Armed Men Burn Cars, Rob Drivers in Myanmar’s Shan State

Armed men stopped traffic on a highway in northern Myanmar’s Shan state late Tuesday, robbing drivers and setting fire to their vehicles amid a new surge of fighting between the national military and soldiers of the Northern Alliance of ethnic armed groups, sources in the area said.

Among the seven vehicles destroyed in the attack on the Kutkai-Muse highway were cargo trucks and a passenger bus, while from four to five other cars were seen leaving the scene in flames, sources told RFA’s Myanmar Service.

“Cars ahead of us had already stopped and were lined up, and we were told that our cars would be burned once we got there,” one woman said, adding that the men who stopped them on the road then robbed them of their possessions.

“They had accents. They took everything we had, including our money and phones,” she said. “We ran when shots were fired, and we don’t know what happened next. We took shelter at a house nearby.”

Others whose cars were burned also managed to escape, sources said, with one driver named Thaung Nyein saying he had first been allowed to pass a checkpoint set up by the unidentified troops.

“We asked the soldiers whether we could go through, and they said yes, so we kept driving,” Thaung Nyein said. “But a ten-wheel truck was blocking the way, and we couldn’t turn around, so we had to stop since we would be shot if we went back.”

Soldiers demanded their phones, car keys, and money, threatening to kill them all if they found anyone hiding phones, he said, adding that they were able to drive away only after extinguishing a fire that had been set to one of the cars.

“We were able to help four other cars that had also been burned,” he said.

Drivers and passengers of the burned vehicles spent the night in nearby Nan Khut village, with relief groups and authorities in Kutkai town helping them to return home in the morning, sources said.

Northern Alliance troops suspected

No group has claimed responsibility for the burnings on the highway, though some drivers said they believe their attackers were members of the Northern Alliance, a coalition of ethnic armed groups fighting government forces in northern Shan state.

Some had traveled on the road in the belief that government troops had secured the area, a driver named Zar Ni said.

“Armed soldiers have been deployed in the area, so we thought the road would be safe.”

All the vehicles that were stopped were set on fire, he said. “But about four or five cars drove off while being burned.”

Reached for comment on Wednesday, a spokesman for a group belonging to the Northern Alliance denied his soldiers had set the fires, saying the vehicles may have been shelled by government troops.

“Fighting occurred yesterday at around 7:30 p.m. when the Tatmadaw [the Myanmar military] arrived as our group was traveling along the road near Nan Khut,” said Major Tar Aik Kyaw, spokesman of the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA).

“We received reports that artillery fire had been exchanged and that some cars had been hit, causing fires,” he said. “Two cars were already burning before our troops pulled out, and I don’t know how many more may have been on fire later.”

Asked why cars had been left blocking the road, the TNLA spokesman said that fighting has taken place in the area each day, adding, “There may have been traffic jams, but we don’t know any of the details for sure.”

Following Tuesday night’s attack, the toll gate at Kutkai was briefly closed early Wednesday morning but reopened at around 9 a.m., sources said.

Warnings have also been issued against travel on the Kutkai-Muse highway between the hours of 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Hundreds of villagers flee

On Monday, Myanmar forces launched helicopter attacks near Kutkai during fighting with the Northern Alliance, forcing hundreds of villagers in two communities to seek shelter in local Buddhist monasteries, area residents told RFA in earlier reports.

Additional fighting occurred near Nan Khut village close to Kutkai after Northern Alliance soldiers stopped vehicles on the road leading into town and ordered drivers to park them along the road, though traffic resumed by evening.

More than 2,000 civilians displaced by the hostilities have taken shelter in Kutkai since Aug. 17, though some have since returned to their homes, assuming the fighting was over, sources said.

The Northern Alliance includes the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the Arakan Army (AA), and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA).

This week's clashes came as the Northern Alliance and government peace negotiators failed to reach an agreement to end the fighting in northern Shan state at a meeting on Saturday in the eastern Shan town of Kengtung, the online journal The Irrawaddyreported, citing Brigadier-General Tar Phone Kyaw of the TNLA.

On Tuesday, the Northern Alliance issued a statement saying they are committed to Myanmar’s fragile peace process and will fight only for defensive purposes.

“Although we will not launch offensives, we will keep fighting against the offensive operations of the Myanmar military to defend ourselves,” said the statement.

Reported by Kan Thar for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Nandar Chann. Written in English by Richard Finney.