Union Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann Meets Wa Rebels

By Saw Yan Naing & Kyaw Kha 4 September 2013

RANGOON — Burma’s Union Parliament speaker, Shwe Mann, has met with ethnic Wa rebel leaders from the United Wa State Army (UWSA) in east Burma’s Shan State, in the first sit-down between the parliamentary leader and Burma’s largest ethnic armed group.

The 90-minute meeting on Tuesday focused on rural development projects in Shan State and peace deals with ethnic groups, according to a reliable source close to the government’s peace negotiation team. The source, who asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, declined to elaborate on details of the discussions on peacemaking and development projects.

Among UWSA officials at the meeting in the town of Kengtong, also known as Kyaing Tong, were Kyauk Kho Ahn, head of the rebel group’s foreign affairs department, Aik Lian from the group’s southern unit, and Aung Myint, the group’s main spokesman.

The UWSA is known as Burma’s biggest ethnic rebel group, with an estimated 25,000 military men and women. It has called on the government to upgrade its territory to the status of an autonomous state.

Shwe Mann also paid a visit on Monday to Taunggyi, the capital of Shan State, where he met with ethnic armed groups including the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), the Shan State Nationalities People’s Liberation Organization (SNPLO) and the Pa-O National Organization (PNO).

In July, Shwe Mann called for greater parliamentary involvement in the peacemaking process between ethnic armed groups and the government peace negotiation team, which is led by President’s Office Minister Aung Min.

During the trip this week, he told the public that he supported a federal system of governance in Burma, which many ethnic groups have demanded for years. He also urged armed groups in Taunggyi to be patient and avoid viewing the government as an enemy.

Sai Oo, an RCSS representative who attended the meeting in Taunggyi, said the Union Parliament speaker did not offer a clear strategy on how to resolve the current political impasse between ethnic groups and the government through dialogue.

The RCSS asked Shwe Mann to help find a peaceful solution, as clashes continue between the Shan State Army-South (SSA-S) and the government army despite a preliminary ceasefire between both sides. But Sai Oo said that a commander from the government’s Bureau of Special Operations No. 2 replied that the clashes took place in a bid to protect local residents.

“Lt-Gen Aung Than Htut interrupted, saying that the government army was following orders to preserve rule of law in the country,” Sai Oo said. He quoted the lieutenant general as saying, ‘The RCSS/SSA-S was recruiting new soldiers and collecting taxes from local people, that’s why clashes occurred—to protect locals.”

The lieutenant general also reportedly said that the government army had followed its agreement with the RCSS and was requesting that the rebel group did the same.

More than 70 clashes have taken place since a preliminary ceasefire agreement was signed between the SSA-S and the government on Dec. 2, 2011, Sai Oo said.

“I want to ask the lieutenant general if we can solve problems by other means, besides military action,” he said.

After meeting with representatives from ethnic armed groups, Shwe Mann continued discussions on Monday afternoon with the chief minister of Shan State and state cabinet members, members of the regional assembly and political parties, as well as representatives from non-governmental organizations and community-based groups.

Participants reportedly raised a number of issues surrounding the central government’s budget allocation for different states, long-lasting internal peace, the formation of a federal union, the return of confiscated farmland, and the need to hold the government accountable for rights abuses in the state.

They also called for amendments to the 2008 Constitution, including the revocation of Article 17/1, which concerns illegal connections to unlawful associations, and Article 18, which prohibits public gatherings without official permission.

“I am not satisfied with the speaker’s responses yesterday because he couldn’t give us a guarantee on any issue,” Sai Khin Maung Nyunt, a leading party organizer from the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), who also attended the meeting in Taunggyi, told The Irrawaddy. “But, I am thankful to the meeting organizers, because we were able to discuss with him directly what is going on in our area.”