YANGON — Northern Alliance forces launched simultaneous attacks at five locations along a major highway in Shan State on Thursday, killing at least three police officers and raising fears of a heavy-handed response from the Tatmadaw.
At least three police officers were killed at a police outpost beside the Goktwin bridge in Nawnghkio Township on the Mandalay-Muse highway and five more were injured, according to local hospital staff.
Nearby, Northern Alliance forces reportedly destroyed an X-ray machine at a drug enforcement gate and a key bridge on the heavily trafficked route to China, bringing to a halt to overland trade worth billions of dollars a year.
Northern Alliance forces also fired rockets into the Defence Services Technological Academy compound in Pyin Oo Lwin, a strategically important town that hosts many of the Tatmadaw’s top training schools.
A Tatmadaw statement on Thursday said troops from the Arakan Army, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and Ta’ang National Liberation Army – three members of the Northern Alliance – attacked five targets at 5.30am: the Defence Services Technological Academy, the Goktwin Police Station, a toll gate, a narcotics checkpoint and a military battalion.
TNLA spokesperson Major Mai Aik Kyaw told Frontier that the group fired rockets from outside Pyin Oo Lwin into the military academy. “We shot into Pyin Oo Lwin from [some distance] away. We didn’t get into the town,” he said.
Initial reports suggest that one civilian staff member was killed and another was injured, while photographs shared on Facebook showed damage to a building in the compound.
A member of a political party in Nawnghkio, who asked not to be named, told Frontier that Pyin Oo Lwin residents heard gunshots until around 9am. He said that at least 14 people been killed across Shan State, including two civilians, five police officers and seven Tatmadaw soldiers.
Frontier was unable to confirm these figures. The Tatmadaw True News Information Team and the Nawnghkio Township police station did not respond to phone calls.
Dr Min Zaw Oo, founder of the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security a Yangon-based think tank, told Frontier that the attack on the military academy was probably intended to divert attention from the main target.
The main target was the Nawnghkio checkpoint, he said, a drug enforcement gate near the Gokteik Viaduct that contained an X-ray machine from Israel.
“That X-ray machine has been intercepting a lot of drugs along the route,” he said, referring to the highway from Mandalay to Muse, the most important trading point on the Myanmar-China border. “That was the target, and that was destroyed.”
The Tatmadaw said on Thursday that the attacks were partly motivated by revenge, after police seized equipment for producing methamphetamines – worth billions of kyat – in raids in July and August in Shan State’s Kutkai Township and Rathedaung Township in Rakhine State.
The Goktwin bridge near Nawnghkio was also destroyed on Thursday, severing the major road link to the Chinese border. Photographs posted to Facebook on Thursday showed trucks and cars backed up on the road.
Fighting was reported in Kyauk Kyan village near Nawnghkio until about 3pm.
The attacks come after the AA, MNDAA and TNLA warned the Tatmadaw in an August 12 statement to “stop all offensive attacks” in northern Myanmar and in Rakhine State.
“If offensive attacks are continued without the ending of occurring war [sic], the Myanmar Army will bear the consequences,” the statement said.
Conflict between the Tatmadaw and the AA in Rakhine and southern Chin states since January 4 has displaced an estimated 60,000 people.
The Northern Alliance claimed in the statement that hundreds of civilians have been killed in the Rakhine conflict, but this is difficult to independently verify due to restrictions on access to the area and an internet blackout imposed in nine townships since June 21.
The attacks have threatened to further derail a unilateral ceasefire covering northern Myanmar that the Tatmadaw announced on December 21, 2018, and later extended until August 31, following negotiations with several armed groups, including the three that led the recent attack.
Clashes in early August in Kokang and Ta’ang territory prompted the Northern Alliance to issue the August 12 statement. The groups said that the Shan State Army-North, the armed wing of the Shan State Progress Party, had also clashed with the Tatmadaw, and that more fighting could follow. The SSA-N could not be reached for comment.
The Tatmadaw issued its own statement on Wednesday, just before the attacks.
It pointed to “weakness in the efforts for the development of the peace process including the process of finding a solution through dialogues” and warned against “applying any time-wasting tactics during the ceasefire term allowed by the Tatmadaw.”
Dr Min Zaw Oo told Frontier he believed the conflict could escalate. While the attack on the Defence Services Technological Academy compound caused only minor damage, it is likely to be interpreted by the Tatmadaw as an insult, he said.
“Pyin Oo Lwin is an area [the Tatmadaw] considers well-guarded, so if a shell lands there they would consider it an insult. I expect the Tatmadaw will retaliate in TNLA territory,” he said.
The symbolic significance of the attack meant the Tatmadaw was likely to respond with a “harsh punishment”, he added, even though the damage was minimal.
He said the Tatmadaw was now pursuing retreating TNLA troops into ethnic Palaung villages between Pyin Oo Lwin and Nawnghkio, where the armed group is believed to have support.
Mai Aik Kyaw told Frontier that the TNLA’s next moves would depend on the Tatmadaw’s response.
“Our attitude for now is as we stated on August 12. We cannot accept the actions that they [the Tatmadaw] have made,” he said. “Whether we make more attacks or not depends on their attitude.”
The Tatmadaw referred in its statement on Thursday to clauses in its December 21 ceasefire announcement, which state that ethnic armed groups are responsible for “smooth and safe transportation and the lives and properties of the people”.
The Tatmadaw would “prevent and respond as necessary” if this condition was violated, it said.