Burma Link | July 13, 2015
Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the armed wing of Palaung State Liberation Front (PSLF), is one of the ethnic resistance armed organisations that vows not to lay down arms until there is a guarantee of political negotiations. Burma Link spoke with two TNLA soldiers, Mai and Mai Main, who were sent by their leaders to study human rights and politics in Mae Sot, so that they could go back to Ta’ang land and educate other soldiers. These two soldiers studied in Mae Sot for a year, and believed it is their responsibility to go back to Burma to educate others and safeguard their people’s rights. In this interview, they share their story on how and why they became involved with the TNLA and why the Ta’ang people so strongly support their army. Mai and Mai Main, aged 23 and 26, are now back in the battle fields of northern Shan State.
BL: Why did you join the TNLA?
Mai (M): Firstly, before Ta’ang (Palaung) had military, the government they came and took civilians and some villagers, and they took some property of people. I felt at the time, we are not secure. And I wanted to join, but at the time TNLA [had] disappeared. And when TNLA appeared (Ta’ang army PSLA surrendered arms in 2005 and TNLA was formed in 2009), I decided to join.
We have many reasons why we joined TNLA. For the one reason, in our area, drugs are a very big problem, we cannot solve [it]. Because we had no weapons to force or to stop drugs at the time. How could we stop?
[Now that] I am TNLA, I know some situation of Ta’ang people, they cannot afford to join school. Most of Ta’ang people they use drugs in our areas. We want to help them, and also we want to stop drugs in our area.
Mai Main (MM): In 2005 the government, forced them (the PSLA) to drop their guns. Ceasefire. At that time, our Ta’ang army was gone. […] But they (the government) didn’t do [anything] for our ethnic and for our land, nothing. No development, no education. Still like in the past.
In 2011, I was studying in Lashio. I heard news [that] our Ta’ang army has appeared again. So at the time I was very interested to join them. Because, in our land all young people, they [are] addicted to drugs. Also young girls, they don’t want to stay at home and work at a farm and plant tea, they just want to go abroad to China or Thailand.
So at the time our tealeaf prices [were] also cut down, so our businesses also became bad. So all of our people became interested in growing opium. If you give money to the government, or the public army, you can grow opium. And if you don’t have money, you can work at their farm as a worker. That’s why 90% of our young people they’ve been destroyed by using drugs.
BL: Did you know before you joined TNLA that they also fight against drugs?
M: Before I didn’t know, because at the time I had just come from Mandalay. I studied in Mandalay. When I went back I had no idea about anything. And when I joined TNLA I knew how people were feeling; how people are oppressed by the government, by soldiers, especially Burmese soldiers.
At the time they talked and they talked; ‘We can use drugs to oppress these ethnics,’ he said, our representative in Namkhan Township (Pansay Kyaw Myint – a well-known drug lord and a member of the military-backed political party USDP).
He (Pansay Kyaw Myint) grows opium in his land. And he distributes the drugs to other lands. He’s the leader of public army, like [one that] cooperates with the Burma Government. His area is around Namkham Township. He has power to grow opium. So, now also our TNLA fights against him, not to grow opium. But we are still fighting. He is more powerful, because under him there are 10 battalions, almost 1,000 soldiers. He can easily call [them] if our military goes to destroy [his] opium fields.
BL: When did you start seeing the drugs become a big problem?
MM: I think it’s [been] for a long time. Because not only in our land, also in big cities, Muse, Kutkai, and Lashio, young people from big cities they also started using drugs like yaba, opium, and heroine.
M: Drugs are easy to find in our land. […] Because [before the 2010 election] Pansay Kyaw Myint said; ‘if you vote [for] me, you can grow opium, you are allowed to grow opium. You are allowed to grow opium for five years.’ If someone voted [for] him. And also, at that time I think he paid [for] one vote ten thousand kyat.
MM: If I vote [for] him, I give the name, ‘I vote [for] you, so I get ten thousand kyat.’ And also I can grow opium.
