Interview

‘No One Wants to Be a Village Administrator in Shan State’

By Nan Lwin Hnin Pwint 13 August 2019

Although northern Shan State is one of the regions under the unilateral ceasefire announced by the Office of the Commander-in-Chief of the Defense Services, armed conflicts there are ongoing and local residents are still bearing the brunt of the war.

In rural parts of northern Shan, Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs), including non-signatories to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) as well as the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), a signatory to the agreement, have committed human rights abuses by collecting money from local residents and arresting and torturing them on suspicion of working for the government, according to local residents.

Even when there is no fighting in northern Shan, local residents always encounter demands for food and funds by EAOs.

Considered government employees, village administrators have to carry out not only administrative tasks of the government but also work for EAOs whenever the latter arrive at their villages.

Nam Hu Taung Village Administrator U Sai Tint Cho has been charged under Section (17)(1) of the Unlawful Associations Act after being accused of collecting funds for the RCSS, a signatory to the NCA, and the Shan State Progressive Party (SSPP), a non-signatory to the NCA.

Village administrators, village heads and elders face a crisis as they are caught in the crossfire.

They cannot refuse the orders of the EAOs, but when the Tatmadaw learns about it, they are subjected to detention and charges. Over 20 ten-household and hundred-household chiefs quit their posts in July for fear of being charged under Section (17)(1) of the Unlawful Associations Act.

Senior Reporter Nan Lwin Hnin Pwint talked about the concerns of local residents with U Sai Bo Myint, an elder brother of U Sai Tint Cho and the chairman of the Muse Fruit Brokerage.

Nan Lwin Hnin Pwint: What led to the charges against U Sai Tint Cho?

U Sai Bo Myint: Three military trucks carrying about 20 armed men in plain clothes stopped in front of his house at about 3.00 pm on April 26. They entered the house and arrested him. They accused him of being in charge of collecting money for EAOs.

Did they have a warrant when they arrested him or tell the family who they were and why they arrested him?

The family knew nothing about the group, as there were various armed groups in plain clothes in the region. Some of them were wearing Shan trousers and carrying Shan bags. The family didn’t know anything about the group that detained him. The family sought information about him and the captors but nothing was available about the arrest.

Three or four days later, it was learned that he had been arrested by Military Security Affairs and detained at the operation command headquarters of Battalion No. 501. He was not allowed to see anyone during military detention and transferred to police custody on May 9. Only then was the family allowed to go there and see him.

He said he had been handcuffed the entire time and his feet had been constantly in shackles during his military detention from April 26 to May 9. Even when he was brought from military detention to the police station, he was hooded along the way.

Was he tortured during military detention, before he was allowed to see the family?

He was not tortured but was handcuffed and his feet were constantly in shackles. He couldn’t even scratch when he felt itchy. Now we can see him when he is brought to trial. If we have something important we can go to the police station and see him.

He was accused of collecting money for the RCSS and the SSPP. Did he really collect funds for them? What does the family know about it?

He was charged with collecting money for the SSPP (Wan Hai). He was accused of being in charge of collecting money. He had been the village administrator of Nam Hu Taung Village since 2013. It was impossible for him to go from one house to another to collect money. Everyone in the village knows this. However, there are various armed groups that villagers have to deal with in the region, and not just the village administrator but any resident there could be charged under the Unlawful Associations Act.

The act is a legacy of the British colonial era, enacted by the British who ruled Myanmar in the past. It is not village administrators who go and contact armed groups. It is armed groups that come and contact village administrators. There is no reason for village administrators to contact armed groups, which are regarded as unlawful associations. If they want to arrest someone under the act, they should arrest members of the armed groups.

Nobody provides security for village administrators. They cannot refuse when armed groups contact them. Similarly, reporters cannot refuse to talk to armed groups when they meet the latter on their way to cover news. There is no security guarantee. A man was shot dead in downtown Kyaukme recently. A monk was shot later dead in his monastery. Charging village administrators in such a region under Section (17)(1) of the Unlawful Associations Act puts them in a very difficult position.

There are various armed groups in northern Shan State. What do armed groups ask administrators to do when they contact them? Could you please explain more about the region?

To be frank, both the government and armed groups have to rely on the people. The government levies taxes on the people. Armed groups have their own motive to take up arms. It is not our business to criticize or applaud them. They too have to rely on the people.

