On November 20, four of Burma’s ethnic armed groups – the Arakan Army (AA), Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) – launched coordinated military offensives against Burma military outposts and police stations in the areas of Muse, Namkham and Kutkai in northern Shan State.
Clashes have now been continuous for more than two weeks in the China-Burma border region. Almost 20 lives have been lost in the fighting, including civilians, and more than 50 people have been injured. Thousands of locals have fled their homes to escape being caught in the crossfire; many have crossed the border and are currently sheltering on Chinese territory.
Earlier this week, Aung Thu, an MP from the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), submitted a proposal to the Shan State government, declaring that the four militias, who now call themselves the “Northern Alliance,” should be collectively classified as a terrorist organization. The motion was approved narrowly by a vote in the Taunggyi assembly on November 7.
But what are the effects of labeling the group “terrorists”? What are the likely consequences, and could it make matters worse for those living in the affected region? Shan Herald spoke to several local activists and asked their opinions.
“The Tatmadaw should also be labeled ‘terrorists’,” said Lway Cherry, joint general-secretary of the Palaung Women’s Organization (PWO). “This is exactly what they have been doing to maintain power in the country since 1962. They have continuously launched offensives in ethnic territories; but here they are accusing and killing the ethnic people and the rebels. Ethnic women have been tortured and raped. Their houses and villages have been destroyed, causing villagers to flee their homes. This kind of action is what I call ‘terrorist.’
“During the 1988 uprising, many students were tortured and killed by Burmese troops. A similar thing happened to Buddhist monks during the Saffron Revolution of 2007. That’s why I regard the Burmese armed forces as terrorists. At the same time, any armed group that abuses civilians should be listed as a terrorist organization.
“Labeling ethnic groups as terrorists will not solve the problem. In order to bring about peace, every group should be included in the negotiations.”
Moon Nay Li, the general-secretary of Kachin Women’s Association Thailand (KWAT), echoed Lway Cherry’s view that it is in fact Burma’s government forces that should be labeled a ‘terrorist group’.
“Burmese soldiers rape women wherever they go,” she said. “They kill and torture ethnic people wherever they go. Innocent people including women, children and the elderly have been killed or forced to work as porters. Their properties have been looted; their houses burnt down. Even students in uniform were shot dead. All of these crimes were committed by Burmese troops, and never were they held to account.
“Now we have a period of peace-making. Each armed group must begin the process of trust-building by laying down their arms, and forcing the others to do likewise. And they must each show respect to ethnic people as per the terms of the Panglong agreement.”
Ying Harn Fa, the spokesperson for the Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN), contends that any armed group that violates the country’s laws should be classified as a terrorist organization.
“However, as to whether the Northern Alliance are terrorists, this matter has been discussed and rejected in the Union Parliament during a lower house session on 2 December. That’s why it was brought up at a state level. As for us [SWAN], we objected to the proposal.
“Everyone knows we [Shan people] have been oppressed by the Burmese military for over 60 years. It is they who advanced into our territory, not the other way around. They destroyed our property; they killed and raped our people. The ethnic armed groups do not routinely abuse their own people. If they are considered ‘terrorists,’ then the Tatmadaw must also be terrorists.
“If we begin referring to each other as ‘terrorists,’ they will no peace in Burma. It will destroy the process of national reconciliation.”
On the other hand, Khuensai, the managing director of the Pyidaungsu Institute for Peace and Dialogue (PI), told us that he believes there is no need for concern.
“The state government has no power to make laws regarding terrorism,” he said. “Just as it has no authority over home affairs, foreign affairs and legislature. Therefore, even though the Shan State government approved a motion describing the four armed groups as terrorists, it will not be mandated by law.
“We have to ask those who raised this issue why they did it,” he continued. “Perhaps the reason is to frighten civilians and other ethnic armed groups.
“Secondly, they can now push the Union Government to mandate the issue. A terrorism law was drafted in 2014 at a union level, but time will tell whether the decision made by the Shan state government will have an impact at a union level. We’ll have to keep an eye on it.
“I want to say that, for now, the decision made at Shan State level is not law, so we do not need to be over-concerned.”
Finally, Sai Lek, the spokesperson for the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), questioned how a proposal that had already been discussed at a union level could then be brought to state level for approval.
“This has never happened before,” he said.