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In Pictures: Shan National Day draws a crowd to RCSS’s border headquarters

A special commando unit of the RCSS-SSA listen to their leader Lieutenant-General Yawd Serk speak. Leaders from most of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement signatories were in attendance and were joined by the Swiss and Italian ambassadors to Burma, as well as several UN representatives. (Photo: Brennan O’Connor for DVB)

LOI TAI LENG, Shan State — During the 71st Shan National Day commemoration at the headquarters of the Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army-South’s Loi Tai Leng headquarters last week, European ambassadors and UN representatives rubbed shoulders with ethnic armed group leaders, all the while being guarded by Shan soldiers and observed by inquisitive villagers.

The European Union ambassador to Burma, Kristian Schmidt, and Pier Giorgio Aliberti, the Italian ambassador to Burma, dressed in traditional Shan clothing. The Dutch ambassador to Burma, Wouter Jurgens, also joined the celebration at the remote headquarters, located on a series of dusty and narrow mountaintops straddling the border with Thailand.

Several leaders of Burma’s ceasefire groups were present on 7 February for this year’s Shan State National Day, which pays homage to when Shan royalty and other leaders created the Shan States Council in opposition to the Federated Shan States Council under the British Empire, preceding the signing of the Panglong Agreement in 1947. Even the United Wa State Army’s southern command sent a representative for the first time, a landmark appearance given that the two sides have had a tense relationship over the years, including occasional armed clashes.

In some ways, the presence of several high-profile guests during Shan State National Day obscured some of the obstacles the RCSS/SSA-S is facing.

Relations with the Tatmadaw have worsened in recent months. During a press conference at last week’s festivities, Lieutenant-General Yawd Serk, chairperson for the RCSS/SSA-S, surprisingly spoke positively about peace talks with the government and the Tatmadaw, despite a series of troubling interactions with its soldiers.

“We need time to renegotiate with the government again,” the chairperson explained.

Despite the recent setbacks, he said he is still confident about the peace process, sounding a lot more upbeat than the strongly worded RCSS/SSA-S statement released a month earlier. In it, the Tatmadaw was criticised after forcibly blocking public consultations in villages in advance of political dialogue guaranteed under the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement’s terms. During the meetings in villages, Tatmadaw soldiers arrived “fully armed with war weapons as if to seize an enemy stronghold,” according to the statement.

There have also been clashes between the two sides since signing a bilateral ceasefire in 2011.

The Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), which the RCSS/SSA-S signed in October 2015, promises political dialogue, yet the Tatmadaw has been stalling while pushing for DDR (disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration).

In a related conflict that has at times also involved the Burmese military, Yawd Serk said representatives of the RCSS/SSA-S have been meeting for talks with leaders from the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) to end tensions that he claimed started over a misunderstanding more than two years ago. Yet it doesn’t appear to be going so well after an RCSS/SSA-S military leader in northern Shan State reported by a phone messenger service a recent TNLA attack on his camp located in Namhsan Township. Fighting started after the RCSS/SSA-S moved troops into northern Shan State a month after signing the NCA, which the TNLA was excluded from.

About 6,000 Shan refugees lost their food ration support last September after The Border Consortium announced cuts. Some living in Loi Tai Leng have had to leave behind its relative security to seek work in neighbouring Thailand or other areas of Shan State, Yawd Serk said, but he’s helping to provide basic support to some families.