Soldiers stand guard in Lashio, Myanmar's northern Shan state. (Photo: Xinhua )
As the political reconciliation is underway in Myanmar, Shan State Army-South (SSAS) chair, Lieutenant General Yawd Serk, hopes China will play a greater role in the process of achieving peace in the country.
The general, who is also Chairman of the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), told the Global Times that he has had talks with China's Asia affairs special envoy. "I hope China can participate in Myanmar peace process at a greater width. China and Myanmar have a long border and China's boundary with Shan State is also very long."
Despite the Myanmar government's optimism that peace will prevail across the country, Yawd Serk said that he had almost "lost confidence."
"The cease-fire agreement has not brought any changes, the whole situation has worsened," he told the Global Times.
Since October 2015, Myanmar's government has signed the landmark Nationwide Cease-fire Accord (NCA) with 10 ethnic armed groups including SSAS, which was viewed as an important step in resolving the country's conflicts.
On February 12, Myanmar President U Win Myint said the government is currently in negotiations with ethnic armed organizations which have not yet signed the NCA in an effort to realize a final peace deal, Xinhua reported.
It's been reported that military conflicts in Myanmar occur to 200 to 300 times a year.
72nd anniversary celebration
Shan State in east Myanmar borders with China, Laos and Thailand and is the country's largest state.
A dozen ethnic armed groups are active in the region and control about 80 percent of the Myanmar-China border area. SSAS is one of the key groups in the area.
When a Global Times reporter visited Loi Tai Leng, the headquarters of SSAS and RCSS, on February 7, they were celebrating the 72nd anniversary of the founding of Shan State.
At a grand parade, soldiers demonstrated jungle operations and hostage rescue missions.
"Our supreme goal is to achieve autonomy for the Shan people and we will fight for it to the end," Yawd Serk said.
According to Yawd Serk, SSAS and RCSS control about 40 percent of Shan State, including central, eastern, and southern regions of the state as well as a small part of the northern area. There are more than 10,000 soldiers, the first or second most of all ethnic armed groups, said Yawd Serk.
In addition to the military parade, other activities were also held in the evening with Shan people dressed in their traditional outfits and dancing and singing in the square.
"This is the rarest day of the year. There are celebrations across all regions where Shan people live. Several thousand people even traveled a few days to the headquarters for this celebration," said the SSAS spokesperson.
"There are no hotels here. They live in houses of relatives or friends, military camps or even set up own tents. They feel the warmth and joy here as this place is the hometown of Shan people," he said.
A young person who looks to be in his 20s told the Global Times that he started to fight in his teens and has never lived a stable life. "I wish to have a stable life, get married and have children. When the battle ends, I want to be a village chief to lead all villagers to a prosperous life."
Another solider told the Global Times that he got addicted to drugs before joining the armed group in Loi Tai Leng. "I would be doomed if I had not come to Loi Tai Leng … Here I don't have any opportunity to be exposed to drugs," he said.
Cell phone signals
Loi Tai Leng has undergone tremendous changes since the reporter first visited here six years ago. A cement road has been laid on the extremely narrow road; the VIP residence where the journalist once stayed was a log cabin but is now a multi-level house.
Vigilance remains high. "It is close to the chairman's home. The SSAS needs to guarantee the absolute safety of the chairman and you. There are 24-hour security guards and electricity," the spokesperson said.
A local resident told the Global Times that generators provide electric power between 6 pm to 10 pm, and they use solar energy during the daytime.
"The home will never be dark again …Loi Tai Leng has had mobile phone service since 2015 and we can even connect to the internet," he said.
There are more than 600 households at the headquarters. In December 1999 when the headquarters was built, there were only 250 people living here.
"Loi Tai Leng used to be a barren mountain. But now there is a newly-built cement road. Electricity and water are available, vegetables are grown in open spaces and chicken and ducks are raised. Rice is also allocated to every household on a monthly basis. They [Local residents] have no problems in living," said Yawd Serk.
There is also a school at the foot of the mountain with more than 700 students.
Yawd Serk said that Loi Tai Leng is the cradle of SSAS where many young people come here to study Shan State history, politics and intelligence and then return to promote political knowledge and ethnic culture among armed groups and ordinary people in different regions of Shan State.
"Those who want to join the armed group to fight the battle will receive several months' military training," he said.
While Yawd Serk is critical of the government, the government is also critical of the ethnic groups. On January 25, the Myanmar military accused the groups of operating outside of their own boundary and extorting money from civilians. It specifically warned the SSAS to follow the boundary set under the cease-fire agreement signed in 2012, The Irrawaddy reported.
But Yawd Serk said the military "has no right" to tell them where they can operate.
An anonymous expert in the Myanmar peace process told the Global Times that the peace process in Myanmar has come to a deadlock because the central government and ethnic armed groups can't reach a consensus on fundamental conditions.
The central government requires the armed groups to lay down their arms before talks on political reconciliation can begin, but the groups have refused. They want to talk about a political solution before addressing the issue of weapons which they say ensures their survival.
There is a ray of hope. On October 16, 2018, commander-in-chief of Defense Services, Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing said he hoped the peace process to be completed by 2020, and an eternal peace plan can be presented to the people.