As the recent arrest of key Shan figures casts a cloud over the National Convention’s attempts at national integration, ethnic minority in-fighting continues to play into Rangoon’s hands.
Shan leaders gathered in Taunggyi on February 7 (Shan State Day) to discuss the formation of a united Burma, a genuine federal union in which all ethnic groups would enjoy equal rights. Also attending the meeting were prominent Burmese and Shan politicians, together with members of various quasi-political bodies including ceasefire groups.
Long suspicious of Shan breakaway movements and anxious not to distract from the constitution-drafting National Convention’s reconvening on February 17, the military government moved in and over the next few days arrested several key figures. Among those taken into custody were 82-year-old leading Shan politician Shwe Ohn, Sao Hso Ten, president of Shan State Peace Council, and Hkun Htun Oo and Sai Nyunt Lwin, chairman and secretary respectively of the Shan National League for Democracy, the
second largest vote getter in the 1990 election.
The activities of these groups are very dangerous to the stability of the state and national solidarity and would lead to disintegration of the union, Brig-Gen Kyaw Hsan, the junta’s minister of information, claimed at a news conference in Rangoon on March 15. “People might be misled by the beautiful words genuine union,” he continued. “But in fact, they aimed to form a nominal union and later secede from that union [forming an
independent Shan State].”
Harn Yawnghwe, director of the Brussels-based Euro Burma Office and son of Burma’s first president, Sao Shwe Thaike (1948-1952), believes the government’s primary objections centered on the sheer breadth of parties involved. The generals are not afraid of wars of independence, he said.
“[they are, however,] very much afraid of politics. Hkun Htun Oo and Sao Hso Ten’s greatest crime in the eyes of the generals was that they tried not only to unite the Shan, but all the ethnic nationalities; not only the ethnic political parties, but also the ceasefire armies; not only the ethnic nationalities, but also the political opposition parties including Burman leaders.”
Many of the Shan’s troubles are rooted in the country’s struggle for independence. Having secured a clause in the 1947 constitution allowing them to secede from the rest of the country following independence from the British, the Shan saw their dreams die when Gen Ne Win took power in 1962. There followed a ruthless military crackdown during which many prominent Shan leaders, including Sao Shwe Thaike, are believed to have
been executed. Since that time, solidarity has been the buzzword of the ruling generals and any perceived threat to the union, which of course includes notions of federalism, has been met with brutal force.
Outraged at the events following Taunggyi, many Shan have called for a revival of the drive for autonomy a feeling not shared by Harn Yawnghwe, who warns fellow Shan not to cloud their minds with emotion, saying “the future of the Shan State is too important.”
Other ethnic groups also look at the episode with dismay, sensing betrayal by the generals. “The question of national integration was supposed to be addressed in a peaceful way,” says Nai Han Thar, secretary of the New Mon State Party, in reference to the National Convention. “The arrests [of Shan leaders] show that there?s no room for ethnic rights.”
While the Taunggyi meeting was intended as a beacon of unity, internal conflicts still rage among ethnic groups: The Kachin Independence Organization continues to feud with the Kachin Solidarity Council and the New Democratic Army (Kachin); the Karenni National Progressive Party are still fighting with the Karenni State Nationalities People’s Front; and there have been recent skirmishes between Wa troops and the Shan State Army (South).
The warring factions are seen by some as one of the chief reasons the generals remain in power. Ethnic minority groups are so focused on internal disputes that they are blind to the common enemy.
This all leads Harn Yawnghwe to ask: “Do we fight the generals in the battlefield where they have superior military strength and ability or do we fight them politically where we have the superiority? Do we Shan fight the Burma Army alone or do we fight side by side with others?”