While Burma’s current political situation of tentative democratic reform has been described as a period of opportunity, one of the country’s formerly incarcerated political opponents is yet to be convinced.
“We are still in the revolution stage,” Lt-Gen Hso Ten of the Shan State Army-North (SSA-N) told The Irrawaddy from his base in central Shan State.
According to the Shan Herald Agency for News, the 18th of July marked the 23rd attack by government troops in the area since a ceasefire was initiated in January. And it was around here that 30,000 people were displaced last year due to ethnic conflict. “Everything is survival,” added Hso Ten. “We still have to struggle.”
Now in his mid-70s, Hso Ten was released from prison in October after serving seven of a 106-year sentence. Originally charged with “high treason,” he was the only ethnic Shan leader among around 600 political prisoners freed in recent amnesties.
There remains no doubt in Hso Ten’s mind that he was one of Burma’s estimated 2,000 prisoners of conscience. “I was in prison without reason. So what was I? I was a political prisoner,” he said.
Hso Ten attributes his incarceration to the absence of the rule of law in Burma, one of the major points discussed in January’s Taunggyi Conference between the SSA-N and Naypyidaw government in the Shan State capital.
Many now question the influence of January’s ceasefire. “Nothing came out of it—there is still fighting,” said the rebel leader. “It was just a ceasefire, not eternal peace.”
“Eternal peace” is a phrase that Hso Ten emphasizes, maintaining that this goal will only be reached if two major problems are solved—the lack of equal rights for ethnic minorities and the granting of self-determination to Shan State within a “genuine union.”
To achieve the latter, he hopes for what many envision as a Second Panglong Agreement. Signed by Shan, Kachin, Chin and Burman representatives in 1947 just before Burma’s independence from Great Britain, the original Panglong was a promise to realize both of the above conditions for peace.
To Hso Ten, this document administered by Aung San—Burma’s independence hero and father of current opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi—remains relevant today, even though it was not adhered to by the governments that followed. “If we leave out the Panglong Agreement, the Union is not meaningful,” he explained.
The protection of the rights of Burma’s ethnic populations remains an unsolved issue as economic growth is prioritized and expedited. After an immediate ceasefire, the government’s next stated step towards peace in eastern Burma is the implementation of development projects.
But some would like to see this postponed in favor of an inclusive political conference. “We feel like we are second-class citizens … they think if they can solve economic problems, the people will shut up,” Hso Ten said. “But we don’t have equal rights. How can we go on?”
With many political questions remaining unanswered, increased praise from the international community has made many ethnic people apprehensive. “The international community only knows about the ‘democracy problem,’” said one senior official for the Shan State Progressive Party, the political wing of the SSA-N.
Recent attention on Burma has focused almost exclusively on the country’s by-elections, in which Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won and accepted 43 seats in Parliament—comprising almost eight percent of the total legislature.
However, Hso Ten does not anticipate that the country will undergo a major transformation within the next year. “The international community says there is change, but actually there is not,” he said. Like many, Hso Ten looks to Burma’s 2015 general election as a starting point for what could be a political shift for the country. “If there is a landslide victory for the NLD, then there will be positive change.”
“We need time and international support,” he added. “I want to encourage our young people—especially women—to work hard in every field for the future of Shan State. In the future, there will be women as leaders. What is important is to work. We have to work hard. We have a long way to go for eternal peace.”
Simma Francis is a freelance journalist based in Thailand.