Monday, August 21, 2017

"Red Shan" caught between violence in Kachin State conflict

Residents in some Red Shan villages, including Tar Law Gyi, have resorted to forming a people’s militia to protect themselves. (Supplied)Residents in some Red Shan villages, including Tar Law Gyi, have resorted to forming a people’s militia to protect themselves. (Supplied)

In the Kachin State conflict, the people of the Tai-Leng, or “Red Shan”, ethnic group from the south of the state say they have faced violence and discrimination at the hands of soldiers on both sides of the conflict, prompting some communities to form militia units to protect themselves.

The Red Shan first settled in the plains of southern Kachin State 900 years ago and since then they have earned a living from agriculture and commodities trading. They speak their own dialect of the Shan language and are almost exclusively Buddhist.

Red Shan community leaders say the group numbers as much as 100,000, about one-third of the total Shan population in Kachin State, which is home to about 1.2 million people.

Shan communities have been squeezed by fighting in Kachin State between government and Kachin Independence Army (KIA) soldiers that broke out in June 2011, ending a 17-year ceasefire.

“We are a nation afraid of both sides,” said U Saw Win Tun, secretary of the Tai-Leng (Red Shan) Nationalities Development Party and resident of Myitkyina, the Kachin State capital.

According to members of the Tai-Leng party, government soldiers often take food and other supplies from Red Shan farmers by force.

Since last year, U Saw Win Tun said government troops have levied heavy taxes against Red Shan villages and forced “many dozens” of their residents to become porters in the Tatmadaw, a practice that has regularly been documented by rights group such as Human Rights Watch.

But far from seeking protection under the KIA by fleeing to relief camps, as many of the state's Kachin population have done, Red Shan living in conflict zones say the most violent abuses often come from soldiers on the rebel side.  

U Saw Win Tun said the KIA, like the Tatmadaw, extorts taxes from small villages, to the point where residents end up paying 20 to 30 percent of their monthly income to armed groups.  Those that refuse to pay are often driven from their homes.

“A lot of our Shan villages suffer,” said a young Red Shan teacher from Myitkyina, who asked not to named. “This year, in March, the KIA fired on [the Red Shan village of] Tar Law Gyi [in Myitkyinwith heavy weapons ... 500 people fled to refugee camps. Right now, about 200 [Tai-Leng] students are staying at a local monastery.”

According to U Saw Win Tun, about 20,000 Shan people in Kachin State have been displaced by the fighting, which would mean they comprise about one-quarter of the total displaced.

He said the number is relatively high because most of the Shan villages are in the south of the state, where much of the fighting has taken place.