Change Comes at a Slow Pace to Villagers in Burma’s Southern Shan State

By Lawi Weng 13 December 2013

HSI HSENG TOWNSHIP, Shan State — Children play on the ground while their mother plants garlic. A small stream flows beside this peaceful scene in southern Shan State. Here in Noung Htao village, near the frontier of Shan State and Karenni State, the weather gets very cold in the evening and morning.

Noung Htao village has more than 1,000 houses, divided into four blocks. It has a large community of ethnic Pa-O people, but there are also ethnic Shan, Burman, Karenni, and Lisu, and there are Buddhist temples and pagodas in the village, which is set on a plateau amid green hills.

About four hours bus ride from the Shan State capital of Taunggyi, the region is controlled by the Shan State Nationalities Peoples’ Liberation Organization (SSNPLO), which has a longstanding ceasefire with the Burma government.

The area has been mostly free from fighting for a few decades, and the Pa-O group is no longer armed. Armed groups are still in stand offs with the government elsewhere in southern Shan State. But talks are in progress involving most of Burma’s ethnic armed groups to bring some kind of peace, and there are hopes that could bring development to areas long cut off from economic progress.

For those in Noung Htao village, however, the benefits of peace are slow to come.

Most people have large gardens around their homes for growing onions, garlic and corn. Motorbikes, horses and buffalo are kept near the Pa-O-style wooden homes. The people burn dry leaves in the evening, painting the sky gray.

Most people speak the Pa-O language and can’t speak Burmese. Going from house to house, I was ignored and few people wanted to talk.

Taking a few photos of children in the village, and showing them the pictures, people became friendlier, although the lack of a common tongue restricted us to body language.

Pa-O people traditionally dress in black with cloth headdresses. In the cold weather, they also wear long pants and overcoats.

The village has no phone lines, mobile signal or external power supply, but some homes have a small amount of electricity for lighting generated using a small turbine in a stream.

The surrounding region has a reputation for growing opium poppies. One farmer said there were still poppy fields, despite the purported eradication efforts of authorities, in the nearby hills. The price for opium was stable at about 600,000 kyat, or about US$600, for one viss—a Burmese measure of weight equivalent to 1.63 kilograms, the farmer said.

Farmers in the village say prices for other crops are good this year. One resident, Shwe Li, said the prices this year—320 kyat for a basket of corn and 1,500 kyat for a viss of onion or garlic—gave her a sufficient income from her crops.

“We can earn good money, but we can’t save,” she said, adding that her land makes her about 1 million kyat, about $1,000, per year.

She said she is hoping her future may be better if companies come to invest in the region, although many would say firms from outside are more likely to bring land disputes and poorly paid wage labor to the locals.

Naung Htao village has seen fighting in the past between the government troops and the SSNPLO, also known as the Red Pa-O. The Burma government forced the group to disarm in 2007, but it has reemerged as a political organization with some power locally under the leadership of Khun Sein Shwe.

With peace, things are improving, locals say. They can travel more easily, and there is a daily bus from Taunggyi, with its busy markets.

Than Tin, a 64-year-old ethnic Shan woman, recalled that things have been much worse. As a 24-year-old with a young child, she was repeatedly forced to work as a porter carrying ammunition and food for the Burma Army.

“We could not work on the farm to grow food in the past,” said Than Tin. “Those who did not want to serve as porters had to hide in the jungle.”

Pa-O leaders have some administrative autonomy in three so-called special regions in Shan State, which are Hsi Hseng—known as Sesai by the Burmese government—Hopong, and Pinlaung.

But as they begin to benefit from the absence of fighting, the community wants to regain some parts of their identity they have nearly lost.

Pa-O children, and children from other ethnic groups, are barred from studying their own language in school, but are taught in the home and in summer classes. Local leaders are now pushing for their languages to be taught at government schools.

“They did not let our children to study our own language, despite our community leaders are working hard to get permission,” said Shwe Li.