What can anyone do without money for food? Therefore, any government or armed group mainly relies on taxes from the people. They will contact the people. The public dare not refuse this contact. This is the reality. People in Shan State have such feelings. We were born and grew up in Shan State. I know a lot about Shan State.

I arrived [in Nam Hu Taung Village in early August]. Village heads told the villagers that they no longer dared to work as village heads. They dare not hold the posts, so they resigned. This is the difficult position they are in.

Without administrators, ten-household and hundred-household chiefs [ward administrators] became the most responsible individuals in villages and they will be contacted either by the government or by armed groups. However, they did not want to maintain such contact because they would be charged under Section (17)(1) of the Unlawful Associations Act if they did so. So they followed suit.

If the government takes action against administrators for their contacts with armed organizations, it should also do so against the armed groups. Administrators have helped the government a lot. My younger brother even sought the help of administrators when he got a tip-off about illegal drugs and weapons and tried to seize them at the tollgate in Kyaukme.

If armed groups find fault with administrators for doing so, the latter will be in a difficult position. We need to find ways and means to restore peace among the armed groups. Without solving armed conflicts, people on the ground cannot refuse when they are contacted by the armed groups and will have to deal with them. Not to do so is very dangerous for their lives and property. My younger brother runs a rice mill and some poultry farms. He has poultry farms [here and in another location]. He has a shop behind Panpoung Restaurant. As his businesses are scattered throughout the region, he has to worry about them. No one willingly deals with the armed groups.

However, he was nominated as village administrator because the local residents trusted him. He is now 56 years old. He had to take the post as he was nominated. No one wants to be a village administrator in Shan State. But they cannot refuse when villagers nominate them based on trust. Township administrations also trust them. There is no one who nominates himself as an administrator.

In 2016, the village administrator, and hundred-household and ten-household heads from Nam Hu Taung Village Tract resigned en masse because they feared being charged under Section (17)(1). What led to the problem?

They submitted their resignations to the township administrator on Dec. 12, 2016. It is stated in their resignation letters that [they were being forced to] breach Section (17) (1), and encountered threats to their lives, businesses and property. They were put in a position where they would have to breach the law inevitably. So they submitted their resignations.

As the township administrator said he would not neglect them and persuaded them to stay in their posts, they had to continue carrying out their duties. As you know, my younger brother does not need to worry about his income. He has two children. His daughter works in my brokerage in Muse. As they are a well-to-do family and residents trusted him, they nominated him for the post of village administrator. He could not refuse.

He submitted his resignation at a meeting in April this year during the Water Festival, giving the reason that the post of administrator was a dangerous job, which was subject to Section (17)(1). He was again planning to resign but unfortunately he was arrested on April 20.

It seems that village administrators do not receive any protection from the government.

Whether they receive protection from the government or not is very obvious. The ward administrator of Quarter (9) in Kyaukme quit the job because someone threw a grenade into his house. Another administrator, who was said to own a karaoke bar, was shot dead when he was riding his motorbike from his home to downtown. Who could protect them?

He was killed by one of the armed groups. No one knew whether he had refused to follow the orders of the armed group, or defied it. The abbot of the Shwekyin Monastery was also shot dead in his monastery compound. Who could protect them? There is no police post in Nam Hu Taung Village, Kyaukme. There is no protection for them and they resign over such fears.

When they are not allowed to resign, they face the same situation as my younger brother. In fact, village administrators are the medium between the administrative body of the state and the people, and between armed groups and the people. They have to provide assistance to authorities in seizing illegal drugs and in many other cases. My younger brother was awarded certificates of honor for helping the police.

Now they do not take the certificates into consideration. It is the most important period for the country as efforts are being made to restore peace. He has developed heart problems.

Nam Hu Taung Village Tract is less than a mile from Kyaukme. How can the armed groups get to the village tract?

As you know, everyone has a handphone these days. They contact us on the phone or send a letter before they come. I think no one can refuse when they are contacted by the armed groups.

What do you and local residents think will happen to someone who refuses to help the armed groups? Why can’t they refuse?

When I, as a businessman, get a phone call or a letter asking for money—which they call “taxes” or “funds” or “financial assistance” or something else—I cannot sleep. Everyone feels this way.

Every businessman in Shan State has the same feeling. Nothing is more important than life in Shan State. Lives can be endangered either downtown or in villages. Recently, a couple were shot dead in their house on a mountain slope near their sugarcane plantation.

