YANGON, Myanmar – The man speaking on his iPhone with the slick black suit and the shiny brown shoes could easily be mistaken for just another young entrepreneur eating breakfast at the Hotel Yangon.
But Sao Yawd Murng is a rebel fighter, not a capitalist. The language he is speaking on the phone is his native Shan and most days he is not in a suit but the deep-green military uniform of the Shan State Army emblazoned with the red, green and yellow of the Shan national flag.
And on this day in mid-June he has traveled from the Shan State Army’s headquarters just across the border in Chiang Ming, Thailand as part of a delegation that has come for an historic meeting with President Thein Sein and the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi to find a way for both sides to uphold a 2012 ceasefire agreement after recent sporadic fighting.
As a lieutenant colonel in the Shan State Army, Sao Yawd Murng, 38, knows the cost of war, having lost his brother in the fighting 19 years ago and seeing his native village burned to the ground by government soldiers when he was a 12-year-old boy.
He believes the new democratic reforms in Myanmar and the new hope for change in his country are important, but he is not so confident they will help to actually end the 60-year civil conflict between the military government and the Shan State, a restive ethnic minority region that straddles the border with Thailand and China.
“There is change now. But no one can guarantee what these changes will mean in the future. Buddha says nothing is permanent,” he said in an interview with GlobalPost.
"Everyone must work hard. It’s not easy to change but we have to work step by step. All the ethnic, civil societies, government and military have to work together for continued change."
He joined South Shan State Army five years after he lost his brother, leaving behind a life as a Buddhist monk. After his brother’s death, he said felt he had "no choice."
“I have to fight for equal rights for my people,” he said.
Now, 14 years after his made that decision, he is seeing the beginnings of change in his country.
“I’m not sure whether changes will continue in the future. But changes have to go on. People are suffering from 60 years of civil war,” said Yawd Murng, who was at the hotel briefly on his way to meet with ethnic political and civil society parties in Yangon.
But for genuine change to occur, he said, the military junta here will have to recognize the rights of the eight major ethnic minority groups who have for decades fought against what they see as the oppressive control of the military.
Yawd Murng sees the name of the country, ‘Myanmar,’ which the regime imposed in 1996, as a reflection of that oppression.
“Myanmar means no Shan, no Karen, no Kachin,” Yawd Murng says. “Myanmar is a name that doesn’t represent all the ethnic groups in this country.”
He speaks only a little bit of Burmese but speaks English well. When asked where he learned English, he said, laughing, “I learned it in the jungle.”
“It was very difficult,” he recalled of his days in the jungle fighting against the government army.
“On the frontline, in the hills, we don’t know what will happen to our lives,” he said. “We need to be careful 24 hours. War is a dangerous game. It’s not funny. If you lose, you die.”