Khun Maung Thaung is the chairman of the lower house’s Ethnic Affairs and Internal Peace Committee and vice-president of the Pa-O National Organisation (PNO).
During November’s polls, the 66-year-old was elected for a second time to represent his constituency of Pinlaung Township in Shan State, which is one of three townships of the Pa-O Self-Administered Zone.
His party controls the administration of the region in the south of the state, an area where poppy cultivation is common.
The PNO and its armed wing the PNA were granted control over the zone, after they signed a ceasefire with the former junta in 1991. They worked with the military-backed Union Solidarity Development Party under the previous government.
Another Pa-O rebel group, the Pa-O National Liberation Army (PNLA), was one of eight ethnic rebel groups that signed a “nationwide” ceasefire accord in September 2015.
In an interview with Myanmar Now, Khun Maung Thaung spoke about Burma’s peace process, the situation of the Pa-O, and his committee’s plans to promote ethnic language and literature in education.
Question: What are the responsibilities of your Committee for Ethnic Affairs and Internal Peace?
Answer: We are trying to promote ethnic language, literature and culture. We focus on unity among ethnic groups. We have submitted a proposal at the parliament to visit ethnic areas and study their cultures. Only then are we able to identify the specific needs of ethnic people.
We will also propose a government budget for supporting [development] programmes in undeveloped ethnic areas. Our committee needs to cooperate with the newly formed Ministry of Ethnic Affairs. We should be able to connect with the ministry and work systematically to speed up our tasks.
Q: What will your committee do to promote ethnic language, literature and culture?
A: We will try to get enough government funds for teaching ethnic language and literature at state schools. Although the outgoing government allowed this programme in the previous academic year, it did not mention clearly whether the programme is to be added into school hours or outside the school time.
Enough budget should be allocated every financial year to support programmes that teach ethnic language and literature. But as the budget is not regularly allocated for this programme it cannot be implemented successfully. Teachers in this programme get their salaries only in summer holidays. It is not good for them. Some of them abandoned this programme after two or three months. So the government needs to adopt a sound policy on this programme after identifying the number of ethnic groups in a certain state, and the number of schools to conduct this programme.
Q: What sort of teacher training programmes are promoting the Pa-O language in the Pa-O Self Administered Zone?
A: This training course is jointly conducted in Pinlaung Township by the Pa-O Literature and Cultural Organisation and the [Pa-O] Sangha for Propagation of Literature and Youth Organisation. After the training course, the teachers are sent to the schools in the Pa-O Self-Administered Zone. … Pa-O language and literature will be taught at the schools with majority of Pa-O children.
Q: What sort of issues should be prioritised when it comes to supporting ethnic regions?
A: Anyone who has visited remote areas of the country will recognise the lack of development among the ethnic peoples. It is important to promote ethnic languages and their cultures. Infrastructural development programmes must be carried out as many far-flung areas have no roads and bridges, and not every village has a school. These people are lagging behind the rest of the country. So, the government should address the problems of education, healthcare and economy in ethnic areas.
Q: There has long been large-scale opium poppy growing in Pa-O areas and it continues. What is being done about this issue?
A: As we could promote prevention and education programmes, poppy cultivation has gradually decreased since 2010.
Q: Ethnic rebels and the army are currently fighting in Arakan, Kachin and Shan states, despite the nationwide peace process. What are your thoughts on this situation?
A: Eight ethnic armed groups signed in a nationwide ceasefire accord (NCA). We do not hear reports of any fighting between these troops and the military. The ongoing clashes are between non-signatories of the NCA and the military.
Q: How is your committee taking part in the peace process?
A: We are working with a government peace negotiation sub-committee on drawing up a framework and reviewing the progress of the Preparatory Committee for organising the upcoming Union Peace Conference [also dubbed the 21st-Century Panglong Conference].
The first sub-committee comprises the eight signatories of the NCA, the government, the military and parliament. The second government sub-committee will negotiate with and persuade non-signatories to join the peace conference.
Q: To what extent has the National League for Democracy-dominated parliament participated in the peace process so far?
A: The parliament has had little to do on this until now. MPs will have more to do only after the peace conference. Parliamentary committees are now discussing with experts how they can take part in this process as best we can. Drawing up a framework for [a peace agreement] is the most fundamental process to support future developments.
Q: Is the NLD government doing enough to listen to ethnic peoples’ demands and work towards an all-inclusive national ceasefire accord?
A: We are taking part in the ceasefire talks to represent the Pa-O people. This shows the NLD wants to listen to the ethnics’ demands on peace and development and we believe that the government is doing its best.
Q: What are the arrangements that the PNO has with the army, and are there military bases in the Pa-O Self Administered Zone?
A: There have been Tatmadaw bases in every township of the Pa-O Self-Administered Region since the term of previous government. They are an artillery training school, a combat training school and two brigades, as well as a militia unit named the Pa-O National Army. It is our Pa-O army, which made a ceasefire deal with the government in 1991. Its headquarters is in Taunggyi, the capital of Shan State. Its communication offices are set up at every townships of the Pa-O Self-Administered Region.
Q: The PNO signed the 1991 ceasefire while many other rebel groups kept fighting, and you cooperated with the previous USDP government. Do you think the NLD government fully trusts the PNO?
A: We are always ready to work together with any administration that can benefit our region. We have no bias towards the NLD. Any ruling administration is regarded as our government. We will join with any government that can assure the safety of our people, stability and development. Actually, we are not politicians, but we are working for the welfare of our national race.
This interview was originally published by Myanmar Now on 1 August 2016.