The Burmese government should accept the long-standing demands of Burma’s ethnic groups for a federal union, which would allow the groups a degree of political autonomy and self-government in their respective regions, Shan leaders said at a conference on Wednesday. They added that the government should fully respect any agreements with the groups. “We have asked the government for a federal union for 50 years, but they are never clear on whether they want to accept it or not,” said Hkun Htun Oo, the chairman of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) during a press conference at Taw Win Hninzi Hotel in Rangoon, as the three-day Shan Trust-Building for Peace Conference wrapped up.

The government should fully respect any agreements it signs with ethnic groups, the SNLD leader said, adding that in the past Naypyidaw had pulled back from agreements with ethnic groups. Similarly, the Burma Army had agreed to a ceasefire with the Shan State Army early this year, but soon after it “attacked the Shan army,” he claimed.

Hkun Htun Oo said all sides should take responsibility to achieve national peace in Burma, as the country “not only belongs to the Burmese people—it belongs to all ethnic groups and the Burmese.”

The government has reached ceasefire agreements with more than 10 major ethnic armed groups since last year. However, fighting still rages with the Kachin Independence Organization in northern Burma.

The trust-building conference was attended by 170 Shan leaders from across the country, including leaders from armed Shan rebel units and a range of civil society organizations. It aimed to foster dialogue among the Shan population about the ongoing peace talks between rebels and the government.

Maj-Gen Sao Hso Ten, a leader of Shan State Peace Council, told participants that equal rights and a degree of autonomy for ethnic groups was just as important for stability and development in Burma as democracy and human rights. He stressed that amending the 2008 military-drafted Constitution was a key priority for all ethnic groups in their peace talks with Naypyidaw.

“There are many things that have to be done in order to have permanent peace in the country,” Sao Hso Ten said, adding that any disagreements with the government should be solved through political dialogue.

Rights activist Charm Tong, from the Shan Women’s Action Network, said any ceasefire or future peace agreement between Shan forces and the Burma Army should be monitored closely by independent observers such at the Norwegian government, which has been trying to foster peace talks in Burma.

“Norwegian government [officials] should be on the ground in order to know the real situation” in Shan State, she said, adding that despite a current ceasefire, fighting and rights abuses continue, while landmines still pose a great threat to local villagers.

Before anyone—government, rebels or donors—declares peace and say refugees can return home, Charm Tong said, independent observers should verify local safety conditions. “They should not force the people to move back, and even donors should not pronounce peace already exists in an area” unless this is confirmed on the ground, she said.

Earlier this year, Norway unveiled a pilot scheme for the resettlement of displaced civilians in ethnic regions, but it has faced criticism for cutting cross-border funding and acting too hastily when Burma’s nascent political reforms appear fragile.

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