Indications are that another inter-ethnic conflict might be brewing in the north-west corner of the country, namely in Sagaing Region, part of the adjacent territories, Hkamti and Homalin Townships, to the Naga Self-Administered Zone (SAZ).
But this time around it is not the concerned ethnic groups, Shanni and Naga, trying to assert their claim on each other through military might, as has been the case in Shan State between various ethnic armed groups (EAOs), but because of the ruling Union government wanting to curry favor in order to gain some political credits on the National Socialist Council of Nagaland- Kaplang (NSCN-K). The government has been wooing the group to sign the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA). Its NCA-based peace process hasn’t been doing well since it was stopped over a year ago.
State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi was in Leshi of Naga Self-Administered Zone and Bamauk township in Sagaing Region, where a Naga politician U Ki Shi Mu asked Aung San Suu Kyi to make Hkamti and Homalin part of the Naga SAZ during her trip to the area from Jan. 21-23.
This request has created an avalanche of protest actions by the residents and civil society organizations (CSOs), including a political party, within the Shanni community.
So far, Shan Literature and Culture (Mongywa University); Township Shan Literature and Culture Committee (Hkamti); Shanni Youth Organization; and Shanni Solidarity Party (SSP) have all issued statements rejecting the Naga initiative to expand Naga SAZ incorporating the Hkamti and Homalin Townships.
But surprisingly, Shanni Nationalities Army (SNA), now renamed Shanni Nationalities Front (SNF), hasn’t made any comment. But on the eve of the Aung San Suu Kyi visit to the International Court of Justice, in The Hague, to fend off the genocide lawsuit accusation filed by the Gambia, it did issue a statement praising the undertaking of the state counselor as an appropriate, necessary move.
No doubt, the SNF reason might also be to court the government for endorsement to its state-level administration upgrade, which should be carved out from parts of Sagaing Region and also Kachin State, including its desire to be allowed to take part as one of the ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), in NCA-based peace process. The group believes that such opportunity will enhance more visibility to its state-level or sub-state administrative upgrade ambition.
Thus, it is clear that the SNF which now has more than 1000 troopers under arms, with three brigades operating in Sagaing Region and as well Kachin State, is on the same wavelength with most Shanni political parties and CSOs, where political aspirations are concerned.
The heart of the argument against the planned expansion of the Naga SAZ is that the area is inhabited by the Shanni, which they have inhabited with their own rulers from time immemorial, and if this will be allowed to happen, the social harmony that exists in the area will be seriously disrupted, to put it mildly.
Homalin and Hkamti Township populated mostly by the Shanni are within Hkamti District in Sagaing Region, which have nearly 100,000 Shanni residents. They see the areas as their territories ruled historically by Shanni Saophas, or rulers. Understandably, they are against the idea that the areas will be incorporated into the Naga SAZ.
According to The Voice of Shanni report on February 17, Homalin and Hkamti were ruled by Shanni Saohpas from 1178 to 1314 successively for 13 generations for 136 years. Hkamti Saopha Sao Mya Sein Khun Nwe only abdicate from his hereditary power in 1952.
“They should only talk about their concerned area. Now Homalin and Hkamti are Shanni administrative areas which they have (always) ruled,” said U Saw Win Tun of Shanni Solidarity Party.
Another resident of Homalin Ko Kyaw Mo Win was more blunt, who said: “How can we give? The Naga having limited small area and wanting to expand to our side shouldn’t let us to be involved and also we cannot give in. Because these are places which our ancestors had lived even before we were born.”
It is the Shanni that have been pushing to re-establish their turf as a state-level administration like all the other existing ethnic states, as they consider that they have been robbed off their existence as an ethnic group with connected, defined boundaries as a separate political entity which was involuntarily dissolved, due to the political give-and-take which had happened on the eve of independence from the British in 1948.
The inclusion of Shanni areas into the Kachin State was said to be the bargaining outcome from the Kachin forsaking secession rights from the Union, which in turn was compensated with some Shanni territories’ inclusion into the Kachin State.
In a book written by one Karenni politician Khun Marco Ban titled, “From Panglong Spirit to the establishment of genuine federal democratic union,” he writes: “Prime Minister U Nu told Sima Duwa Sin Wa Naung that in forming Kachin State, in addition to Myitkyina, Bhamo District will be included, including that the Chairman would be Kachin ethnic which will become law. In response, the Kachin leaders would forsake the secession clause, which the Sima Duwa accepted it.”
To put it differently,, non-secession clause in Kachin State law was included so that it cannot invoke secession rights anchored in Union constitutional law, like the Shan and Karenni states.
Given such a backdrop and recent political development, if the Naga proposal will be taken seriously by the NLD-led government for whatever reason, there is a likelihood that another inter-ethnic war would be ignited, which is not a sensible thing to do.
However, a few core inputs on the issue should be taken into consideration.
Firstly, criterion of forming a new state-level administration or sub-state have to be drawn up and have to be embedded in the future federal union constitutional drafting.
Secondly, in order to embrace the whole spectrum of federalization, decentralization should also be considered at all levels of the government administrative mechanism.
And unless, such criterion and decentralization procedures are agreed upon, clearly spelled out and be in place, there is no way that demands stemming from aspirations of ethno-nationalism like the Wa, Pa-O, Palaung, Shanni, who are presently demanding an upgrade to become an ethnic state in their own rights, cannot be satisfactorily resolved.
Thus, the power holders of the day shouldn’t be altering the existing sub-state boundaries, incomprehensive as it may seem at this moment, to fuel more inter-ethnic conflict, which the country already has more than enough for the time being.