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Treading a Rocky Path: The Ta’ang Army Expands in Myanmar’s Shan State

September 4th, 2023  •  Author:   International Crisis Group  •  6 minute read
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Since the February 2021 coup in Myanmar, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) – one of the country’s most powerful ethnic armed groups – has strengthened its control of a swathe of territory in northern Shan State. In conjunction with Ta’ang civil society organisations, it is working to maintain the rule of law, deliver health and education services, and improve the local economy. Unlike some of Myanmar’s other ethnic armed groups, it has mostly avoided confronting the military since the coup. Instead, it has provided only covert support to anti-junta forces and engaged indirectly with new opposition political institutions. The group’s ambiguous post-coup positioning reflects its long-term ambition to achieve autonomy. As it assumes the role of a quasi-state, the TNLA should focus on supporting the population in its areas and avoiding military adventurism that might provoke conflict with other ethnic armed groups or the military; it should also cease coerced and underage recruitment for its armed forces. Outside actors should support the provision of services in Shan State, working through local civil society.

Since its inception in 2009, the TNLA has slowly acquired more strength and territory. It garnered popular support among the Ta’ang by pushing a strict anti-drug use policy and bringing together disparate communities under a common ethnic identity. Other ethnic armed groups in Myanmar – including the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) and, more recently, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), which is the largest such group and controls an autonomous region in Shan State – provided the training and weapons the TNLA needed to build up its armed forces. Over the past decade, it gradually expanded its geographical footprint. For much of that time, it regularly clashed with the Myanmar military and its allied militias, as well as the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), a rival ethnic armed group.

The 2021 coup has further strengthened the TNLA’s hand. Busy fighting on other fronts, the Myanmar military has largely withdrawn from the northern Shan State battlefield, enabling the group and its allies to gain territory and expel the RCSS from the area. The TNLA, which counts an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 personnel, can now project power into nearby towns. The military’s withdrawal has also enabled the TNLA to assert authority in places it controls and govern in a way that advances its goal of building a robust, autonomous Ta’ang nation. Working in partnership with Ta’ang civil society organisations, it has followed the lead of larger armed groups and created an incipient “Ta’ang State”, complete with courts, schools and health facilities. This quasi-state is very much a work in progress, but since the coup the group and its civil society partners, many of which are women-led, have moved well down the road toward creating a de facto autonomous governing body.

To focus on consolidating control, the TNLA has staked out a middle ground in Myanmar’s post-coup conflict. It now tries to steer clear of clashes with the military. Although the Ta’ang group has been an important source of training and weapons for new forces resisting the junta, it has avoided publicising this support. It has also kept informal its engagement with the National Unity Government (NUG) – a parallel administration set up by lawmakers ousted by the coup – instead allowing Ta’ang civil society groups and politicians to lead the way in building these relationships. The TNLA has also maintained contact with the junta. Along with two other ethnic armed groups, it recently had a rare meeting with regime negotiators tasked with striking ceasefire deals.

It did so under pressure from Beijing. China has longstanding ties to Myanmar, with which it shares a 2,160km border, and since the late 1980s has invested heavily in its neighbour, in part through its Belt and Road Initiative. In order to protect its economic interests, China is particularly keen to keep the southern border it shares with Shan State stable.

The TNLA’s positioning helps explain why building an anti-military coalition in Myanmar has proven so difficult. Most ethnic armed groups are hostile to the military regime, but they also see little prospect of it collapsing, making them reluctant to cement alliances with the NUG or armed resistance. Chinese pressures further push these groups away from overt confrontation. At the same time, the TNLA and other ethnic armed groups are influenced by their communities, civil society organisations, and the broader domestic and even international public. They thus have to balance various demands when determining the best pathway to achieving their objectives – in the TNLA’s case, a de facto autonomous Ta’ang State.

The group’s expansion in recent years also reflects a broader fragmentation within Myanmar’s national borders that has accelerated since the 2021 coup. With the central administration unable to operate normally, non-state armed groups such as the TNLA or civil society organisations working in the areas they control are the purveyors of public services to millions of people.

The TNLA’s rise is not without risk to it or the people under its control. Further expansion could provoke conflict with either other ethnic armed groups or the military. Even absent TNLA growth, the military may at some point seek to recapture some of the lost territory. Non-Ta’ang people in Shan State feel threatened by the TNLA’s gathering might, fanning inter-communal tensions. The high costs associated with maintaining a large armed force and system of governance also mean that the TNLA runs the risk of overreach. The need to raise revenue already appears to be pushing it into competition with other ethnic armed groups and pro-military militias, which could lead to sharpening hostilities.

Given the reality of state fragmentation in Myanmar, the people of northern Shan State will be best served through a combined effort by the TNLA, civil society and donors to manage conflict risk, improve governance and deliver services. The TNLA should refrain from further expansion, which would risk renewed conflict, and take greater care to avoid provoking other ethnic minorities living in its territory. It should reform its recruitment policies, including by ending conscription – often enforced through violence or threats thereof – and cracking down on recruitment of child soldiers. Meanwhile, donors should expand support for civil society organisations in northern Shan State, including not only Ta’ang groups but also those run by other ethnic minorities. Strengthening civil society would not only allow these groups to provide more services to civilians, but it would also afford them a degree of moderating influence over the leadership of armed groups, particularly when it comes to maintaining peaceful inter-ethnic relations in this corner of war-torn Myanmar.

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