The “Red Shan” of northern Burma announced the formation of their armed group, the Shanni Nationalities Army (SNA), on social media last week, amidst calls for their own state in parliament.
Described as an independent organization “not under any other group,” the SNA claims to represent the Shan peoples of northern Burma. With a population estimated at 300,000, the Red Shan—translated to Shan-ni in Burmese and Tai-leng in Shan—largely live in southern Kachin State, particularly near Mohnyin and Bhamo, and in Sagaing Division.
SNA soldiers (Photo: The Shanni Nationalities Army / Facebook)
“If the tiger has no fangs, the animals will not be afraid of it,” said a retired Shan-ni soldier from Kachin State, who asked not to be named. “If the people have no guns, we will not be safe. We cannot protect our area.”
He said he believes that the establishment of an armed group will give the Red Shan a more prominent role in Burma’s political dialogue, which was initiated this month with a five-day conference in Naypyidaw; a commonly held perception is that arms allow for demands to be taken more seriously at Burma’s negotiating table.
The Tai-leng Nationalities Development Party (TNDP), which won one state seat in November’s parliamentary election, asked the government to demarcate a Shan-ni State made up of territory within Kachin State and Sagaing Division.
The Pa-O and Wa also voiced demands for self-administrated ethnic states at January’s Union Peace Conference. These proposed states would lie within Shan State’s current boundaries.
Such calls for separation have been met with concern by other ethnic leaders, including Khun Htun Oo, chairman of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD).
“If we give states to [these] ethnic groups, our country will face problems like Yugoslavia,” he said in a SHAN article published in Burmese on January 15, referring to the eastern European federation which broke up along ethnic lines following a violent civil war in the 1990s. “The Union of Myanmar will disappear,” he added.
Little else is known or was revealed about the SNA, their numbers, political positions, activities or their leadership.
“Now is not the time to tell who our commander is,” the Shan-ni ex-soldier told SHAN.
Officially, the SNA dates its formation back to July 1989, but the group is not included on lists of Burma’s active armed organizations. Some suggest that the year could correspond to the formation or recognition of a Red Shan faction within one of the other armed struggles in which they were involved.
After Burma’s 1988 pro-democracy uprising, it is known that many Shan-ni served in the All-Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF), a political and armed opposition group that was particularly active in the country’s borderlands. These Shan-ni soldiers later formed affiliations with the Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army-South (RCSS/SSA-S) in the 1990s.
A Red Shan brigade within the RCSS/SSA-S was active in northern Shan State and was commanded by the controversial former ABSDF leader Than Chaung—also known as Than Gyaung, Khun Kyaw or Myint Soe—who, since 2006, has been serving a life sentence in Tharrawaddy Prison, according to documents released by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).
One of the SNA’s promises is to “protect local people bullied by other armed groups.” Since the 1960s, Red Shan communities have been situated between two powerful militaries—the Kachin Independence Army/Organization (KIA/O) and the Burma Army. They report having suffered abuses from both sides in the conflict, which has reportedly contributed to the organization of informal Shan-ni militias over the years.
The SNA has reported one clash with the government this month: an outbreak of fighting on January 11 on the Burma-India border. They claimed that Burmese troops from ground force Battalion 369 in Sagaing’s Homelin Township surrounded them on all sides, including from within Indian territory. Three SNA soldiers were allegedly arrested by the Burma Army and one SNA sergeant was killed.
By Staff / Shan Herald Agency for News (S.H.A.N)
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