RANGOON — Fifty civil society organizations have called on President Thein Sein to immediately end conflict in eastern Burma’s Shan State, where recent weeks have seen a rise in armed clashes between the government and ethnic rebels despite efforts toward peace in the country at large.
“Mr. President, you must accept full responsibility for this offensive, and exercise your power to make the war stop so that innocent citizens will be able to exercise their democratic rights to vote and live peacefully,” read the letter, dated Oct. 25.
On Oct. 15, the Burmese government reached a landmark ceasefire agreement with eight non-state armed groups, though conflict continues in several parts of the country, including central and northern Shan State.
The Shan State Progressive Party (SSPP), the political arm of the Shan State Army-North (SSA-N), was not among the signatories to the peace accord, though it reached a bilateral ceasefire with the government in early 2012.
At least 3,000 civilians from Mong Su, Kehsi and Tang Yan townships have reportedly been forced from their homes because of conflict since Oct. 6, despite calls from peace negotiators and the international community that the Burma Army show restraint in non-ceasefire areas.
Speaking with The Irrawaddy on Tuesday, Ying Harn Fah, a spokesperson for the alliance that penned the letter to Thein Sein, said he believed the president had the power to end the conflict.
“We want him to ask [Commander-in-Chief Senior] General Min Aung Hlaing to order his troops on the ground to stop fighting,” Ying Harn Fah said. “As he is the president, he must have the power to help end it.”
The spokesperson said the conflict was likely to have a severe impact on villagers because many had to flee their land before a major harvest, warning that if “they dare not go home and reap their crops on time, they will face a major food crisis.”
In their letter on Sunday, the 50 signatories emphasized that continued conflict in the state undermined the government’s stated commitment to the peace process, adding that, “[w]e are also dismayed that attacks are occurring so close to the [Nov. 8] general election, as citizens will lose their right to vote.”
Next month’s election is hoped the be the country’s freest and fairest in decades, though polling has been cancelled in more than 400 village tracts across Burma—56 of them in Shan State. Other severely affected areas include Kachin, Karen and Mon states, as well as Pegu Division.
“As this fighting goes on amid the signing of a nationwide ceasefire,” Ying Harn Fah said, “we doubt the sincerity of the government about the peace process. Questions linger among us about whether the government really wants or peace or if they just want to project a good image to the international community.”
Military operations in Shan State since early October, which have been referred to Shan rebels as an offensive complete with artillery attacks, have forced thousands from their homes, leaving them to shelter with relatives, in jungles and in nearby monasteries.
Amid a struggle for food, medicine and other essential humanitarian aid, signatories to Sunday’s letter urged the government to allow immediate access to internally displaced persons (IDPs) for local and international donors and aid workers.
Last week the SSPP Peace Building Committee also expressed concern over the situation around its Wan Hai headquarters. The committee sent an open letter to Vice President Sai Mauk Kham—himself ethnically Shan—urging the government to immediately end Burma Army activities in the area.
The letter pointed out that recent operations were being commanded by Lt-Gen Yar Pyi of the Defense Chief of Staff (Army).
In the letter, the SSPP “humbly” requested that the vice president do all in his power to stop the use of military force around the group’s headquarters in favor of finding a political solution.
“In the case that if you prefer to use the military force to solve the political problems, you can also inform that you have chosen so,” the letter concluded.