Before the last checkpoint, we get out of the truck and run. For two hours, we’d been winding through rough mountain roads to avoid the six Thai army outposts placed between Pang Mapha, Thailand and Myanmar. Only journalists had to slink in. Fireworks illuminate the horizon and we take cover behind an embankment. There’s a glint of silver up the road: Our smiling driver made it past the Thais.He takes us through an outpost flying the Shan State flag and we soon see the lights of Loi Tai Leng below us. The lights brighten and the truck slows to a crawl. The narrow dirt road is thronged with people: dancing guerillas, meandering monks, giddy visitors in bright Shan costumes. Around us, soldiers and civilians make toasts in tarpaulin stalls while children bounce in an inflatable castle to the sound of rock’n’roll reverberating off the dark surrounding mountains.
Built in 2000, Loi Tai Leng is the isolated headquarters of the Shan State Army-South (SSA-S). Borne from the ashes of the Mong Tai Army, an opium-peddling rebel group that surrendered to the Burmese military in 1996, the SSA-S is now one of the largest fighting forces in the bloody and complex tapestry that is Myanmar’s civil war. Officially, the SSA-S no longer deals in narcotics. Along with its political wing, the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), the SSA-S styles itself as the voice of Myanmar’s Shan people: a Tai-speaking group that is closely related to the people of Laos and Thailand. The SSA-S is pushing for autonomy for the group, which makes up about 9% of Myanmar’s population. With an estimated 6,000 troops, the SSA-S operates from a string of bases that hug Thailand’s northwestern frontier. Mobile battalions penetrate as deep as the Salween River and the town of Kyaukme, some 600km northwest of the border. A separate Shan State Army -North fights in the northern parts of Myanmar’s Shan State. February 7 marked Shan National Day and, for the second year running, the SSA-S hosted a party at Loi Tai Leng. Thousands of Shans from Thailand and Myanmar descended on the normally quiet base for the three-day event, some travelling for more than a week to get here. “The risk is worth it,” a woman from northern Shan State told me. Upon return to her village, she risks fines or imprisonment under Myanmar’s Unlawful Associations Act. “Here,” she said, “we feel free.” Shan National Day commemorates the signing of the 1947 Panglong Agreement, when General Aung San (Aung San Suu Kyi’s father) and several major ethnic groups agreed to establish a national union that guaranteed ethnic autonomy and a right to secession. For the Shans, the agreement was doubly significant: For the first time in 600 years, feuding Shan principalities were able to unite for their common good. Aung San, however, would be assassinated only five months later, and the historic agreement would later be canned by Myanmar’s military junta.
Lines of flags flutter in the stiff breeze, and from the parade ground, one can see the emerald Shan Hills undulating deep into Thailand and Myanmar. Closer by, the houses of military families and displaced Shan people are perched on mountain slopes and nestled in Loi Tai Leng’s verdant valleys. Shan officials fill the stage, joined by leaders of other ethnic rebel groups. Monks and people in traditional Shan outfits mingle in the wings. President Thein Sein, we’re told, declined an invitation to attend. The celebrations start with military drills: new recruits with mohawks bench-pressing logs; black-clad commandoes moving in tight formation; and a mock hostage scenario punctuated by pyrotechnics. Drills turn into marches, songs and speeches. Several soldiers pass out under the blazing sun. “We are chained by the rulers of this country,” Lieutenant General Yawd Serk, 55, the man who has fronted the SSA-S since its inception, tells the crowd. Wearing bright Shan clothes and his trademark tinted glasses, he speaks of human rights violations and economic exploitation. “The future of Shan State is in the people’s hands,” he says. “If we want rights and democracy, we must seize it.” The parade ends and the soldiers march off the grounds gripping banners, sabres and firearms of diverse origins and ages – World War Two carbines, battered AK-47s, new M16s – while a Buddhist monk blesses them with holy water.
The SSA-S stands at a major crossroads. After years of fighting, it signed a ceasefire with Myanmar’s government in December 2011. Large-scale battles are now a thing of the past, but deadly skirmishes still occur almost weekly. Myanmar’s government, meanwhile, is now pushing the country’s ethnic armies to sign a comprehensive peace treaty. “The ceasefire was signed between the RCSS and the government, but the clashes are between our troops and the Burmese military,” Yawd Serk tells me from his airy mountaintop villa in Loi Tai Leng. He blames the clashes on overlapping patrols and suggests that the military is not firmly under Naypyidaw’s control. “We believe that President Thein Sein is an honest person… and we also want peace, so we are continuing to work on an agreement with him.” Right now, the SSA-S has two options: put down its arms and take less than what they have always been fighting for, or keep fighting and risk international ostracism and economic isolation. Neither choice is ideal, so the SSA-S keeps talking. “We’d like to join a federal union,” Yawd Serk says, “but right now, uncertainty is the name of the day.”
Night falls on Loi Tai Leng, and the clear sky is peppered with brilliant stars. A rock band kicks in to a Shan cover of “Glory, Glory” and the crowd goes wild. Hundreds of soldiers sway with bottles in their hands while dancing troupes swirl in harmony. One of our interpreters points to the guitar-strumming singer, a middle-aged colonel in an olive SSA-S uniform. “We have an SSA-S band,” the interpreter says proudly, “and he’s the chief of our business department.” The song – retooled to be about Shan nationalism – crescendos. A cold wind whips dust across the square, while the soldiers sing for freedom.