Thousands attended public gatherings for peace across Shan State this weekend, both voluntarily and allegedly due to pressure from local authorities.
Yesterday, a Buddhist ceremony was held in Hsenwi Township to recognize and pray for the victims of renewed military clashes in central Shan State since the October 15 signing of Burma’s controversial Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA).
From October 23-24, rallies were held in Kengtung, Lashio, Loilem, Tachileik and Taunggyi in support of the NCA.
The largest of the pro-NCA rallies was held at a public recreational facility in Taunggyi, Shan State’s capital. Four thousand people attended the event.
At the Taunggyi rally, Sai Aung Sa and Sai Note, the local Shan Literature and Cultural Association (SLCA) chairman and secretary, respectively, said they “welcome and support” the NCA signing.
But some attendees at the pro-NCA peace events told S.H.A.N. that they came because they were summoned by their township administration.
“They called us from the village,” said Sai Khun Aung, 24, a local resident. “Only when we got here did we know that it was to support the NCA.”
One person from each household was told by the authorities to join the event, he added.
“We got an order to come and attend [from the township],” said Sai Hseng, a 50-year-old shopkeeper who, with 500 others, went to a pro-NCA rally in the northern Shan State city of Lashio on Saturday. “I have no feeling about the NCA,” he added.
The NCA was signed by the government and eight of the country’s more than 20 ethnic armed organizations, including two which are active in Shan State: the Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army-South (RCSS/SSA-S) and the Pa-O National Liberation Party (PNLA).
In the days since the signing, government military offensives have escalated against some non-signatory groups like the Shan State Progressive Party/Shan State Army-North (SSPP/SSA-N). The clashes have resulted in over 3,000 ethnic civilians being displaced in central Shan State.
“According to my understanding, [the fighting] in Shan State is due to the conflict over territory and the political situation,” Sai Aung Sa added. “We feel sorry for the war victims…we understand the problems they are facing.”
Yesterday’s prayer ceremony in Hsenwi attracted 1,200 people from 13 surrounding townships, and was organized by the Tai Youth Network (TYO) through invitations circulated on social media.
At around 11 a.m. on Sunday, attendees walked to the Gong Mu Htat Pagoda, seven miles outside of Hsenwi Town, to find the gates to the site locked.
The location was chosen by superstitious locals who feel that the structure has the power to strengthen opposition to the Burma Army; the site’s founding abbot was known for using Dhamma—the Buddha’s teachings—to criticize Sr.-Gen. Than Shwe, the leader of Burma’s previous military government.
A spokesperson for TYO, 35-year-old Sai Hseng Mong, said that the pagoda’s management team denied access to the procession, which included monks and civilians. The ceremony attendees instead recited prayers at a local shrine.
“They don’t want the people to come and pray,” he said. “This is a good chance for youth to [see] the real political situation today.”
Local government authorities in Hsenwi refused to comment when S.H.A.N. reached out to them about the incident. The committee for the management of Gong Mu Htat pagoda was also not available for comment.
The prayer ceremony’s focus was on those affected by the ongoing fighting in Shan State since the NCA. Youth organizations raised about 9 million kyats ($7,000 USD) for internally displaced communities in Kesi, Mong Hsu, and Mong Nong townships.
Sai Hseng Mong’s view of the ceasefire is pragmatic: some groups are ready to sign and some are not, he said; the government “shouldn’t force them” to back the agreement.
“We will go to help the war victims soon,” he said. “And we will send a letter to President Thein Sein to stop the war.”
By SIMMA FRANCIS (Shan Herald Agency for News / S.H.A.N)
Reporting by SAI YIPHONG (Shan Herald Agency for News / S.H.A.N)