Today is the 65th anniversary of the Union Day of Burma. It marks the signing ceremony of the ‘Historic Panglong Agreement’ between General Aung San and the leaders of Chin, Kachin and Shan ethnic groups guaranteeing a genuine federal union of Burma. However, Burma’s successive decision makers have neglected the political contract between Burmese and the ethnic leaders of independence.
Even with the President Thein Sein government, the contract has been put aside since the cabinet is dominated by former generals. Besides, Burma’s new 2008 Constitution distributes many problems for political parties, ethnic cease-fire groups and exiled dissident factions seeking some common initiative between ethnic groups and the current governments.
To address the interconnected ethnic problems, the current government must review the mistakes of past rulings and the political aspirations of the ethnic communities. The root cause of the nation’s ethnic political mayhem is the consecutive governments’ antagonism to a democratic federal union. The late dictator, Ne Win, who seized power in a military coup in 1962, opposed sharing equal authority in a series of heated debates in the then legislative body.
Ne Win supported a unitary state over a genuine federal union. The Military Council headed by Ne Win declared that the military coup had taken place because of the “federation topic,” which he said could lead to the disintegration of the nation. Equality of ethnic minorities with the Burmese majority was to him out of the question. When Ne Win seized power, he demolished the 1948 Constitution. At the same time, the Panglong Agreement, which promised autonomy or self-determination of the ethnic groups, was broken and abrogated.
In actual fact, it is a fair demand for self-sufficiency among the respective ethnic minorities. No government should use guns to govern ethnic minorities. If one looks back to 1960-61, many leaders from ethnic states criticized the weakness of the constitution as well as the government’s failure to take in the political autonomy of the ethnic minorities.
They pointed the finger at the central government for not allowing the representatives of ethnic states to manage their own affairs in areas of economy, judiciary, education, customs and so on. The central government ruled the ethnic areas as vassal states.
Sen-Gen Than Shwe has followed the tradition of his predecessor Ne Win and Saw Maung, who both defended the single unitary state. “All the armed forces in the union shall be under the command of the Defense Services,” says section 337 of the 2008 constitution. It means ethnic armed troops are under state control.
Under the 2008 constitution, the junta-sponsored Nov. 7 elections, there are only 330 civilian seats in the 440-member House of Representatives whereas the remaining 110 seats are taken by military officials appointed by the commander-in-chief. In the 224-seat House of Nationalities, 168 Members of Parliament are elected and 56 representatives are appointed by the chief of the armed forces.
As published in the state-owned newspapers, the list of military personnel to serve as military representatives in the 7 State and 7 Region parliaments totals to 222.
Moreover, the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won a landslide in the polls which declared seizing 882 out of 1154 seats in parliaments. Remarkably, 77 percent of the parliamentary seats have been seized by the military-backed USDP in the 2010 polls which were distinguished for vote-rigging.
Hence, several ethnic leaders asserted that they don’t have faith in the planned 2010 election where they are likely to have limited opportunities which is not may not go onto create a genuinely peaceful federal union; the Burmese armed-forces take 25 percent of all seats and also seize additional 77 percent through junta-backed parties in the latest parliaments as set by the 2008 Constitution.
In such a parliament, dominated by the military and former military, ethnic representatives have little or no chance to press the self-sufficiency and equal status issues in parliament. Authentic ethnic representatives, who are willing to push ethnic issues forward, have no opportunity to occupy enough seats in the military faction monopolized-parliament to form an effective coalition.
Without addressing and honoring the ethnic people’s demand for self-determination, the latest parliament-based government seems unable to stop political and civil strife throughout ethnic areas. In reality, ethnic people’s demand for equal rights is not a new one but already mentioned in the 1947-Panglong agreement.
Burma’s sixty-four year-old Historic Panglong Agreement has been ignored by the consecutive Burmese regimes. The said agreement has been disregarded by the military leaders as they did not support the ‘Federalism’since 1962. The Panglong Agreement was signed on Feb. 12, 1947, between General Aung San and leaders of the Chin, Kachin and Shan ethnic groups guaranteeing to establish a genuine federal union of Burma.
National reconciliation and ethnic self-determination are two sides of the same coin, and they must be addressed in the new parliament and in respective regional and state parliaments. If the current government fails to deal with the Panglong initiative or equal rights of ethnic minorities, its so-called political reforms will not be a meaningful process.