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Myanmar Coup Leader’s Turbulent Affair With Shan Warlord Yawd Serk

RCSS leader Yawd Serk (left) and regime leader Min Aung Hlaing in Naypyitaw in August 2022. / cincds

Peace talks between the Myanmar junta’s governing body, the State Administration Council (SAC), and various ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) seem oxymoronic in light of the bitter conflict between the multi-colored resistance and the increasingly embattled Myanmar military that is convulsing the country. But for many of the small armed groups who are signatories of the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), choosing to continue formal discussions with the junta is a preferred approach over the perils of open resistance, even though few of the NCA signatories have much capacity to actually wage war.

The standard photo ops of the SAC talks reach a surreal peak when they include Chairman Yawd Serk, the longtime leader of the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), meeting with coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. The handshakes, broad smiles, affected amity, all avert attention to what is a mutual feeling of visceral antipathy by two strongmen who would much prefer to kill each other, but need to at least to appear to be in a deal-making mood as they calculate in twisted symbiosis their own survival.

It’s been a long and tempestuous relationship, and since the February 2021 coup it has entered new and peculiar territory: not least as the RCSS is by far the largest NCA signatory to continue peace talks, with an estimated several thousand soldiers in its order of battle and operational territory in eastern, southern, and until recently, northern Shan State.

Yawd Serk first came to prominence as one of the better Shan military commanders of the Mong Tai Army (MTA), especially during fighting in 1994 when the MTA was being outmaneuvered by the Myanmar military and the recently formed United Wa State Army (UWSA) for control of territory along the Myanmar-Thailand border. The MTA’s leader General Khun Sa, a flamboyant narcotics entrepreneur who also championed Shan political rights [he declared independence for Shan State in late 1993], faced diminishing returns from the heroin trade and the UWSA’s growing military strength, as well as the market shift to a new and lucrative narcotic: methamphetamines. Khun Sa’s bloodless surrender in January 1996 rocked the conflict world in Myanmar. Several thousand of his troops handed over a trove of weapons. The Myanmar military then went on a two-year rampage through central Shan State, forcibly relocating over 300,000 civilians and killing scores in a series of massacres.

Along with several other commanders, Yawd Serk refused to surrender. With a small number of men and in coordination with other Shan armed groups and leaders, he initially reformed as the Shan United Revolutionary Army (SURA), the former name of the MTA. As SURA slowly regrouped and recruited, it became the Shan State Army-South, to distinguish itself from the real Shan State Army (SSA) formed in 1964 [which was thus classified as SSA-North or the Shan State Progressive Party] and a pre-1996 MTA surrender Shan splinter group in Hsipaw Township called the Shan State National Army and referred to as SSA-Central. The RCSS was established in May 2000 as a political front for the SSA-South.

The propaganda of the former military regime, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), vilified the SSA-S as simply SURA, stoked by silent support from ‘Yodaya’, a derogatory term for Thailand, including allegations of substantial military aid. A series of major clashes in 2001 and 2002 along multiple points of the Thailand-Myanmar border included Myanmar military troops and UWSA soldiers. The SSA-S established five major base areas, and fought hard to protect them and an estimated 5,000 internally displaced persons in adjacent communities. 20 years later there are an estimated 7,000 IDPs in 6 camps. During this period, Yawd Serk became the principle nemesis of the Myanmar military.

In one of the classic SPDC-era propaganda books from 2002, Will Tell All That Is True, Barring None…and Special Articles, then Colonel Yawd Serk was derided as ‘Ywet Sit’: “Yodaya was able to adopt Ywet Sit as a new drug lord…Ywet Sit is producing a large amount of heroin and stimulant tablets.” Allegations of the SSA-South’s involvement in the narcotics trade persisted, and the SPDC media splashed photos of ‘Ywet Sit’ with a Shan bodyguard called Sai Tun, who had been arrested in Mae Hong Son with 82 kilos of heroin. The military, backed by the UWSA, attempted to overrun the SSA-South’s Loi Tai Leng headquarters in a series of assaults in April and May 2005, but were driven back after heavy fighting.

Widely seen, in the several years of its inception, as the most aggressive ‘new’ incarnation of long-standing insurgencies, and the heir to legitimate Shan nationalism, Yawd Serk and the RCSS nevertheless fell into the past patterns of the MTA and other armed groups in Shan State: avoiding major armed conflict and brokering its strength to maintain territory and access to markets and revenue streams, and rejecting the SPDC’s 2009 offer to transform into a Border Guard Force (BGF).

The onset of the post-2010 ‘transition’ provided Yawd Serk with an opportunity to enter the legal fold without surrendering any troops or territory. State and Union ceasefires were signed in late 2011 and early 2012. Talks continued, although the RCSS was perceived as a free-rider during the next three years negotiations for the NCA and the creation of structures and procedures: Yawd Serk wasn’t perceived as a prominent ethnic leader for peace. Sporadic fighting continued in RCSS operational areas. High level interaction with localized instability was the RCSS-Myanmar military reality: the very definition of a ‘negative peace.’

