The Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army (RCSS/SSA) celebrated Shan National Day, on 7 February, as they always do, with a huge military parade at their mountain base of Loi Tai Leng.
This year was a special year, because it marked 70 years since the original signing of the Panglong Agreement on 12 February 1947 by General Aung San for the government and representatives of the Shan, Kachin and Chin ethnic groups in the southern Shan State town of Panglong.
This year also marked the 20th anniversary of the formation of the RCSS/SSA in 1997 when they split from Khun Sa’s Mong Tai Army after it surrendered to the Myanmar Government in 1996.
The festivities were also due to continue until 8 February because that day was the 60th birthday of the RCSS/SSA chairman and commander-in-chief, Lieutenant General Yawd Serk.
Loi Tai Leng is a permanent RCSS/SSA military base built on several mountain ridges just across the Thai-Myanmar border from Bang Mapha in Mae Hong Son province, northern Thailand. It has evolved into a small town with a school, a hospital a mini-mart and various other shops, though it is still clearly a military base and one of the central points is a large parade ground with a huge stage at one end.
It lies about 35km off the main road from Pai to Mae Hong Son Town. The road to the camp starts off paved, but as it climbs it deteriorates into a dusty, bumpy unmade road full of potholes, which is almost impossible to navigate without a four-wheel drive vehicle.
There are three Thai Army checkpoints along the road before you reach the final checkpoint at the border. Normally the Thai army restrict access to Loi Tai Leng, but for Shan National Day they were letting all vehicles through the checkpoints, including the final one into Myanmar.
After passing the Thai checkpoint you reach a checkpoint on the Myanmar side of the border. Rather than being manned by Myanmar Army soldiers it is manned by RCSS/SSA troops, because this small part of Myanmar is completely under their control. Once past there you are in Loi Tai Leng, it is the closest you could be to Thailand without actually being in Thailand.
People started arriving for the Shan National Day celebrations on 6 February. Most were Shan people from Mae Hong Son, Chiang Mai, and other parts of northern Thailand.
By the evening much of the base resembled a large, busy country fair. Yellow green and red Shan flags were flying everywhere and people dressed in traditional Shan clothes and soldiers wandered around enjoying themselves. Tarpaulin stalls had been erected all along the roadsides selling Shan clothes, souvenir Tee shirts, food and alcohol. There were also various fairground stalls where you could win prizes, usually more alcohol.
On the parade ground, there was an evening meal and show for visiting dignitaries and senior RCSS/SSA officers.
These included attendees from other ethnic armed organisations including General Saw Mutu Say Poe from the Karen National Union (KNU) and representatives from the All Burma Student Democratic Front (ABSDF), the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) and the Chin National Front (CNF).For the first time amongst the visiting dignitaries there were also western staff from embassies in Yangon.
These included the Swiss Ambassador, the New Zealand Ambassador and staff from the U.S. and Norwegian embassies. This was the first time foreign embassy staff had ever attended the RCSS/SSA Shan National Day celebrations, though RCSS/SSA representatives, including Lt. Gen. Yawd Serk have, at the invitation of the Swiss Government, already visited Geneva several times since the group signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) in October 2015.
At about 7.15am the next morning troops started massing at one end of the camp. They included a band all dressed in pristine white and female soldiers in fatigues.
The band and some of the soldiers, in particular the girls, looked far too young to be soldiers, but an RCSS/SSA official explained that the band was actually the school band and that some of those on parade were still at school.
He explained that Loi Tai Leng is where the RCSS/SSA train their soldiers. All soldiers pass through the camp and receive between nine months and a year’s training. The students at the school also receive military training whilst they are studying so that they require less training than raw recruits, but they do not get sent out from the camp until they are at least eighteen years old. Then, when they graduate and become soldiers they earn the princely sum of 480 baht (approximately $13.70) a month.
The rest of the soldiers on parade were made up of soldiers still in training and recent graduates of military training.
After about an hour the soldiers, led by the band marched the half kilometre through the streets to the parade ground. Rather than playing a sombre military number the band repeatedly played YMCA, a very strange and incongruous choice for a military parade, though it lent a jovial air to the proceedings.
At the parade ground Yod Serk and the other dignitaries sat on the stage awaiting the arrival of the soldiers. Before the soldiers paraded there were some demonstrations.
First were the special forces who jogged onto the parade ground with black painted faces and split off into pairs and took it in turns to attempt to use knives and guns to attack their partners who then disarmed them.
This was followed by a martial arts display by students. Finally, some potted bushes were laid out on the parade ground and tended to by civilian ‘farmers’ who were rapidly captured and abused by armed masked men. Fortunately, the RCSS/SSA came to the rescue. To the sound of a helicopter over the sound system the troops simulated landing from a hovering helicopter by abseiling down the tower at the back of the parade ground before launching a daring rescue of the captured farmers. Clearly the choreographers had used artistic licence or there had been some wishful thinking because at present the RCSS/SSA (or any other Myanmar ethnic armed organisation) do not actually possess any helicopters.
After the demonstrations, the parade ground filled with soldiers who were received by a saluting Yod Serk. There then followed about two and a half hours of speeches by Yawd Serk, other RCSS/SSA officials and the visiting dignitaries from the other ethnic organisations. As the sun rose in the sky and the temperatures soared all the troops bravely and patiently stood on the parade ground.
Unlike previous years the troops on the parade ground were unarmed. The reason for this was not completely clear, it may have been to make the celebrations appear to be less of a show of military might and more of a cultural celebration now that the RCSS/SSA have signed the NCA. It may also have been to reassure the visitors from the embassies that they are not a violent organisation looking for conflict.
In the afternoon Yod Serk gave a press conference in front of the backdrop of Loi Tai Leng. Unsurprisingly for such a ceremonial day he made no great or surprising revelations and skirted round any potentially awkward questions.
He re-iterated the RCSS/SSA’s support for the peace process and said he thought it would succeed, but that it would likely take time, comparing its progress to that of an elephant walking through the jungle which goes slowly but manages to push aside all obstacles in its path.
He said that so far the National League for Democracy-led government had only really achieved five per cent of what it needs to achieve. He thought this was not good enough and for the RCSS/SSA to continue supporting the NLD they would have to achieve at least 50 percent of their aims, but he is prepared to give them four more years and believes that by then they will have achieved 50 percent of what they need to achieve.
When questioned about the Mongton Dam and other dam projects in Shan State he said that they would consult with the locals and that if the locals did not want the dams or if the dams did not benefit them they would refuse to allow the government to go ahead and would prevent them from being built, but he did not elaborate on how exactly they would prevent the dams from going ahead and what effect such resistance may have on the peace process.
When asked about the fighting between the RCSS/SSA and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) in northern Shan State he said it had started as a result of misunderstandings and that he thought it would eventually be resolved, though he also claimed that the RCSS/SSA were prepared to enter into talks with the TNLA but the TNLA did not want to do so.
Several times he made the point that his organisation would just ask the Shan people what they wanted and would follow their will, serve them and help them to achieve what they wanted.
As night fell on Doi Tai Leng various Shan entertainers took to the stage to entertain the visitors and soldiers.
This year’s Shan National Day celebrations seemed less overtly militaristic than previous ones. Rather than an armed group serving notice to the government that they were ready and capable to take them on militarily this seemed to be more aimed at the Shan people. It felt more like a Shan cultural event than a military parade.