HSI HSENG TOWNSHIP, Shan State — Ethnic Pa-O leader Khun Sein Shwe lives a quiet life these days in his village of Noung Htao, set on a plateau amid the green hills of southern Shan State.
But the 84-year-old has spent a lifetime being a revolutionary in the struggle for the rights of the Pa-O, a small, Buddhist minority in Shan State.
Wearing black, wide-fitting traditional Pa-O pants and a bomber jacket and hat to ward off the mountain cold, Khun Sein Shwe recalls the days that he took up arms against Burma’s central government a few years after the country’s independence in 1948.
“The reason we rose up is because we want to fight against feudal attitudes towards the small minorities,” said Khun Sein Shwe, who is a founding member of Shan State Nationalities Peoples’ Liberation Organization (SSNPLO) and its current chairman.
His group, which includes several other smaller Shan State minorities such as the Lishu and Karenni tribes, fought against successive military governments for decades, until it reached a ceasefire deal with the State Peace and Development Council in 1994.
Khun Sein Shwe recalled how the military junta later invited him to join the controversial National Convention in the 1990s when it began a long process of drawing up a new Constitution for Burma.
“I still remember that the head of the Supreme Court, Aung Toe, and other officers met me during the convention and asked my opinion about their written draft of the Constitution. I told them it could not be successful unless it had support from the people,” he said.
The army eventually completed its drafting of the undemocratic Constitution in 2008. Many ethnic groups reject it as giving power to the Burma Army and the central government over Burma’s border regions and its resources.
“This Constitution is like a broken house. It is better to destroy the old house and build a new one. I want to have a new Constitution,” said Khun Sein Shwe, echoing the demands of many ethnic rebel leaders.
He said Burma’s reformist government and its peace process with the ethnic groups needs to address the root causes of the country’s long-running internal conflicts.
“If we do not know the type of medicine to treat our patients, the result is that our patients are going to die,” he said, adding that Burma’s medicine is a new Constitution that creates a federal union. “General Aung San intended to have a federal union, in which all ethnic people could have their own state,” Khun Sein Shwe said.
Asked about the country’s peace prospects, the long-time Pa-O leader said, “They think Burma will have no more fighting if they can form militia forces or Border Guard Forces [to merge with the Burma Army]. But, it is not true. There can’t be peace unless they stop their process of Burmanization of ethnic regions.”
Since 2008, the SSNPLO has been granted some power to administer its own region in southern Shan State, an area comprising three townships located about 100 km south of Taunggyi. They received these powers only after the junta suddenly forced the SNNPLO to disarm 14 years after a ceasefire was signed.
Khun Sein Shwe said the Burma Army swooped into the area in 2008 and demanded the group give up their arms. “They came to my house three times telling me to disarm. I could remember the last time they told me that if I did not disarm, there would be bloodshed,” he said.
When the Pa-O leader refused he was locked up for 20 days in Taunggyi Prison. “I told them… ‘You do not have to come to me again. I will give you my arms when the country has democracy,’” he recalled, adding that ultimately hundreds of SSNPLO weapons were taken away.
SSNPLO now maintains a headquarters with an unarmed security unit of several hundred men, but Khun Sein Shwe said the group’s administrative powers were a fig leaf for the Burma Army’s domination of his people’s territory.
“Just to make me happy they formed this administrative region. But, I am not happy because their troops did not respect our people any more, they did not even inform us when enter or exit our region,” he said.