Very soon after the signing of the NCA in October 2015, RCSS troops were moving north in strength, with obvious connivance, or active assistance, but clearly a greenlight, from the Myanmar military. According to the Palaung State Liberation Front, the political wing of the Ta-ang National Liberation Army, “the RCSS/SSA with a force of over 500 troops and by acquiring aid from the Myanmar government army, has been launching an expansion drive successfully…in Mogok, Kyaukme and Namhsan…Kutkai and Namkham (and) Mantong and Momeik Townships.” A feature of the northern expansion was a form of ‘Shanization’ of the RCSS political and social project, targeting Ta-ang politicians, teachers, monks and community leaders and insisting that the Shan language be taught over the Ta-ang language. Intercommunal tensions simmered across multiple communities.

Much of this history since 2015 has been covered by various analysts, notably an excellent commentary by Khun Say Lone for Transnational Institute in May this year, and in a lengthy report by the Institute for Development and Security Policy in 2018. But in short, the post-NCA conflict dynamic was one of routine fighting on the ground between the RCSS and the military, and the RCSS against pretty much every other EAO in Shan State, and high level peace talks oscillating from optimism to acrimony, but failing to have much measurable progress to show for it.

It was the diverse communities of northern Shan State who suffered from multiple taxation, forced recruitment, arbitrary killings, forced labor and abductions from EAOs, and systematic abuses by the Myanmar military, with civilians displaced by fighting multiple times in several townships. The NCA perversely condemned the north to increased conflict. The military also obstructed meetings of the Committee for Shan State Unity, an umbrella organization of Shan armed groups, political parties and civil society, both in January 2017 in Yangon and July 2017 in Chiang Mai.

By the third anniversary of the NCA, Min Aung Hlaing was speaking more freely on how he genuinely perceived Yawd Serk, and his EAO lineage. “Expanding political power, armory, forces and territory under the cover of NCA will only have a negative impact on already stable regions and ethnic areas, so there is a need to avoid this. Regarding RCSS (SSA), MTA led by U Khun Sa surrendered to the government which was formed under the pretext of politics and security and entered the legal fold on 5 January, 1996, and it split and went underground at the end of January. It was clashing with other EAOs while building up its political base, weaponry, size and enormously expanding its territory [in northern Shan State] after signing the NCA. The NCA shouldn’t be misappropriated. If there is misappropriation, the [military], which is responsible to protect the lives and property of ethnic people, will not just stand by and do nothing.” Min Aung Hlaing’s speech also claimed that the Myanmar military wanted to completely finalize the peace process by 2020.

Min Aung Hlaing was essentially saying that the RCSS emerged from a drug bandit past and was seeking to expand its territorial operability into the north, to which the military would limit those ambitions, pursuing the same undulating deal-making and the pitting of groups against each other that has characterized Shan conflict and narcotic policies since the 1960s. The entire process effectively stalled through a combination of National League for Democracy (NLD) indifference and military obstruction, and the Karen National Union and RCSS suspended their involvement. That Min Aung Hlaing announced a unilateral nationwide ‘Ceasefire for Perpetual Peace’ in December 2018 is clear evidence of committing to the NCA whilst also undermining it.

The relationship between Min Aung Hlaing and Yawd Serk deteriorated from there. A series of one-off incidents, persistent clashes and tensions, a war of words and a breakdown in the Joint Monitoring Committee bedeviled the relationship. The military’s media mouthpiece, the Myawady Daily, shrieked in protest when Shan soldiers took possession of [allegedly] sensitive communications devices from army officers stopped at an RCSS checkpoint near Mong Pyin in February 2019, and then reported that the equipment had been returned the following day. Myanmar’s defence attaché at the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok implored the Thai authorities to stop a planned meeting of the EAOs in Chiang Mai in June. Attempting to travel by car to Naypyitaw from Loi Tai Leng for the fourth anniversary of the signing of the NCA in October 2019, Yawd Serk and his party were blocked by the Myanmar military’s Central Eastern Command.

In early 2020, fighting between the RCSS and the Myanmar military broke out in Mong Khaing, some of the heaviest battles in years. During COVID-19 there was optimism that the pandemic would foster better relations between the military and EAOs, but the military destroyed RCSS screening checkpoints, while also handing out aid in public displays of assistance that belied the tensions between the two sides.

The RCSS initially condemned the February 2021 coup, but soon adopted an ambivalent position. The RCSS continues to issue a stream of statements in Burmese and English, but they can be interpreted multiple ways and have scarcely more sincerity than the SAC’s communications. Myanmar Now reported in early 2022 that the RCSS and SAC had reached a secret agreement in October last year promising not to train anti-SAC resistance, to follow the NCA and also to help transport aviation fuel: a claim that the RCSS hotly denied and demanded a retraction.

The RCSS leader attended high level peace talks with Min Aung Hlaing in May and August. By the end of July, at its biannual meeting, the intentions of the RCSS were relatively clear, with a statement asserting “(w)ith regard to the current political situation, RCSS embraces the way to engage in negotiations, and will strive to find ways in order to attain peace and establish a federal democratic union…RCSS will cooperate with all the organizations in the effort to meet and discuss with all the stakeholders in order to achieve long-lasting peace.”

