Fifty-two villagers arrested by the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), an ethnic armed group, were set free on September 21, according to Shan State Police Brigadier General Aung Aung.
The RCSS detained the residents of seven villages in the area of Namh Lang administrative unit in Thibaw/Hsipaw township, alleging that they were drug addicts and involved in the illegal narcotics trade.
The armed ethnic group released the villagers on the evening of September 21, returning them to their respective villages, Brig Gen Aung Aung said.
“They said the detainees were given anti-narcotics education and were then released,” he said.
In the wake of the villagers’ detention, the Tatmadaw and Myanmar Police Force ordered the RCSS liaison office in Kyaukme township to release the villagers or legal action would be taken against the group.
Despite the RCSS claim that the arrested villagers were drug addicts and dealers, state police largely suspect that the ethnic Shan armed group was recruiting.
Sai Nong, an RCSS liaison officer from Taunggyi, said his organisation has evidence that the detained villagers were drug addicts or dealers. When asked about the RCSS release of the villagers, however, he said he had no information concerning the circumstances of their release.
He denied that his organisation was recruiting.
“Drug problems are very bad in that area. It is the duty of the police to find the dealers and take action against them. It is not our responsibility,” he said.
The account of Sai Nong aligned with that of U Zaw Zaw Aung, a National League for Democracy member in Thibaw, who said his friends and party members from the area informed him that the villagers were linked to drugs.
“After they signed a promise stating that they would not be involved in drug dealing or drug taking, the villagers were released. This is what my colleagues told me,” U Zaw Zaw Aung said.
He added that he does not believe that the villagers were taken by the RCSS for the purpose of recruitment, because, he said, “If the RCSS wants to recruit them, they would not have been released.”
Administrative bodies in the region would follow up with the villagers and investigate whether they were in any way linked to drug dealing, police said.
U Zaw Zaw Aung said the issue of drug dealing and abuse has become a growing threat to young people in Thibaw and Lashio townships.
“The government should take serious actions against the drug dealers. There are drug addicts and dealers everywhere,” he said.
The RCSS signed the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) last October with the government led by then-president U Thein Sein. That agreement prohibits signatories from engaging in forcible recruitment.
Disputes and problems are meant to be resolved through a mechanism prescribed in the agreement, which involves a joint monitoring committee that is made up of representatives from the government, ethnic armed groups, civil society organisations and civilians. Political negotiations regarding decades-old grievances are supposed to be solved via political dialogue at the Union Peace Conference.
Brig Gen Aung Aung said authorities would present the matter to the next meeting of the state-level joint monitoring committee and protest the RCSS actions. A meeting of the state-level joint monitoring committee was convened earlier this year in Kho Lam, Shan State.
No action will be taken if breach of the NCA terms is determined this time, but similar action in the future will not be tolerated, said the brigadier general.
“We have a gentlemen’s agreement under the NCA. We will warn the group [at the next joint monitoring committee meeting] that such behaviour is not respecting our agreement. Such activity in the future will not be looked on kindly,” he said.
After signing the NCA last year, clashes between the RCSS and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, a non-signatory ethnic armed group based in northern Shan state, erupted in November. Months of ensuing skirmishes in the state’s north saw thousands of civilians displaced.