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The United Wa State Army (UWSA) and Burmese government officials are expected to meet this week in Naypyidaw to settle an ongoing logging dispute in southern Shan State.
Tensions between the two armed forces have been high since early June, after 16 UWSA-affiliated loggers were detained by government soldiers for what was deemed to be ‘illegal logging’, triggering a tense standoff around Mongton Township.
Last week saw the Burmese army release the detained loggers, after the Wa army reached out to the president’s office for help in resolving the situation. However, both groups continue to reinforce their troops, prompting a build-up of soldiers in the region.
According to the UWSA, Burmese military and ethnic units are currently facing off in the areas of Hopan, Hoyut, Nakawngmu and Bepewun, with about 1,000 troops on each side.
UWSA’s spokesperson said their external relations coordinator, Kawng Neng, departed for the capital on Tuesday following an invitation from President’s Office Minister Thein Zaw.
“Naypyidaw’s U Thein Zaw phoned us yesterday and suggested a talk to prevent gunfire in the standoff,” Aik Lu, the UWSA spokesperson, said on Tuesday.
“An official from our southern Shan State command, U Kawng Neng, has left for Naypyidaw and is expected to meet with the government officials in the evening.”
Aik Lu said the UWSA’s decision to send more troops into the area was a defensive measure after the Burmese army reinforced their units, and that the ethnic group – which has a troop strength estimated to be around 30,000 – has no wish to fight.
“We don’t want to fight at all – we favour peace and are ready to withdraw our troops when the Tatmadaw [government forces] do the same. But until then, we will not back down,” he said, adding that the group hoped to hear of developments when Kawng Neng arrives back from the Burmese capital.
Meanwhile, a Nakwangmu villager has reported that some locals in the area are fleeing to neighbouring towns and across the border to Thailand amid fears of renewed clashes.
“There are UWSA units to the south of our village and the Tatmadaw to the north – when we leave the village we are frequently questioned by troops from both sides,” said the villager.
“As their units are not too far from each other, fighting can break out very easily, and this has led many locals to seek safety in Thailand, Kengtung or Tachilek. At the moment, only about half the population remains in the village, and business is slow.”
The UWSA, after reaching a ceasefire with the State Law and Order Restoration Council government in 1989, was provided with a self-administrated zone in northern Shan State which includes Mongmao, Pangshang, Mongpawt and Pangwai townships. After the group expanded its operations to the state’s south in the mid-1990s, many Wa civilians began migrating to southern Shan State.
The UWSA, believed to be the strongest ethnic armed group in Burma, recently demanded a fully autonomous Wa state.