M: At that time I was 18 years [old], before TNLA appeared. We heard from someone who grows opium in this area, near Pansay, [that] people go and work for them to get money. And then we heard from them [that Pansay told the government]; ‘you don’t have to worry about ethnic, give me the opportunity to grow opium. This opium can destroy them. You don’t need to fight against them. They can destroy people by drugs.’
MM: He’s very famous in our land. That’s why if we go to Namkham area and destroy opium, the Burmese Army attacks us. Surely we know [that] who produces the drug is the public army. They also have weapons but they are under the control of the government, they cooperate with the government. So they take the power from government, grow opium, and they distribute the drugs.
[…] From my experience, we need to go around the villages, our leader gives speeches to the villagers not to grow opium, and they give education. In every village we give education.
BL: When you try to do drug education does the Burmese military stop you?
M: They give orders to their soldiers, but I don’t know why they don’t care about orders. They took photos [of] poppy fields, they destroyed poppy fields, and they took money from the field owner. In 2009, when they came in our village, they came for destroying poppy field, but they said; ‘destroy all of not very good poppy fields. Leave good poppy fields.’
MM: In Every village we put the warning poster [about drugs].
M: But sometimes we put [up] the posters, not to use, not to grow, not to sell [drugs], but when Burmese soldiers come they destroy the posters. ‘Who allow you to put these posters?’ They ask the villagers. And so they destroy the posters.
MM: I heard from the Ta’ang Youth Association from Lashio, last year in Manton city, the big city in our area, we put there three posters I think. The 130 (LIB), the soldiers from there, they came with a car and destroyed all of our posters.
BL: When TNLA destroys poppy fields do they give other crops, or what do they do?
MM: We give them crops.
M: Yes first time, they will say; ‘aaw we have no more money, we have no more rice.’ (We say) ‘Don’t worry because you cannot be rich by growing opium. You cannot be rich by growing opium. We will help. We give them some crops, to grow.’ Our leaders give them crops to grow, and some [local] organisations help them.
We believe one day we will win [the war against] drugs. No more drugs in our area.
BL: What are the goals of the TNLA, apart from eradicating drugs?
M: Now we have political goals.
MM: Also human rights. In my experience, most of our soldiers they don’t know about human rights. So, now we have a good chance to learn here. So, when we go back to our land, our country, we can share about human rights to our soldiers. Soldiers, they need to respect human rights. They can protect the public. I think it’s very important to respect human rights of the others and also themselves.
M: Last year, our leaders gave political knowledge to soldiers, because they said political knowledge is very important. If we fight the government, sometimes we can win, sometimes we can lose. But if we have political knowledge, we can think long term. […] Most people in our land they didn’t know about human rights, what is human rights, what is politics. So when we go back, we have to give political knowledge, human rights.
MM: Now the good thing is we have Ta’ang Student Youth Organisation (TSYO), and also Ta’ang Women’s Organisation (TWO) and Ta’ang Youth Association (TYA). We have a lot of organisations led by young people. And they travel around our Ta’ang area and give education. We need to unite [with] each other to save our land.
M: TWO, TSYO, they do very well for our people. Now people believe them, they give education to them. Now some of young people they know about human rights and know about political knowledge a little bit.
M: A long time ago people were afraid to talk about politics (MM: Before 2010). Now we don’t need to.
BL: What do you think international organisations and people, how can they help?
M: They cannot help directly, they have to contact these [Ta’ang] organisations, and these organisations can help around Ta’ang area.
MM: TNLA [is] known as a rebel group. So I think it is difficult to have help. Even we are the truth, and we protect our people, [it is] difficult to get help from international [organisations].
BL: Is there anything you would like to tell about your experience as a TNLA soldier?
M: I think TNLA is different from the past PSLA, because they have some good position, good situation, and Palaung people know [it]. They give speeches [about] what they want to do, what TNLA will do for the people. So the people support TNLA. We really like that.
When I worked in military, our leaders gave speeches to soldiers, they always said that we are not to oppress people, we serve for them. The priority we need to do is drugs. We must stop drugs. We must [have] unity. If we are not united, government soldiers will destroy us. If we get what we want, we want them (the government) to recognise our land. We want people to have education. We want people to have political knowledge and transportation. In our land transportation is bad, very bad. In the wet season, we cannot go [anywhere].
