U Khun Tun Htoo
The Fight For Federalism
In February 2005, Shan Nationalities League for Democracy chairman Khun Tun Oo and seven other Shan leaders were arrested, convicted of high treason and sentenced to jail terms ranging from 79 to 106 years. Khun Tun Oo, 71, who was born in Hsipaw, Shan State, and studied Law at Yangon University, was released under amnesty in 2012 and resumed the chairmanship of the SNLD. The party registered with the Union Election Commission after the 2012 by-elections and intends to run in the 2015 general election. It will be its first campaign since the elections in 1990 for a constituent assembly in which it won 23 seats. In a wide-ranging interview, Mizzima’s Portia Larlee asked Khun Tun Oo about ethnic politics, federalism and the drug trade.
Why do you think the 2014 by-elections were cancelled?
There were excuses, such as it was cancelled because of financial affairs. The Union Election Commission said they would need to spend K2 billion (about US$2 million) on the by-elections, which was too expensive. In my opinion, the inner story is that the ruling party [USDP] needs another year to prepare. The MPs are not totally qualified or politically trained. There is a lack of experience and intellect. Some members of the nominated old guard from the military are just salary earners.
Our [SNLD] position is nominating from the grassroots level; we [SNLD] do not interfere with the choice of the people. Then, whatever happens, good or bad, it is your doing, your choice. We try to get the best candidates. This is unlike other parties – especially the USDP.
What is the SNLD’s guiding principle?
Shan nationalism. Unlike the USDP, we [the SNLD] have our own clear-cut policy. Bamar parties don’t have this. As far as I know, not a single USDP member has gone to prison for political reasons. It is a standard now and a main qualification for politicians. We have this credit.
What is your opinion about proportional representation at the Union level?
The National Democratic Force submitted the proposal for proportional representation and within a month it was ratified by parliament. The USDP doesn’t want a first past the post system; they are clinging to PR for safety.
Should there be PR at the state and regional level?
In my opinion, in Shan State, we need more time to educate people, especially in the hilly areas and considering language barriers. PR is the only way left for the USDP to be in parliament. In
Bamar areas, most votes will go to NLD.
An ethnic political alliance, the Nationalities Brotherhood Federation - which includes an SNLD rival, the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party - established the Federated Union Party in 2013. Does it pose a threat to the SNLD?
We believe some of the parties in NBF were supported by Myanmar Egress during the 2010 election. Its sister party, theFUP, made of two representatives from each group in NBF, will contest in [regions] such as Mandalay, Sagaing and Yangon, as well as Kachin State to win ethnic votes. Otherwise NLD would win. We cannot trust FUP because of its link to USDP. FUP does not pose a threat; we don’t believe in their policy.
The SNLD is a member of the Union Nationalities Alliance. How does it differ from the NBF?
UNA was formed after the 1990 election and comprises of Arakan, Shan, Mon, Chin, Kokang, Kachin groups. NBF calls for 14 states; an idea from General Ne Win in 1974. It is trying to attract the nationalities, like the Tia-leng in Kachin State, Kayan in Kayah State and Intha in Shan State at Inle Lake. One day these groups may want an
autonomous region. UNA has a policy of eight states, agreed upon between General Aung San and the leaders of the nationalities in the 1947 Panglong agreement. Our state policy is to uphold the federalism agreed upon between Aung San and our leaders. We believe in federalism, we fought for it, we’ve been to jail for it. We want a federalism of equality and self-determination and the right to our culture and literature. We want to uphold the promises made at the Panglong agreement, so we will go on fighting for that right as UNA policy.
Is there any possibility of a merger between the SNLD and SNDP?
