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Kokang handover of towns to Wa rebels seen as boon to Myanmar resistance

The handover to ethnic Wa fighters of two towns seized from the military by Kokang rebels last week is likely part of a bid to elicit their support in the fight against the junta and deals a blow to the regime’s hold on power in northern Myanmar, observers said Thursday.

On Jan. 4, fighters with the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, or MNDAA, stormed the junta’s Kokang regional command center in Laukkaing township – the largest base in northern Shan state near the Chinese border – prompting soldiers in the facility to lay down their arms, despite the military’s attempt to defend the facility from afar with artillery fire and airstrikes.

A day later, the MNDAA seized the towns of Pang Long and Hopang from the military in the Wa Self-Administered Region’s Hopang township, located around 6.5 kilometers (4 miles) away from Laukkaing’s town of Chinshwehaw. Under MNDAA protection, armed troops with the United Wa State Army, or UWSA, later entered the townships as some 700 junta troops and their family members retreated to the Wa region town of Lashio.

A military analyst, who spoke to RFA Burmese on condition of anonymity due to security reasons, noted that the MNDAA and UWSA are former allies and said the MNDAA made the handover to ensure relations between the two groups remain on good terms.

“[The MNDAA] will not maintain friendship with the Wa if [they] establish an administrative system by themselves [in Hopang and Pang Long] as they did in Chinshwehaw and [nearby] Kunlong after seizing those towns,” the analyst said.

Hopang and Pang Long are part of an area formerly controlled by the UWSA that was handed over to the then-military regime, the State Law and Order Restoration Council, as part of a negotiated ceasefire agreement.

“So it was expected that the [MNDAA] would attack Hopang and Pang Long and hand them to the Wa, even though the Wa were not involved in the fight to occupy them,” the analyst said.

The MNDAA had taken control of Chinshwehaw after the start of Operation 1027, an offensive it launched along with the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Arakan Army as part of the so-called Three Brotherhood Alliance of ethnic armies in late October that has since reportedly captured 10 townships in northern Shan state and seized control of more than 200 junta camps.

Wa assumes control

On Wednesday, the MNDAA handed over Pang Long and Hopang to the UWSA, which controls territory connected to the two townships, in a formal ceremony, according to residents and UWSA officials. The UWSA is Myanmar’s largest ethnic army, and in November had vowed to remain neutral amid Operation 1027.

Myint Than, a resident of Hopang, told RFA that the UWSA “greeted locals cordially” during the handover and noted that while junta troops and their families had left, “it is not true that the [ethnic majority] Bamars were driven out.”

“The Bamars have been operating clothing stores, all of which have been allowed to reopen,” she said. “It is likely that those who have joined the [anti-junta] Civil Disobedience Movement [boycotting state jobs under the military regime] will be re-employed.”

The handover ceremony for the Myanmar towns of Hopang and Panglong on Jan. 10, 2024 drew a crowd. (Citizen journalist)
The handover ceremony for the Myanmar towns of Hopang and Panglong on Jan. 10, 2024 drew a crowd. (Citizen journalist)

The 2008 constitution designated the six townships of Hopang, Mongmao, Pangwaun, Narphan, Matman, and Pangsang/Pangkham of northeastern Shan state as the Wa Self-Administered Region. With the handover of Hopang township, the junta only controls Matman township, while the UWSA now controls the remaining five townships.

Residents told RFA that the UWSA informed them they will be issued residential permits, which will allow them to travel freely within the entire Wa region.

Handover ‘a positive’ for resistance

A former military officer, who also declined to be named for fear of reprisal, said the junta is likely incensed by the handover, as Pang Long was home to a military base and a key part of its territory in northern Shan state.

“To be frank, [the UWSA] managed to outwit them by taking those towns without a fight,” the officer said. “The military will not be pleased. The Wa have broken the status quo by taking these two towns.”

Hla Kyaw Zaw, a political and military observer based in China, said that the UWSA’s occupation of Hopang and Pang Long would be good for the resistance.

“I see the gradual unity of ethnic groups as a positive [for anti-junta forces],” she said. “The Wa focus on the interests of their own people and the MNDAA has said that its main goal is to regain the [ethnic] Kokang region and form a special region again. They realize that it would be impossible for them to do so only by freeing their own people.”

“Since they understand that the whole country needs to be free from the military dictatorship, I believe they will assist the resistance, which will benefit the revolution,” she added.

Translated by Htin Aung Kyaw. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.