MM: I’m very proud of being a TNLA soldier.
M: Sometime we are very tired. But our leaders said to our soldiers; ‘we have to go to these places because they have no education, we need to give education to them. You know some villagers are very far from town, they cannot go easily, and no education [in] this area. So some [of] our soldiers who take care [of] patients, they go and give medicine [to] some villagers who are not healthy. We are enjoying to see them like that, they are very happy. Long time they have [had] to hide in the jungle.
MM: If they heard about soldiers, the voice of soldiers, even though Burmese soldiers, Palaung soldiers, they don’t know. ‘Soldiers!’ They are gone. They [are] very afraid of soldiers. But now when we enter the village, our Ta’ang people, they warmly welcome us. They give smiles to us, so they’re very happy, we feel very happy. And our feeling of tired[ness] is gone.
M: Our leaders always tell us not to oppress people, give them to be happy. […] If we hear our enemy close to us, we leave the village because we worry for villagers. They really worry; ‘They come, they come! And how we can do?’ They say. ‘Don’t worry, we will leave because we don’t want to [have a] battle in village.
We have seen sometimes, government military, if they see our soldiers in a village, they shoot into the village. They shoot launchers. For our soldiers it doesn’t matter but we need to care about villagers.
We heard from people who have been caught as forced laborers, because we cannot see each other, we cannot stay close. I think they don’t use RGB, they use 60mm and 40mm, like launchers. They throw in villages.
When porter came back they talked about it; ‘They shoot launchers in this village, in this village!’ […] People who live in towns, they are very lucky. They do not have to be afraid of soldiers. Soldiers in town cannot do anything to them. But for ethnic area, they have to worry. They are afraid. They have no sense of security.
BL: What would you like to tell to the people in Burma who think ethnic armed groups such as teh TNLA are “rebels”?
MM: We are not rebels. Our soldiers protect our people, our land.
M: Ethnic armed groups they have political goals. They don’t want fighting. They want peace. But how can they get peace? How can they pass negotiations? Because government has no desire [to negotiate].
[…] Government they want to protect their culture, their religion, their language, and their literature. The ethnic groups also want to protect all of these things. And how can they protect [them] without fighting the government? They don’t want to fight. But they cannot claim [their rights] without using weapons.
Our military also wants to protect our people, wants to protect our literature, wants to use our language, and our culture. All of ethnic people, all of different cultures people they just want [to protect] like that, the same.
BL: What are your dreams for the Ta’ang people?
MM: We have a lot of dreams, but it depends on what we can do. For me, I want to help and also I want to serve our people. And I will share what I know and my knowledge to other people, I want to see our people develop. This is my dream.
M: I think all soldiers they have dreams. For me, my dream is how can I help, not only Ta’ang people, all people in Burma. All ethnics in Burma. Later I hope to give education to people, promoting development in [and] around Ta’ang area. If we do not do something, our people will be gone. We need to help them. Teach people how to give respect to each other, it is the most important I think. Give respect to each other. We need to think about human rights, we need to think about politics, we need to give education. Especially not to oppress people, not to torture anyone. Do as equality. I want to do my best for our people, for Burma people, for Ta’ang people. This is my dream.
MM: We will do our best.
BL: Anything to add?
M: We think we have to change the mindset of people of Burma. Most people they don’t know. [They think] ‘Oh rebel groups are very terrible, oh what did they do? They just fight the government, and they are cruel.’ They say like that. They don’t know our political goals. We have political goals. Every ethnic they have political goals.
MM: Because we don’t get the real rights, so we are fighting for rights.
M: The last thing I want to say is; ethnic armed groups are not terrorists. They fight for democracy. We fight for democracy.
The interview was conducted in English and has been edited for clarity.
END NOTE: Although TNLA is a member of the ethnic alliance United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), the government has tried to exclude the group from the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) talks. TNLA is an ally of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), and fights alongside the Arakan Army (AA) and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) in northern Shan State, to obtain freedom and to establish a genuine federal union. TNLA also fights to eliminate cultivation, production, sale and use of drugs in their traditional lands. Read more.