Mon 6 Jan 2014
Filed under: Ethnic Issues,News,Other
“We hope that China will play a role in the peace talks between the Myanmar government and armed ethnic groups. China and Myanmar share a long border. Border stability is in China’s interest.” This is the hope of Yawd Serk, the top leader of Myanmar’s Shan State Army-South and the chairman of Shan State Reinvigoration Committee. In the past, the Myanmar government has condemned SSA-S as a “terrorist, drug-trafficking organization”. But for SSA-S, they are only fighting for the equality for the Shan people and the control of a peaceful region. In early December, reporters from the Global Times travelled 6 hours from Chiang Mai in northern Thailand to Loi Tai Leng, the headquarter of SSA-S located on the Thai-Myanmar border. The living conditions here are extremely poor, but Yawd Serk thinks they occupy an advantageous geographical location against the government military. The goal of SSA-S has shifted from independence to becoming a part of the Union. People in Shan state want peace, and the pace of the peace talks between the government and the armed ethnic groups could be faster.
“Loi Tai Leng will bring light to the Shan State”
The Shan state is located in eastern Myanmar and borders China, Laos and Thailand. With a territory of 158,300 square kms, the Shan State occupies a quarter of Myanmar. The Shan are the majority ethnic group in the state, about 60% of the total population. They call themselves the “great Tai people,” which in a broad sense is the same ethnic group as Chinese Dai and the Thai Siamese. Currently, there are tens of armed ethnic groups operating in the Shan state. Some of them have ceased fighting while others are engaged in open or secret military activities.
Especially for the Sino-Myanmar border in eastern Shan state, armed ethnic groups are in control of about 80% of the Sino-Myanmar border. This greatly affects the stability of China’s southwestern region. SSA-S is one of these groups. Since the beginning of the national reconciliation process launched by the new government of Myanmar in 2011, the fighting has abated somewhat to the point that it is only occasional now between the SSA-S and the government military. This gives the reporters of Global Times the chance to visit the headquarters of SSA-S located on the Thai-Myanmar border.
It is not easy to visit SSA-S’ headquarters. The reporters waited a long time at the outskirts of Chiang Mai. The intermediary from SSA-S changed the schedule five times before arriving in a pickup truck. The intermediary wore a pair of dark sunglasses and told the reporter:” We will have lunch before going in. Do not talk at the inspection station.” The truck drove northwest and made nauseating turns. The driver laughed and said: “The road to the border is famous for its 1864 turns, but the road from the border to the headquarters is worse.” The intermediary took the reporters to houses, car shops and restaurants with “Shan state flags” in red, green, yellow and white. Obviously, these are all safe houses of SSA-S along the road to its headquarters.
The Thai military has set up many inspection stations along the way. Fully-armed soldiers carefully check all vehicles and passengers. A Thai soldier holding an M-16 told the reporter that they are part of the 17th Company of the 2nd Special Combat Legion under the 3rd military region. Their main task is to guard border security and combat drug trafficking. The mountain area along the Thai-Myanmar border is the key focus for the military. After 6 long, bumpy and scary hours, the reporters arrived at the “border inspection station of Loi Tai Leng”. The intermediary said Loi Tai Leng is right on the other side of this Thai inspection point. “Loi Tai Leng” means to bring light to the Tai people in Shan State. After the headquarter of SSA-S moved here in 1999, the chair of Shan State Reinvigoration Committee Yawd Serk gave the mountain this name.
From Independence to the Acceptance of the Union
The living conditions at the SSA-S headquarters are extremely poor. Hundreds of villagers and thousands of officers, soldiers and new recruits live in huts on the top of mountains at an altitude of more than a thousand meters. The mountain is not conducive to agricultural development so all their food and groceries have to be shipped from Thailand. When the Thai government closes the border, everyone at the headquarters must rely on wild animals for food. The electricity comes from few diesel generators.
The villa where the reporters stayed is allegedly “the best hotel for distinguished guests”. But in fact, they are just sheet iron shelters with a bad smell and doors that don’t close properly. The home of the chairman is right next to the villa and it is just a slightly bigger house with a simple badminton court. The intermediary said that the house has more running water than the office on the top of the mountain, so the chairman always comes here for showers. The top leader of SSA-S, Yawd Serk, does not mind the poor conditions. He optimistically commented to the Global Times reporter: “This is much better than the past. We only had bare mountains with nothing.” On the contrary, he purposely pointed out: “It’s all high mountains here, which is a good geographical condition during war and beneficial for our training and stationing.”
