Thousands attended public gatherings for peace across Shan State on the weekend of 24 to 25 October, both voluntarily and allegedly due to pressure from local authorities.

People were allegedly forced to attend rallies in support of the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) that were held in Kengtung, Lashio, Loilem, Tachileik and Taunggyi on 23 and 24 October.

The largest of the pro-NCA rallies was held at a public recreational facility in Taunggyi, Shan State’s capital. Four thousand people attended the event.

At the Taunggyi rally, Sai Aung Sa and Sai Note, the local Shan Literature and Cultural Association (SLCA) chairman and secretary, respectively, said they “welcome and support” the NCA signing.

But some attendees at the pro-NCA peace events told S.H.A.N. that they came because they were summoned by their township administration.

Sai Khun Aung, 24, a local resident said: “They called us from the village. Only when we got here did we know that it was to support the NCA.”

One person from each household was told by the authorities to join the event, he added.

Sai Hseng, a 50 year old shopkeeper who was made to attend a 500 person pro-NCA rally in Lashio, northern Shan State, on Saturday 24 October said: “We got an order to come and attend [from the township]. I have no feeling about the NCA.”

The NCA was signed on 15 October by the government and eight of the country’s more than 20 ethnic armed organizations, including two which are active in Shan State: the Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army-South (RCSS/SSA-S) and the Pa-O National Liberation Party (PNLA).

It appears the authorities were far less tolerant of peace rallies that did not explicitly endorse the NCA, as people who wanted to attend a prayer ceremony for civilian victims of fighting in Shan State at a pagoda near Hsenwi Town found out when they were locked out of the pagoda.

In the days since the signing government military offensives have escalated against some non-signatory groups like the Shan State Progressive Party/Shan State Army-North (SSPP/SSA-N). The clashes have resulted in over 3,000 ethnic civilians being displaced in central Shan State.

Sai Aung Sa said: “According to my understanding, [the fighting] in Shan State is due to the conflict over territory and the political situation, we feel sorry for the war victims…we understand the problems they are facing.”

The Tai Youth Network (TYO) decided to hold a prayer ceremony in support of the displaced victims of the fighting in central Shan State on Sunday 25 October. Invitations to the event, which was due to be held at the Gong Mu Htat Pagoda, seven miles outside of Hsenwi Town, were circulated on social media.

At 11am on 25 October a procession of about 1,200 people walked to the Gong Mu Htat Pagoda, only to find that the management had locked the gates to prevent them from entering.

That particular pagoda had been chosen by superstitious locals who feel that the structure has the power to strengthen opposition to the Burma Army. The pagoda’s founding abbot was known for using Dhamma—the Buddha’s teachings—to criticize Sr.-Gen. Than Shwe, the leader of Burma’s previous military government.

A spokesperson for TYO, 35-year-old Sai Hseng Mong, said that the pagoda’s management team had denied access to the procession, which included monks and civilians. The ceremony attendees instead recited prayers at a local shrine.

He said: “They don’t want the people to come and pray. This is a good chance for youths to [see] the real political situation today.”

Local government authorities in Hsenwi refused to comment when S.H.A.N. asked them about the incident. The committee for the management of Gong Mu Htat pagoda was also not available for comment.

The prayer ceremony’s focus was on those affected by the ongoing fighting in Shan State since the NCA signing. Youth organisations raised about 9 million kyats ($7,000 USD) for internally displaced communities in Kesi, Mong Hsu, and Mong Nong townships.

Sai Hseng Mong’s view of the ceasefire is pragmatic, he said that some groups are ready to sign and some are not and that the government “shouldn’t force them” to back the agreement.

He said: “We will go to help the war victims soon and we will send a letter to President Thein Sein to stop the war.”