The Restoration Council of Shan State, the political wing of the Shan State Army (SSA), sets off from the Thai border town of Mae Sai on Friday morning accompanied by the Burmese police. The convoy passes from Tachilek through Talay—ravaged by a 7.2-magnitude earthquake in March 2011 which killed more than 150 locals—to the quaint mountain retreat of Kentung where the talks are due to be held.
Lt-Gen Yawd Serk, the head of the SSA-South, takes a break en route through the picturesque eastern Shan State countryside. The former associate to infamous Golden Triangle drugs lord Khun Sa is so notorious in these parts that even his grinning Burmese military chaperones could not resist sneaking a few surreptitious snaps when the chance arose.
Railways Minister Aung Min, left, holds hands with Yawd Serk after informal talks during dinner at Kentung’s New Kyaing Tong Hotel. As Naypyidaw’s leading peace negotiator, Aung Min had already secured deals with Karen, Karenni, Mon and Chin rebels. “Since President Thein Sein became the leader of Burma we have had opportunities for discussions and the time for negotiations and peace talks,” Yawd Serk told reporters afterwards. “The reason we are fighting is for our people to have freedom, human rights and self-determination.”
Yawd Serk’s official car, complete with SSA flag, waits to take him to Saturday’s negotiations in the headquarters of Triangle Command. This was the first time the rebels or international press had entered the Shan State base of the Burmese armed forces. A huge banner outside the compound reads “The Tatmadaw Shall Never Betray National Causes.” Security is extremely tight and journalists covering the event were assigned Military Intelligence officers to guide them around town.
Deputy Commander-in-Chief Gen Soe Win delivers his opening address at the start of negotiations, with Aung Min seated to his right. As the second highest ranking officer in the Burmese military, Soe Win is clearly uneasy with the level of media attention and even snubbed the post-talks press conference. But an inside source told The Irrawaddy that the negotiations were conducted respectfully with no raised voices or belligerent accusations. Apparently Burmese military officers were advising each other before the meeting to stay calm when challenged.
Yawd Serk, who used an interpreter throughout the negotiations, signs the peace agreement at 8pm on Saturday evening. The deal focuses on tackling narcotics production and a permanent halt to clashes. “As the ethnic armed groups and the government have made ceasefires to solve the political issues through peaceful political resolutions, the Restoration Council of Shan State will cooperate with the government through the drug eradication plan,” read a statement.
This painting depicting ancient Burmese warriors riding elephants dominates the negotiation room. Triangle Command is set looking over the popular tourist town where President Thein Sein was based from 1997 until 2001. Young officers from the barracks mingle with reporters from the until-recently banned exiled media who they recognize from different publications and shows.
The post-talks press conference was hosted by Yawd Serk and Aung Min, with Soe Win conspicuous by his absence. Military officers watching the scene become obviously agitated to see their leaders being bluntly questioned by the international media. The session goes on so long that the affable Aung Min closes by saying, “Now let’s go and enjoy breakfast!”
Officials from the SSA, Burmese military as well as observers and members of the press enjoy a buffet banquet at Triangle Command’s grand hall. Johnny Walker Black is served to guests along with noodles, rice and local delicacies. Soe Win has now returned and occupies pride of place on a white throne at the head table, and openly jokes with both Yawd Serk and Aung Min. Traditional Shan dancing takes place before the delegation with a karaoke machine also by the stage.