the rolling hills and limestone caves across the vast territory have long harboured deep ethnic divisions and territorial disputes.
As efforts to topple the military regime continue to mount following the February 1 coup, the ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) of Shan State, among the most powerful in the country, have become coveted allies for the anti-junta movement.
With more than half the total fighting force of ethnic militaries in Myanmar, support from Shan could be vital, offering much needed strength if they were to join with the anti-coup resistance now led by the National Unity Government (NUG).
The civilian NUG was formed on April 16 by lawmakers elected in Myanmar’s November 2020 elections. But as of now, there is only one representative from Shan serving in the NUG and many of the state’s powerful military organisations remain mistrustful of the civilian administration, not yet willing to join forces with its proposed federal army.
“Our concern is that they will use us to oppose the military coup but will not grant us the federalism,” said Sai Kham Sarm, the spokesperson for the Shan State Army South (SSA-S), one of the state’s major EAOs that has chosen not to take part in the unity government.
The lack of involvement among Shan-based EAOs and political parties is not due to exclusion, with all reportedly approached by the NUG since its formation. But while they share in the stated goal of the new civilian government, they are more hesitant to join given the history of ethnic persecution and unkept promises in Myanmar politics.
The Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), an EAO representing the Ta’ang people, was sent messages requesting that they join the unity government and the federal army shortly after its formation. But they have not yet had any direct contact with the emergent civilian leadership nor have they issued a formal response, waiting to see what unfolds, according to TNLA general secretary Brigadier General Tar Mong Kyaw.
“Now their [NUG] policies are quite good – on paper it looks good – but we have to wait and see how much they can actually guarantee the promises they have declared.”
This similar sentiment is shared by the SSA-S, who maintain that joining the new civilian government would not further their interests for greater autonomy.
“The concept of federalism is that all member states are owners of their federal state. So there is no need to join them [the NUG], there is no need to be under them,” said the spokesperson.
“Ethnic groups have learned lessons from the past. We are concerned they will just use us to oppose the military coup but will not grant any federalism.”
The TNLA and SSA-S, which together count nearly 20,000 soldiers, would be significant assets to a future federal army. But after decades of fighting for their rights and greater autonomy, skepticism among both groups remains embedded.
“We welcomed the NLD [National League for Democracy] government in 2015,” said Mong Kyaw referring to the civilian government ousted by the military on February 1.
“But after that, they didn’t give the floor to us to talk about politics. We didn’t get the opportunity to try and solve any of the problems, and so we have to wait and see with the NUG.”
Maing Win Htoo, a representative from the Ta’ang National Party, represents one of the fews exceptions to this federal skepticism in Shan state.
A member of the Ta’ang ethnic group, now acting as the newly-appointed deputy union minister and Shan state’s sole representative in the unity government, he breaks from many of his counterparts, believing that any change in Myanmar politics needs to start from within.
“I am one of the indigenous people of Myanmar and we have a responsibility to change the situation in our country and to dismiss the coup,” he told the Globe. “We have to join with the NUG to change the situation in Myanmar and at the same time the NUG have to keep their promise of building a federal democratic country too.”
While the TNLA and Ta’ang National Party are not affiliated, as members of the same ethnic group Maing Win Htoo’s representation in the new government is being closely followed by the TNLA, which is waiting to see what comes from his involvement and promises of diversity.
“For us [the TNLA], we have to wait and see how he [Maing Win Htoo] will collaborate with the NUG, how he will implement the people’s will,” said Mong Kyaw.
Wa state is very isolated – isolated culture and isolated territory. We have no interest in other people’s politics and other people’s wars. We only protect our territory and our people
But while EAOs like the TNLA and the SSA-S are withholding support in an effort to impel change, another insurgent group in Shan state is holding back to maintain the status quo.
Wa state is a distinct administrative division in Myanmar. Though it remains under Myanmar sovereignty within the geographic borders of Shan state, as a semi-autonomous region it has its own government and military, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), which at an estimated 25,000 soldiers is the largest EAO in Myanmar.
But, according to a senior figure within the UWSA, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, the Wa are unwilling to lend any support which could jeopardise their independent status.
“Wa state is very isolated – isolated culture and isolated territory. We have no interest in other people’s politics and other people’s wars,” the senior figure told the Globe. “We only protect our territory and our people.”
This reclusiveness is not lost on those in the rest of Shan state, with both the TNLA and SSA-S noting that the UWSA would be unlikely to direct their extensive manpower and weaponry to supporting a federal army.