There are many incidents in which people including village administrators are shot dead downtown, in monasteries, at their homes. The Yoma Bank building in downtown Lashio was blown up and some people were killed in the explosion. As everyone knows about these incidents, people cannot refuse for fear of their lives when they receive such phone calls and letters. Everyone fears for his or her life.

Have you received any phone calls or letters asking for taxes or funds from the armed groups as a businessman at the Muse Fruit Brokerage?

I cannot answer that question. If I said yes, I might be charged under Section (17)(1). We are doing our business in our own way. I don’t want to say whether I have to pay them or not. However, you can’t get into the cinema without a ticket. This is common in this region. If everyone talked only about the rule of law and says no one is above the law, there would be only a few people [outside prison].

As a businessman in a conflict-torn area with so many armed groups, you have to pay taxes to the government and funds to the armed groups for your security. What are the challenges for a local businessman like you?

As a businessman, I am pleased to pay taxes to the government. We work at the 105-Mile Trade Zone to trade in fruit. I do not evade taxes. I must pay taxes.

As I said, people [will continue to suffer], as long as the armed conflicts go on. This week I read a post on Facebook that said government budgets that cannot be audited amount to ransom. That is what is now happening.

Armed groups do not do business. They have taken up arms for their own reasons. Every armed group relies on the people for their subsistence. There are no exceptions. Budgets for government troops are allocated from the taxes of the people. How can other armed group survive without taxes from the people? They can’t make it without taxes. So I don’t want to say whether I have to pay funds for armed groups.

Take a glimpse at the armed groups; they cannot survive without public support. To overcome such troubles, it is necessary to stop armed conflicts and to restore peace as soon as possible. Only then will the people be able to lead their lives peacefully.

You were born, grew up, and do business here. What is the difference between the armed conflict when you were younger and the situation now, including security and the rule of law? What is your opinion?

I was born and grew up here. People have been bearing the brunt of armed conflicts for successive eras. Their sufferings have never abated. With armed conflicts, people have to live in fear and need assistance. People continue to have problems to some degree, regardless of whether certain problems have been alleviated or changed. Their [overall] situation has never improved.

The Office of the Commander-in-Chief of Defense Services said it wants to achieve peace by 2020. Northern Shan State is one of the regions where a unilateral ceasefire has been announced by the military. The military is also negotiating with armed groups in northern Shan State. What are your expectations?

The will matters. If they have a strong will, they will achieve [peace]. If the people who say they want peace have a strong desire for it, peace can be restored, I think. They need to learn to give and take at present. If they are coercing one another for what they want, they will never achieve peace.

There is no other civil war as long as that of Myanmar. I was born in 1961. Full-fledged civil war has been waged since long before I was born. Once I met with a military officer, and what he said made me really miserable. He said, “EAOs will never be able to defeat the Tatmadaw [Myanmar’s military]. The Tatmadaw can’t annihilate them, either.” The answer for us is very clear. If they can’t negotiate, the war will never end. It is necessary for them to solve the problem on the negotiation table. Fighting on hills and in forests will never lead to peace. The only way to achieve peace is to stop fighting. It is important for them to learn to give and take.

Solving armed conflicts would have an impact on the lives of local people. What do you expect from the ceasefire?

They must learn to negotiate. I have been living in Muse for 31 years. Since I arrived in the border region, conditions on the Chinese side have changed completely because there is no civil war there. There is security and the rule of law there. Let alone Europe, America or Singapore, China, which often faced famines in the past, went past us and has become the second-largest economy in the world. The main factor is that they don’t have a civil war.

As a man approaching his 60s, I can say that the morality and behavior of people these days in Myanmar, which has been gripped by civil war, are much worse than those of the people I saw when I was a teenager.

Our lives in the past were stable. No one dares to say there is security at present. Does anyone dare to go about alone at midnight in large cities like Yangon, Mandalay and Lashio? No one does so with their gold necklaces and bags. This is a change. In China no crime can be committed without being uncovered.

I don’t want to criticize the situation of our country. The body responsible for public security takes necessary measures for public security. Those responsible for national defense carry our their duties. They do not do any other things. They must be professionals. Businessmen do their business. Farmers do their work. This is also the case for those who are responsible for the rule of law.

If we go on fighting, the civil war will never end. People my age often tell one another to take care of their health as we will have to live a long time to see development in our country.

If they go on fighting without negotiating, peace will never be achieved—not just in our lifetime, but also in the lifetimes of the next generations.

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