Shan State

Rebels with a cause

From our print archive: For almost half a century the Shan have been fighting a torrid battle for their independence and culture

Antonio Graceffo
August 20, 2019
Rebels with a cause
Marching for independence: the SSA is a well-trained, disciplined force of 10,000

Editor’s note: Myanmar’s Shan State has once again become wracked with violence after ethnic armed groups allegedly launched attacks against police and military outposts. But fighting is nothing new in the restive border province. In February 2008, Southeast Asia Globe was smuggled across the Thai border to meet the armed forces of the Shan State Army – South, whose own struggle for self-determination has dragged on for nearly half a century. Now, for the first time, you can read their stories online.

Soldiers in green fatigues carrying AK-47 assault rifles carved out of wood march about the parade ground chanting: “Sai, sai, sai, kwa, sai. Sai, kwa, sai.” When the whistle blows signalling the start of lunch, the soldiers frantically run back to their lean-to huts where they secure their aluminium mess tins. They then wait patiently in line until it is their turn to be served. Next, they file into an open-air mess area, sit at attention and stare hungrily at their food. When the last soldier is seated, a sergeant shouts a command prompting the men to sing: “We eat to make our bodies strong. We eat for victories. We eat for our homeland.”

Wooden soldiers: hand-to-hand combat is part of the troops’ 14-hour training day. Photo: Antonio Graceffo for SEA Globe

The sergeant blows a whistle and the men tear into their food as if they had not eaten for a month. This is one of three short breaks the men will receive during their 14-hour day at the Shan State Army (SSA) headquarters and training grounds at the Doi Tailang mountain stronghold. 

This wasn’t the sight I had expected to find after I had been smuggled into the army’s headquarters. Rather than a rowdy bunch of moustachioed rebels, the SSA is a well-trained, disciplined military force of 10,000. At present it controls 60% of the state’s land mass and fights daily to maintain its lines.

The force is one of the largest tribal armies battling against the Burmese federal government. For nearly 50 years the Shan have been fighting for the independence they were promised by their British colonial masters. 

Shan state became a British protectorate in 1887 that was administrated by the saophas, or princes, until 1959. During their reign they signed the Panglong agreement, which gave Shan State the right to autonomy followed by full independence in 10 years. In order to join the Union of Burma, and gain full independence from Britain, the saophas resigned in 1959. 

Three years later General Ne Win seized control of Burma, ousted the Shan state government and nullified the Panglong agreement. That prompted the creation of the SSA, which began its fight for independence against the Burmese.

“Please tell the world about our struggle,” said Colonel Yawd Serk, a bright and intelligent veteran of 200 battles and supreme commander of the SSA forces. 

 In the areas that the SSA does not control, the civilians are victims to all manner of human rights abuses perpetrated by government troops. There are widespread reports of villagers being used as forced labour, farmers are often “taxed,” as the Burmese army steal their rice and livestock, entire villages are often burned to the ground or forcibly relocated, boys as young as 14 are pressed into the Burmese army and the Shan language is being driven to virtual extinction.

Soup kitchen: a third of the 750 children at the camp are war orphans. Photo: Antonio Graceffo for SEA Globe

“It is illegal to teach the Shan language in the Burmese-controlled areas,” says Lieutenant Philip, a former monk who, after completing ten years of Buddhist education abroad, returned to his homeland to join the fight for independence. “In the temples, sometimes we can lie and say we are teaching Pali or Buddhist history when we are really teaching the children the Shan language. But it can be dangerous.”

At Doi Tailang, however, there is no shortage of Shan culture. The language is spoken proudly and the street signs and pamphlets are written in the Shan alphabet. Approximately 750 children attend school on the base, where they study Shan, Thai, Burmese and English. Sadly, 250 of the children are war orphans. The base has everything from barber shops, petrol stations, restaurants, and grocery stores to a school, training centre and hospital. “Soon we will build an internet café,” said Philip proudly.

Doi Tailang is built along a ridge with a sheer drop on three sides. There is a small Buddhist monastery with a number of monks and young novices. The families of high-ranking soldiers live in the village. Below is a camp for internally displaced people; there are currently 350 families living there. These people were driven from their homes by the SPDC. Food, medicine and other aid cannot get to them because the camp is located on the Burmese side of the border.

On the other side of Doi Tailang is the military training ground. In addition to the boot camp, there is a five-month course for sergeants. Every Shan male over the age of 18 must serve five years in the army. After that he may retire or make the army his career. He can marry in the third year – with permission from his commanding officer. 

Soldiers train from early morning till late evening and have Sundays off. They are fed large quantities of rice three times a day. Vegetables are minimal and meat is nearly non-existent, so the army supplements their diet by hunting animals in the forest. 

Their salary is 200 baht ($6.50) a month, but the army often has financial troubles and soldiers maybe only get paid three times a year.

The conflict in the tribal areas is political and ethnic. Shan State should probably never have been included in the Union of Burma, as the people are more closely related to Thais than the Burmese. The Shan belong to the Tai ethnic group, which includes the people of Thailand and Laos. The Burmese are from a different linguistic and ethnic origin. As a result, the Shan feel close to Thailand. The SSA display pictures of the current Thai king and often wear T-shirts with his royal emblem. 

One of the principles of the Shan state government is equal rights for all minorities living within its borders. They also promote the maintenance and teaching of tribal languages. 

There is no reliable census data, but the SSA puts the population of the Shan state at 8.5 million. This figure includes the Palong, who number nearly 1 million. The Palong no longer has its own army and its troops have merged into the SSA.

Root and branch: every Shan male over the age of 18 serves for five years in the army. Photo: Antonio Graceffo for SEA Globe
Fighting talk: the SSA’s Colonel Serk favours a military solution. Photo: Antonio Graceffo for SEA Globe
Beating the bounds: at present the SSA controls 60% of the state’s landmass. Photo: Antonio Graceffo for SEA Globe

There are thought to be between 1 million and 1.5 million Shan or Tai-Ai people living in northern Thailand, most notably in Chiang Mai where there are several Shan temples. Burma experts, working from Chiang Mai, told me that the SSA is seen as a proxy army for the Thai government in patrolling the border and controlling the narcotics trade of other more violent groups, most notably the Wa.

The SSA also serves as a buffer of Tai ethnicity, separating the Thais from their ancient Burmese enemy. About 20% of the SSA speak Thai, and many have Thai passports. Almost none of them can speak Burmese.

Serk understands the value of good public relations and expresses the hope that anyone from the wider world community will come to his people’s aid against the estimated 400,000 Burmese government troops.

“If China invades Burma, the US and the UN will get angry. If the US invades, China will be angry.” 

 “The UN can do nothing,” he said with disgust, “all they do is talk. Sanctions are nothing. They can do nothing.” He says he is in favour of a military solution. “If China invades Burma, the US and the UN will get angry. If the US invades, China will be angry.” 

He quoted the enormous cost of the US and Iraq war. “If they spent a quarter of that money to arm the tribal armies, we could win. The SPDC bought many weapons from China and India. During the September [2006] protests, China told the SPDC to change its tactics, because they were afraid of US intervention. But they didn’t put on enough pressure because they have a lot of business in Burma.

 “Do you think you could get Rambo to come here? If my men could see him it would encourage them and they would fight like lions. England profited from Shan state for 60 years and they left us with nothing. Britain could come here and help us solve our problems.”

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