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Leaders of the two main Shan military factions at the weekend met on the Thai-Burma border and affirmed a new-found unity under one Shan State Army.
Officials from the formerly Shan State Army-North, now known as the Shan State Progressive Party (SSPP), travelled to Loi Taileng to attend the 53rd Shan Revolution Day. The annual ceremony was led by Yawd Serk, chairman of Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), whom alongside the SSPP’s Lt-Gen Sai Htoo, asserted that “there is only one Shan State Army”.
The SSPP came under attack in March as the Burmese army sought to assert control over the group, who had refused to sign the government’s Border Guard Force agreement. The attack prompted the SSPP to join the new United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC).
The fighting centred around Namlao, near Hsipaw in the north of Shan state. Sai Htoo confirmed that battles were still underway, with possible counter attacks likely in the area. He also confirmed that villagers were still fleeing in fear of being used as porters by the Burmese army.
The RCSS however are yet to join the UNFC. Its spokesperson, Sai Lao Hseng, told DVB that a decision was being considered, but that Shan unity was their precondition for joining. The resistance day event on 21 May was a “golden opportunity” to seek such unity, he said.
The spokesperson also asserted that the combined strength of the two armies greatly increased their power, with manpower close to that of the United Wa State Army (UWSA), Burma’s largest armed ethnic group.
Yawd Serk confirmed to DVB that the RCSS was assisting the SSPP with supplies in the current conflict. Neither leader could confirm the presence of fresh reinforcements of Burmese troops, reportedly sent from Arakan state.
The Mong Tai Army (MTA), the previous incarnation of the Shan State Army, split in 1996 when former leader and drug baron Khun Sa surrendered to the Burmese. According to some, the surrender was to avoid being arrested on drugs charges. He was later given asylum by the Burmese.
The northern faction signed a ceasefire in 1996 instigated by then Prime Minister Khin Nyunt, whilst the southern faction under the command of Yawd Serk carried on the struggle.
The UNFC is made up of a number of ethnic armies who are seeking an alliance that will draw all parties into conflict should the Burmese attack any member. There is also potential to create a so-called Union Army to fight as one in the image of the desired federal system. This is the stated aim of the grouping.
The UNFC attempted to meet in the Thai town of Chiang Mai on 9 May, but Thai authorities blocked it. Instead the meeting was held in Loi Taileng.
The principal members of the UNFC are the Kachin Independence Army, the Karen National Union, the Chin National Front, the SSPP, the Karenni National Progressive Party and the New Mon State Party.