Burma Army and government-backed militia troops exchanged fire with Shan State Army (SSA) soldiers Sunday in southern Shan State’s Mong Ton Township, according to a rebel spokesman.
The clash happened at Loi Pang Tong, near the Burmese-Thai border, after government-aligned troops based in nearby Mong Hta surrounded a temporary camp set up by SSA soldiers traveling through the area, according to SSA spokesman Col. Sai La.
“They [army troops and militiamen] surrounded us and told us that we are not allowed to build camps in the area,” Sai La said. “We have been using this route. Maybe the army thinks we are building a [permanent] camp, but we aren’t.”
It is the first reported skirmish between the SSA and government troops this year, although incidents have been common in the area even after a ceasefire agreement was signed in May 2012. The frequency of clashes reduced after SSA Commander in Chief Lt-Gen. Yawd Serk—who also chairs the Shan rebels’ political wing, the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS)—met with Burmese President Thein Sein in June 2013.
Sai La told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday that the area in which SSA troops were surrounded is territory the ethnic armed group has controlled since the 1990s, when the army was formed as a breakaway group when the Mong Tai Army—run by drug trafficker Khun Sa—surrendered to the government.
Sai La, who is secretary No. 2 of the RCSS, said SSA troops were on Monday still “surrounded and both sides and ready to fight,” but the situation had been defused by Tuesday.
Captain Lun Seng, the coordinator of the RCSS’s liaison office in Mong Ton said he met a local Burmese military commander on Monday, who ordered the rebels to “retreat” from Loi Pang Tong.
He said the army explained their actions by saying they were surprised by the SSA troops’ presence in the area.
“But we were not deploying in the area and we just stopped over there. We did not build an army camp,” Lun Seng said, adding that between 200 and 300 government-aligned troops had surrounded the temporary camp.
The SSA troops have since left Loi Pang Tong, Lun Seng added.
Shan leader Yawd Serk has repeatedly said he is on board with the government-led peace process. Burma’s ethnic armed groups are currently in talks with the government over a nationwide ceasefire agreement, although the next round of talks, slated to take place at the Karen State capital, Hpa-an, have been repeatedly delayed.
“Fighting does not take us anywhere, we prefer to continue holding dialogue as we have a ceasefire,” said Sai La. “The RCSS has to fight back only when the army attacks. It is our right to do so.”
Hla Maung Shwe, a special adviser to the government-linked Myanmar Peace Center, had not heard about the clash, but said he recognized the RCSS chairman’s willingness to progress with peace talks.
“An armed leader [Yawd Serk] thinking about leaving his gun behind and coming forward into the peace process is great, but the Tatmadaw might think differently. Therefore, difficulties still exist,” Hla Maung Shwe told The Irrawaddy.