PANGHSANG, Wa Special Region — The first day of an ethnic summit in Panghsang, the capital of the semi-autonomous Wa Special Region in northeast Shan State, began on Sunday with the host rebel group calling on the next Burmese government to prioritize the rights of ethnic nationalities and resolve conflict through political means.
A spokesperson for Bao Youxiang, the chairman of the United Wa State Army (UWSA), read a statement on Sunday in which the Wa armed group noted that the current government had failed to bring all ethnic armed groups together to sign the so-called nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA). The group cited ongoing attacks by the Burma Army and the recent displacement of civilians as a particular concern, despite ethnic armed groups’ calls on Naypyidaw to cease all offensives.
On the upcoming Nov. 8 poll, the UWSA official said, “We support the holding of a free and fair election, [with] good transparency.”
The leaders of 11 ethnic armed groups, including the UWSA, that did not sign the NCA last month attended the Panghsang summit over the weekend. The National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang) was invited but unable to attend.
The UWSA said prior to the meeting last week that attendees would discuss building cooperation between non-signatory armed groups and the country’s political landscape in 2016 and beyond.
Bao Youxiang spoke at a separate event at his home on Oct. 31 where he invited ethnic leaders for dinner. According to Wa spokesperson Aung Myint, Bao Youxiang said his group still supported the eight armed groups that signed the NCA but warned that the government was reprising divide and rule tactics by only removing NCA signatories from the list of unlawful organizations.
With the shape of the country’s next government uncertain, the UWSA spokesperson said ethnic minority groups should work together to build harmony but expressed hope that future conflict would abate.
“Our ethnic armed groups need to prepare for how to deal with future political challenges. There will be many political arguments and political attacks, but there will be no more bloodshed from this political fight. Our ethnic minority groups need to have unity and then confront these political challenges,” Aung Myint said.
The UWSA is Burma’s strongest ethnic armed group, commanding an estimated 20,000 or more troops. It reached a bilateral ceasefire agreement with the government in 1989 and has said that pact would have made its signing of the nationwide accord redundant.
Comprised of six townships, the Wa Special Region is designated a partially autonomous administrative zone under Burma’s 2008 Constitution.
Ethnic Wa speak their local dialect as well as Chinese, but command of Burmese is generally limited. Chinese-language signboards outside hotels, restaurants and administrative buildings throughout the region indicate the predominant local tongue.
Burma’s Union Election Commission (UEC) announced last month that voting would not be held in hundreds of village-tracts across the country, including the entirety of four townships in the Wa Special Region. Voting has also been cancelled in parts of two other townships in the Wa-controlled region.
The UEC’s statement said it would be “impossible to hold elections in a free and fair manner” in these areas.
UWSA leaders said that regardless of the cancellations, the majority of ethnic Wa did not hold citizenship identification cards and therefore lacked the right to vote.
Locals in Panghsang told The Irrawaddy that the Burmese government had undertaken limited citizenship scrutiny drives in the region but that even when cards were issued, restrictive caveats remained.
“They came here and issued some citizenship cards. But [the cards] restricted travel from the area,” said Yin Naing, a resident of Panghsang. “Some people did not try to obtain the cards as they hated the travel restrictions.”
The government had also neglected to issue household registration certificates to those who did possess citizenship documents, according to Yin Naing.