KYAUK MAE DISTRICT, Northern Shan State — In the ethnic Palaung area in northern Shan State, speaking Burmese can generate suspicion among local people, who are distrustful due to their ongoing conflict with the Burmese military.
“For people here, Burmese is the language used by the Burmese army. So they are really afraid if they hear someone speaking in the language,” one local villager explained to me after I had convinced him that I had nothing to do with the army.
The Palaung, who call themselves Ta’ang, are a hill tribe mostly living in northern Shan State. They have waged an armed struggle against the Burmese government since 1963.
After the Palaung State Liberation Organization signed a ceasefire with the former military government in 1991 and disarmed in 2005, another Palaung army known as the Ta’ang National Liberation Army
(TNLA) was established by the Palaung State Liberation Front (PSLF) to continue the fight for equality and self-determination.
Burma’s central government has angered the group by listing Palaung as a sub-group of the
“We are not Shan. That’s why we take up armed struggle to be recognized as an independent race,” said Tar Parn La, deputy spokesman for the TNLA.
During years of conflict, the Palaung region has become an economic and social backwater.
Villages are connected only by red dirt roads that turn to mud when the rains come. Teachers at schools are heavily outnumbered by students. There’s no electricity. Government hospitals are unheard of. Villagers rely on nurses employed by the community. Villagers earn their living from farming and growing tea.
Migration is rampant, too. I only witnessed children and old people in most of the villages.
“Some join TNLA, while others go to China or Thailand or Rangoon for jobs,” an elder explained.
Opium is another challenge in the area. Most of the men are addicted to it, and eradicating of the drug is one of the main stated goals of the TNLA, which has a target to rid the area of poppies by 2017, according to Tar Parn La.
“To be recognized as an independent race and the eradication of opium in the area are our priorities,” he said.