“When Kun Sa surrendered, we did not follow him. We do what we do with or without Kun Sa. Our revolutionary work is for the love of the country and the future of the Shan people.” Yawd Serk is highly confident about the campaign under his leadership. Kun Sa, the drug lord of the Golden Triangle used to include SSA-S in his army under the slogan of “Independence for the Shan State”. In 1996, Kun Sa suddenly surrendered to the Myanmar government and the troops who refused to follow him moved to the southern Shan State under the leadership of Yawd Serk. Their struggle since then has evolved around Loi tai Leng, their headquarters on the Thai-Myanmar border. For Yawd Serk, Kun Sa was a businessman and would not do anything for the independence of the Shan people. According to him, in 2005, Shan State Army merged with SSA-S under the name of SSA-S. Their political organization is the “Shan State Reinvigoration Committee.”
In April, 2005, Yawd Serk announced that “Shan state should break away from the Myanmar Union and become independent” , vowing to “fight till the last soldier” with the military government. However, since the peace process began, Shan State Constitution Drafting Committee announced in November 2013 that it will give up the goal of “complete independence” and will accept “autonomy under the union.” On the change of position, Yawd Serk told the Global Times : “To revise the constitution is to achieve a compromise with the Myanmar government. We give the Myanmar government the choice between Shan State independence and our autonomy under the Union. We will choose our next course based on the sincerity of the Myanmar government.” At present, the SSA is divided into SSA-South and SSA-North. They fight independently but remain in contact through radios and telephones. Yawd Serk learns about “combat information” through radio every day and deploys his military forces accordingly. His forces remain alert to the whereabouts of the government military.
According to Yawd Serk, the SSA-S controls about 40% of Shan State territory and has five stations. SSA-S gains revenue from taxes and trade in Shan State to buy weapons and maintain the organization. Yawd Serk said they have people in both rural and urban areas in Shan State to ensure the revenue flow. During the interview, Yawd Serk’s assistant, the son of the late SSA leader, general Gawnzerng showed the reporters his Czech pistol and said: “The government military is in the cities while SSA is in the jungle. This is a clear distribution of territory. Although we have signed the ceasefire agreements, we will not hesitate to attack if the government military enters the jungle. We use guerrilla warfare. Although we don’t have planes or heavy artillery, our light weapons make us as good as the government military.”
The Global Times reporters circled the headquarter of SSA-S. Most of the buildings here are made of timber, with a few made of bricks. The county government is located in a few one-story houses. One training center has two floors with a dozen rooms on each floor. Mattresses covered the floor of each room. In the big classroom on the second floor, nearly a hundred people are having a class. The textbook “History of Shan” is in Thai and English. Yawd Serk’s assistant told the reporters that these are youth from across Shan State, who had walked days to come here to fight for the rights of Shan people voluntarily. A short girl shook hands with the reporter and said in fluent English: “After completion of the training, half of us are staying here at Loi tai Leng.” She is 31 years old and used to work for a foreign company in Chiang Mai. She said there are many Shan people like her who could have a good life in Thailand or other countries, however, there are still many people suffering in the Shan State and without a sense of crisis, Shan people could become the next Rohingya without home. At Loi Main Leng, the secretary of the county governor has a high school diploma and is a rare intellectual within SSA-S. A “Tai Leng International School” is located at the foot of the mountain. Students start morning exercise at 5 am and classes at 8 am, with only cold rice for lunch. Many of the students are orphans from the war. The president of the school said every year there are around a dozen students, and most join SSA-S.
Peace talks require good international monitoring
To sustain the long-term struggle, males between 18 and 45 have to serve five years in the military. Brothers from the same family could alternate among themselves. The reporters visited the area during the Thai new year. The square is decorated with new year flags and flags of the Shan state, SSA and blue flags representing unification. Some solders told the reporters that their new year wish is the end of war.
There is a temple on the top of Loi Tai Leng with many worshipers. On the peace talks, the monk picked up two pieces of rock and told the reporter: “the small one is the Burman, and the large one is the ethnic minorities. When the large groups develops they will take over the small one. That is why the Burman tries to hinder the development of the ethnic minorities. It will take a long time for the two sides to reconcile.
This past October and November, the government engaged in multiple peace talks with ethnic groups. SSA-S still believes that “the Myanmar government never has had any credibility.” Yawd Serk said: ”We follow 4 steps: genuine ceasefire, setting up liaison offices, setting up a political framework and negotiations about political details. The Myanmar government’s proposal to sign the nationwide ceasefire accord before the end of 2013 was meant to prepare for the SEA Games and to chair ASEAN. It wants to show that the country is already peaceful, which is opposite to the truth.” He commented: “If we are to believe that the government is sincere, the international community must participate in the peace talks to be the binding monitors. We hope China, Thailand, the U.S., EU and ASEAN will all become international observers of Myanmar’s peace talks.” He emphasized: “The difficulty of achieving peace is that the government says one thing but does another and the military does not follow the decisions of the government. We hope that in the peace process, China could forget its concerns about interfering in Myanmar’s internal affairs and play a bigger role.”