Even following the military coup and the mass violence that has broken out in ethnic areas, Wa has not shifted in its stance, continuing to hold true to its mandate of non-interference. If anything, efforts to reinforce its insulation have increased to protect the state from the unraveling instability in other parts of the country, according to the UWSA figure.
“The NUG sent a letter to the UWSA near the end of March and invited us to cooperate with the federal army in the future,” he said. “But they don’t pay respect to our minority rights or our political requirements, so we have not yet decided on any answer. I really hope we [UWSA] do not join with a federal army.”
But the UWSA’s misgivings towards the NUG do not mean support for the military. While the army maintains an ongoing ceasefire agreement with the Tatmadaw and more cordial relations with the military than its regional counterparts, distrust still reigns.
“We are always on the frontlines with the [Myanmar] army because we don’t trust them. They never keep their promises,” said the senior figure. “They came to [the capital] Pangkham and said not to join the [NUG’s] federal army but we didn’t say yes or no because the [Myanmar] military sector is not our ally, only a quiet friend.”
However, pressure on the UWSA could soon mount as military violence escalates, especially if a federal army takes form. As the strongest EAO in the country, the UWSA could prove pivotal in arming a federal army by selling weapons from their own arsenal or coordinating sales with close ally China. Before the military coup, reports indicated that the UWSA was the main source for weapons coming into northeastern Myanmar, both from their own manufacturing sites, as well as from China.
But, even amidst widespread reports that the state is closely tied to Chinese security forces, the UWSA rejects any claims of dependency on China, maintaining absolute self-reliance both economically and militarily.
“We share a 500km boundary with China, but China cannot interfere in any topic or instruction in Wa state. We have our own arms factories and we repair old arms that were left behind in Wa state from before,” said the senior figure.
“China doesn’t give us arms, never.”
Similarly, China has shown that it is unwilling to intervene in Myanmar’s internal affairs, avoiding any concrete position on the coup or the NUG, but this could change with the advent of a new federal army.
At present, while involvement in a federal army from EAOs in Shan state seems a distant prospect, history of internal strife and fragile political alliances also cast significant doubt.
Shan state boasts the largest number of EAOs in the country, but these different groups are not unified, with long-standing conflict between the TNLA and their allies in the north and the SSA-S in the south due to land disputes, as well as the latter’s involvement in the illicit drug trade.
With the infighting showing no signs of slowing, a unified federal army could prove a challenging feat.
“We are fighting with the [SSA-S]. Until now we still have a war so there is a big crisis in our area. And with the military coup it’s all been the same, they deployed a lot of troops to the area and their army [SSA-S] is growing so fast,” said TNLA secretary general Mong Kyaw. “There will continue to be a big war between us.”
The SSA-S has been growing in size, offering refuge to anti-coup protesters looking to take up arms. According to spokesperson Kham Sarm, to date, nearly 600 people have arrived in SSA-S controlled areas to train with the EAO since the coup.
“We welcome the youth, students and officials who participate in the strike against the military. We train them to defend themselves so if the military attacks them, they can protect themselves from the bullets and know how to respond,” said Kham Sarm. “We also offer them security, and give them food and accommodation.”
While the growing number of recruits strengthens the SSA-S’ opposition to the military, it also increases resistance to its state adversaries. Yet, despite the ongoing conflicts, recent efforts to mend divisions have begun with the Peace Process Steering Committee, a group of EAOs signatory to the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, including the SSA-S, agreeing to reach out to non-signatories, including the TNLA and the UWSA.
Given the long-standing divisions between the two camps, an effort to bring both sides to the table could prove promising in building unity across different EAOs. However, dialogue is a long way from military cooperation, and for many EAOs forging new military alliances, especially in Shan state, is unlikely.
There has also been talk of expanding the Northern Alliance, a military grouping of four EAOs in Myanmar’s highlands and one of the strongest opposition forces to the Tatmadaw in the country. But for the TNLA, a member of the alliance, expanding it to include new groups like the SSA-S or the UWSA would not be feasible.
“It would be impossible because we have fought together for such a long time with no military cooperation from them [SSA-S and UWSA],” said TNLA general secretary Tar Mong Kyaw.
With this skepticism running deep from decades of conflict and the high cost of altering or growing alliances, EAOs in Shan state remain adamantly undecided on the prospect of a federal army.
“We oppose the coup, but without guarantees of federalism how can we step towards a federal army?” asked spokesperson Kham Sarm. “We welcome the NUG and the federal army because they work for the people, but welcome and support are not the same.”