It will not happen. Recently nine townships have swung to us, including Lashio, Namtu, Hsihseng, Mongkaung, Panlaung, Mongnai and we can expect more – there are 15 months to go before the election. We will run in 2015 because we think we will win. The public is aware of our policy. We have a Shan State Joint Action Committee, which includes Shan State Progress Party, Shan State Army and SNLD. In 2005, the Shan State National Army dissolved and its members went to Loi Tai Leng, the Restoration Council of Shan State headquarters. These forces also support us – and they have a lot of control, since, you know, the nationalities only support their own people because they don’t trust the Bamars at all.
The drug trade in Myanmar is booming and sustained, in part, by people’s militias. What is the situation in Shan State?
According to statistics there are more than 5,000 people’s militias in Myanmar, starting from five troops to more than 400. Some in Shan State are involved in trading ya ba, opium and ecstasy. Methamphetamine is K2,000 per pill and ecstasy is K8,000. Material comes from Moreh, India, the drugs are manufactured in the Golden Triangle area, the banks of the Mekong River, and surrounding areas. For ecstasy and yaba, you need a small lab and manpower guarded by your own militia. But not all people’s militias are involved in this trade; some are defence forces.
Opium is a way to make money. The farmers peel the flowers, dry the opium over a fire and sell it to buyers who know the area. The buyer will trade MSG, salt, rice, zinc, nails and other essentials for the opium.
How is the government handling the drug trade?
They can’t. As you know, everyone is corrupted. The higher you are the more of the share you get and you can’t stop it. Those guys on the road selling, they get arrested – not the big guys.
‘As far as I know, not a single USDP member has gone to prison for political reasons’
What is the SNLD’s platform regarding the drug trade?
Right now we don’t touch it at all. If we do it will be a head-on issue. Not that we are not responsible or dutiful – we are. It’s been going on between plantation owners, the middle men and the highest guy. They can stop it.
Later we have to sit down about this issue. The things that are happening are so severe, such as land grabbing. Some groups are collecting bribes or “taxes” from the public for car permits and land rights. But there is less pressure on the public now and that is good.
How did your prison term affect your politics?
In 2004 I met with Dr Sai Mauk Kham to discuss the Shan Consultative Council [Shan State Academics Consultative Council] as ordered by General Khin Nyunt, Military Intelligence chief. I went to prison for this in 2005 and Dr Sai Mauk Kham went on to become vice president.
My politics did not change. The government accused us for having contact with Yawd Serk [who led the Shan State Army-South for nearly two decades until 2014). It was a high treason case; there was no evidence.
The National Convention [to draft a constitution] began in 1993. The 104 principles were introduced in 1995, which would have created self-administered zones in Shan State. Since then the SNLD decided it shouldn’t continue. We can’t go on anymore; the 2008 Constitution is problematic and must be amended. If not, things will get worse.
What is your response to the negotiations for a nationwide ceasefire?
Be careful and be on alert. Everybody is holding their own weapons with them; all are ready. If it is not agreed we’ll go back another 50 years. All of us ethnics ‒ Karen, Kayan, Shan, Chin, Arakan, Naga – are surrounding the union. The nationalities do not totally trust the Bamars, especially because the nationalities suffer so much.
How is the SNLD funded?
I may be naive but we don’t enjoy money from others. We spend from our own pockets. We do what we believe in. The public trusts us. We don’t get privileges like gold mining. Sometimes we receive money from party members.
What is your opinion the about self-administered or “autonomous” zones in Shan State and throughout Myanmar.
You know the government slogan is to uphold the sovereignty of the Union. But in Wa self-administered zone, for example, there is no central authority, no banking, no judiciary, no police station, no doctors, no hospital, no schooling – and they use Chinese currency. The central authorities cannot even go there. They gave the Naga a self-administered zone. The Kachin population is much lower, but it has a state. The Pa-O demand a state. The government themselves are slicing Shan State and slicing the Union. It is a big mistake. I have always said, you bully us and treat us nationalities like this, one day the Irrawaddy River will become the border of China and India.
U Khun Tun Oo posing in the living room of his Yangon home. Photo: Hein Htet