The second round of peace talks between the two leaders in late August to 2 September was prominently displayed in junta-controlled media, but ultimately nothing was agreed on, with the RCSS officially claiming “(a)s more time is needed to discuss the basic principles for the establishment of future federal union…it has been decided to discuss them in future meetings.”

So what does the RCSS retreat from the north and talks with the SAC mean for the future of Shan State? Unfortunately, it doesn’t spell peace or stability, especially if the long and fractured relationship between Min Aung Hlaing and Yawd Serk is any guide. The RCSS finds itself in an invidious conflict checkmate. Having succumbed to strategic overreach in its seven year adventure in the north, RCSS/SSA-South forces have retreated since 2021 from the key townships of Hsipaw and Kyaukme down to southern Shan State, with its historical older brother but contemporary antagonist, the SSA-North prevailing for now. Yawd Serk misjudged China’s perception of the RCSS as ambitious but disruptive, and likely western-backed, opportunists positioning for Belt and Road Initiative kickbacks.

There are four key elements to Yawd Serk’s future political survival. The first is the UWSA and its glacial consolidation of territory throughout eastern Shan State and east of the Salween River, as forces of the southern Wa 171 Division move south and threaten Loi Tai Leng and RCSS positions along the border. Brief clashes in April indicated RCSS weakness and UWSA consolidation of the borderlands. The Myanmar military’s Golden Triangle Command in Kengtung could become little more than an encircled outpost, with the UWSA and dozens of militias owing de facto allegiance to the Wa with de jure command by the SAC slowly moving to pressure RCSS outposts. Has the UWSA placed Yawd Serk in a similar position to Khun Sa 26 years ago?

The second is Thailand. Yawd Serk relies on Thai tolerance for the RCSS to continue. Thailand does not want similar border instability in Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai, as the other border provinces have experienced with fighting, refugees, cross border assistance, and Myanmar military airstrikes. Yet Thailand is also extremely concerned with UWSA expansion, which could mean, at least in a hybrid fashion, Chinese encroachment, and all the downsides that entails including potential narcotics flows, environmental degradation from Wa-connected gold mining, casino lawlessness and trafficking in persons and wildlife. Will the Thai security establishment hedge it bets on an old ally like Yawd Serk to regulate, as much as it can, the border to mitigate greater Wa influence?

The third is Shan society. If Yawd Serk’s discussions lead to improved protection for Shan civilians, there is a plus. But this hasn’t been a priority of peace talks since they started, and RCSS actions have contributed to a great deal of disunity and exasperation. EAO approaches to peace talks and federalism that exclude or marginalize civil society and political party perspectives will always lack legitimacy. Are Yawd Serk’s peace talks about ensuring his own survival or ensuring security for Shan State during post-coup instability? It is unlikely that the RCSS will gravitate towards the anti-military resistance. What does the RCSS owe the National Unity Government? Years of NLD condescension, and an expectation of fealty to another Bamar political project? Yawd Serk’s political ambitions reside in Shan State, not nationally. But how much will he turn to civilian perspectives to craft his survival strategy? There are few encouraging signs he will. While there is increased People’s Defense Force activity against the military in northern and southern Shan State, particularly in Pekon and Hsi Hseng townships, Yawd Serk won’t risk a wholesale investment in topping the Myanmar military from power.

The last factor is the junta’s strategy. Will the military regime maintain the pretense of talks to neutralize the RCSS? Min Aung Hlaing is reported to have proposed on 22 August that EAOs could join the Myanmar military or become BGFs. Will Min Aung Hlaing make Yawd Serk an offer he can’t refuse? Just as the peace talks have been recursive, so too the politics of armed group agendas in Shan State are revolving cycles.

As far ago as the early 1960s, the filmmaker Adrian Cowell documented the circular fortunes of armed groups in Shan State, with key players repositioning, displacing rivals through backhanded temporary deals, reversals of fortune and allegiances [the Cowell Collection has been preserved by the University of Washington and is available to view online]. One of Cowell’s diagrams to explain the politics of drugs and conflict in Shan State echo the dynamics of today, albeit without the opium factor being so prominent.

One of Cowell’s last films, The Kings of Opium, details the surrender of Khun Sa to Eastern Commander General Tin Tun in the early 1996. Might Yawd Serk’s fortunes be reversed in similar fashion? Will the RCSS stay intact but work as a grudging BGF proxy for the SAC? Or will an elite deal between Yawd Serk and the junta spark a fragmenting into smaller forces with local arrangements of coexistence with the UWSA and the Myanmar military? Or is the tumultuous relationship between the two leaders simply the artifice of strongman survival instincts, stripped of any sincerity or sophisticated strategy?

There may be more animus than ardor in these peace talks, but the chairman and senior general are undoubtedly in a relationship and it’s complicated. For the foreseeable future, it’s an affair akin to friends with benefits.

David Scott Mathieson is an analyst working on conflict, humanitarian and human rights issues on Myanmar